Goodbye to Fire Island

Oct 2014

Saying goodbye is never easy. How, to a place that has been part of my  life since I was born? It was a bittersweet challenge I faced this past weekend, when my sisters and I visited the locale we called Far House,  Goodbye to Fire Island.

fire island new york pictures

I am three. It seems like a fairyland for a child, no cars, being allowed to roam free and explore. The boardwalk is uneven and rustic. Patterns get wider and thinner and I am not paying attention, distracted at all that goes on around me. Perhaps it was the deer, or the rustling reeds leaning high over my head and blowing in the fall breeze. The weatherbeaten walkway trips up my little feet as I run down the stretch that connects the houses on our street.  I am a mess and  the only doctor in our area of the island is a dentist, probably a good thing, as he is highly skilled with using fine tools. I sit in a chair with the mechanical back and try to be brave as the man’s enormous german shepherd with big teeth and floppy ears stares at my whimpering self in the chair. Tweezers and a steady hand pull over 50 slivers of wood from my arms and legs.

fire island goodbye
I am five now; there is much commotion as we board the ferry for Ocean Beach. A pretty, blond woman with a kerchief is the center of much of this attention. She wears black cropped pants and a shirt tied at the waist,  you can see part of her tummy. The boat is crowded with people all trying to get a look. We are in the rear, wide benches the only form of seating. She is very close. I remember a kind smile, perhaps, I tell myself now, I remember a “happy birthday Mr. President” voice. Marilyn Monroe is visiting Lee and Paul Strasbourg’s house, a break from her training with them at The Actor’s Studio in NYC. No one believes me whenever I recount this story, but how can I have such a specific memory if it is not part of the file in my mind.

fire island new york
I am seven and we are getting ready to take the ferry across from Bay shore to Ocean Beach. The water is rough, there is a lot of wind. My younger sister walks in front of me, behind my parents. As she boards, her skinny legs don’t quite make the distance from platform to boat and she slips between the dock and the vessel. Her chin somehow catches her from falling into the water, saving her for a second, from what I am convinced would be a gruesome outcome. It seems like a lifetime, but only seconds pass and a stranger scoups her up from behind into the arms of my father and safety.

Later that weekend I am riding on the handle bars of one of the ubiquitous bicycles with my Uncle Bill. He takes a sharp turn and misses the boardwalk. We drop 3 feet into the prickers and poison ivy. No immediate injury, the damage comes a few days later when poison ivy has taken up residence, actually become a squatter all over both of us. There was not enough calamine on the island to soothe the reddened pockets of itch that swelled us into unrecognizable shadows of our former selves. Two of the many mishaps, often involving that deadly three leafed invader, to take place over the years.

I am ten and we are on our way to pick up my Dad from NYC. There is always excitement  opening the house for the season each spring. Piled into the station wagon, filled to the brim with belongings, no seat belts to hold us in our eagerness. We stop at Horn & Hardart for a cooler full of treats. My grandfather had worked there and it is a special event we look forward to on every trip into the city. Quarters go into the rotating vending machines and we anxiously await the chance to dig into cup custard in little crimped tin foil cups, sugar cookies that melt in your mouth and cupcakes that are not  quite as delicious and memeorable.

Once on island, it is time to learn about blowfish. Bright blue in color, they puff up three times  normal size and are covered with spiky, grey barbs.  Somehow they appear, looking entirely different, on our plates for dinner. I’m amazed at the taste of what a few hours earlier  looked like it was visiting from outer space. Sisters three are next learning to clam. We make our way into the seaweed infested bay, one carrying a rake, one a bucket and littlest sister holding the onion bag that will carry all our precious finds. We learn the rocking motion with our heels, how to dig with our toes, and the first of hundreds of clamming expeditions is considered a success.

fire island new york pictures
I am 14 and we are on Island with wonderful family friends. Older sisters are a pleasure to have in the mix. We can observe. Luckily, parents are too busy having cocktails and clams to notice we are not part of the mix. There are dunes and stolen cigarettes and lots of misbehavior.

fire island goodbye
I am 23 and on my honeymoon. Far House is our romantic week long destination. As the moon rises our second night there,  we hear a frightful wail transported by the wind. It’s two in the morning and the eerie sound continues to travel down the island.  HEEELP MEEEEE…..Is it coming from the ocean or the bay, we are not sure of anything except its otherworldly echo across the tall,rustling grasses. Investigation is the only option. As a few others gather on the bay, my newly minted husband and another man take off in a kayak towards the ghastly sound. We are sure it is coming from a drowning person. No cell phones, someone calls the coast guard from a nearby house.

