March 22, 2012 —
With my aunt in recovery from a recent stroke, and her husband in the hospital, her children were faced with the prospect of completing the impending sale of their summer home on Fire Island.
The Fire Island house was a gathering place for almost as long as I can remember. My aunt would host me for weeks at a time when my mother was working in the city. I sold the Fire Island News from my wagon. “Farlandnews, farlandnews!” we shouted to the disembarking weekenders in their seersucker and sandals. As kids we all walked barefoot, even in town. Years later, health regulations would require us to wear flip-flops when we crowded into the local soda shop to play pinball and slurp egg-creams with our earnings.
My older brother Chris, tall and handsome with a strong voice, played memorable roles at the Ocean Beach Community Theater, rocking the house as Nicely-Nicely Johnson in “Guys and Dolls,” where audience members correctly predicted his future career as an actor.
Over time, my cousins learned to surf and windsurf. Cousin Michael became an entrepreneur with his own wind-surfing business. I served as first mate on my uncle’s sailing trips to Montauk and Block Island, which mostly meant I was the one chosen to climb the mast when the halyard got hung up.
My aunt never tired, it seemed, of cooking for us—no matter how many family members alighted from the ferry. Huge platters of pasta with pesto or clam sauce, salads and bread and grilled fish filled the boards well into the night. Then the ones who were still standing would walk together along the bay into town for an ice cream cone, my uncle at the fore with a flashlight.
In the mornings, my uncle was the breadwinner, biking to the store for bagels and muffins and fruit that filled the kitchen table.
I enjoyed my first kiss in front of that house on B Street, shaking with fear that my mother would see me from the window. Later, my son said his first word, “bird,” in an upstairs bedroom looking out the window at the finches in the pines.
Trying recently to comfort my aunt’s qualms about selling the house, I thanked her for all those experiences — mine only a fraction of the whole realm she and her husband made available to us — and asked her to dwell on the idea that she was making that kind of life available to another family now, one that would grow and thrive and love in that home.
When my cousin Jennifer suggested we take her mother with us for one last look at the house, I instantly agreed, although I was gripped with doubt that it was a wise move for a recent stroke victim.
So it was that last Sunday, we bundled her up in her wheelchair and drove to Long Island, wondering all the time what she was thinking and feeling. The ferry was full (uncharacteristically for March) of second-home owners and their children and dogs. We were the only family with a wheelchair. My aunt maintained her regal bearing throughout the journey. In the house, she directed the packing of certain treasures and wheeled herself to all the rooms on the first floor. We walked up to the beach, wheeling her along, to her favorite place to be when the sun was low in the sky. We took some photographs, trying to smile.
Only on the return ferry did her eyes well and tear for the life well-lived and now out of reach.