My husband of two days  has disappeared into the night with a complete stranger trying to help another stranger floating in the mid bay. Am I about to become a widow after 48 hours? An eternity passes; I am pleased to see the Coast Guard arrive in the distance. Spot lights and a large wake is all we can make out. They pull the mysterious man clutching a black garbage bag on board and take off, leaving the two kayakers to fend for themselves in their hefty waves. Two exhausted men arrive back on shore. The next day we find out our heroes had been trying to help a robber. They are never mentioned in the paper, just the Coast Guard saving a man who capsized a boat.

I am in my twenties and I can share this wonderful spit of land with my husband and college friends. There is no one that doesn’t fall in love with the car free sandy strip where kids with wagons meet the ferry and ask if you need help with your luggage. For fifty cents, they’ll follow you to your house. Bicycles at night go flying off the board walks, directionally challenged in the group get lost and I hear through the paper thin walls one romantic couple get engaged. It’s the stuff Fire Island vacations are made of.

fire island pictures
A few years later, as I introduce my own children to this unusual place, it is the same, but different. A little seedier, storm battered, a bit of the romance is off the bloom. Time has become more precious for my husband and I, and the trip from Boston is not an easy one. I still want to introduce the next generation to clamming, the dunes and where mom visited John and Anne’s to get ice cream. The wagons work their magic, the ocean still sparkles like no other, and the Fire Island ferries take you on an adventure. They get to taste some of the love the few times they are able to visit.

barrett life guard fire island new york

fire island pictures new york

Which brings me to this weekend past, a tough one to hold emotions in check. Traveling down memory lane, I think of how my parent’s romance blossomed over the summer of ’52. Dad was a lifeguard, Mom a renter in the next town over.  It is where it all began – the creation of our family unit. I first met my Aunt Gi out here. My family’s roots go back deep on this spit of land where ocean can meet bay in a storm.

I think part of me had already said goodby years ago. Three years prior I had come out and performed magic with my sister in the form of a makeover on the cottage. That set the tone and saved me from a weekend too fraught with tears. A day of solid rain helped too. And then there was hurricane Sandy. So much of the island was underwater and devastated. Many are just coming up for air now. rather than getting caught up in my own stuff, I felt so sad for what the residents have had to deal with in Mother Nature’s aftermath. Houses have been raised on pilons 20 feet in the air. Others haven’t even gotten the sand out of their houses and off their roads. The landscape it very different. It wasn’t a perfect weekend, but the sun was shining down on us for most of it, helping in the difficult challenge of saying goodbye, each in our own way.  I reconfirmed, as I write this and and in my heart always knew, four walls are just a physical structure, memories are what stay with you and warm your heart forever. They are the pictures that can always be visited again and again.

ferry fire island ocean beach new york

  1. What a lovely collection of memories that are rooted in a special pllace, you must have raided the family albums for thise photos

  2. What a wonderful read, Alison… so many memories! That must have been a very surreal time on honeymoon, too!!!

  3. Suzie Nash says:

    Wow, such a beautiful memories I loved seeing your pictures as well.

  4. Loved it, Alison – the sepia photographs matched the tone of your memories perfectly.

  5. Thank you for sharing these memories. Beautifully written and magical to read.

  6. Anna Parker says:

    Incredible collection of memories, that is after all what is important – great collection of photos

    • alison says:

      Anna, I’m happy you enjoyed my walk through so many memories. Photographs are such a lovely way to revisit places, I’m glad my parents kept so many of them.

  7. Michelle says:

    What a beautiful trip down memory lane. You are lucky to have these stories, memories, and amazing photos!

    • alison says:

      Michelle, I agree. Although I remember many events from my childhood,I’m glad we have such a wide collection of photos to jog my memory as time passes.

  8. Alison, this is a beautiful piece of writing. You should definitely do more of this when you can. Your other articles are great, but this is extra special. I’m not surprised that you found it cathartic to write. I found it very moving. Even though each person may not have a place quite as interesting as Fire Island, I imagine that many readers can identify with these type of memories. Really wonderful and magical.

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  11. Lisa says:

    I just stayed on Fire Island for the first time last week – a few days in a rented house in Ocean Beach with family. I’m a huge fan now and I’m eating up all the info about it. I loved this piece. I had a similar place in my childhood (Bar Harbor, Maine), These are great stories. I can’t believe you saw MM! I’d like to hear more about the teenage naughtiness : )

    • alison says:

      So glad you had the opportunity to visit Ocean Beach. Sounds like you had a great time. I do miss it, but at least have so many wonderful memories of the time our family has spent there-naughtiness and all!