I’m certain my mom pushed the idea of spending our summers in Fire Island on my dad. He was not a beach person. He hated the feel of sand on his feet. I’m not sure I ever saw him swim. He’d spend ten excruciating minutes slathering sunscreen on the front of his body and legs, make our mom rub it into his back and sit miserably for five minutes until he and his floppy hat trudged over to the water. He’d gingerly wade in mid-calf, scoop the Atlantic Ocean into his cupped hands and pat it, grimacing, on his knees and chest. He’d never submerge his head. Ever.
My dad was vain about his hair. There wasn’t all that much of it and he spent about a fourth of his time worrying and manipulating it. He’d count how many black hairs were in the sink every morning and give us an unsolicited report on their demise. He’d slick his hair back and poof it up to make it look thicker and fuller. My sister and I (and probably my mom) weren’t allowed to touch it. He always had a comb in his pocket at the ready. In the mid-seventies he even splurged for hair-plugs. The science was fairly crude at that time and the process was arduous and painful. He wore a bandage like a mummy the first few days back from the doctor’s office and when my mom unwrapped him the top of his head looked like pepperoni pizza. My sister and I were revolted but fascinated. When the plugs finally healed his hair looked exactly the same.
Five minutes after touching the salt water, my dad was done. He’d put on his blue button down shirt, pick up his book and make his way over the hot sand to the boardwalk where he’d rinse his feet with a hose and put his shoes on as fast as possible to walk back to our house. He was distraught we had no air-conditioning.
My mom became her full, happy self at the beach. She would rub Bain de Soleil oil into her skin and read her book, smoking exactly one Gitane. She threw herself under the crest of the waves and when she was just past them, float on her back or swim in an unorthodox crawl. She taught me and my sister to love the ocean too, one of the best gifts she could have given us.
I also feel whole when I’m by the sea. It both calms and excites me, looking at the line where the sky meets the water, imagining another woman who maybe looks like me but who has a completely different life on the other side of the Atlantic. Maybe she’s wondering about me too.
My mom discovered Fire Island through her friend, Phyllis. Phyllis had two sons who were in the same nursery school class at Rodolph Shalom as Meg and me. Phyllis was Annie Hall, but Jewish. She awas quirky and sophisticated. Ditsy, distracted, unfocused and disorganized on the surface. Underneath, substantial, smart, creative and a savvy businesswoman. Petite, with dark ringlets peeking out from under her big hat, red lips and kohled eyes, she had a sense for what was hot. An OG MILF. She began an iconic ‘70’s New York company called “Think Big,” which blew up common everyday objects like yellow pencils and tennis balls to giant sculptural size. It was whimsical, fun, catchy and strangely moving. And she and my mom were dear friends because she brought out my mom’s adventurous and slightly rebellious side. Phyllis encouraged my mom to be up for anything. She was warm and real and non-judgmental and she made my mom open up in ways that may not have been natural for her. Later in life. Phyllis’ son, who had been a nice Jewish boy (still is) grew his hair long, dyed it black, bought contact lenses that made his eyes a ghostly blue, had tattoos all over his body, walked with a cane topped with a skull and changed his name to “Dog.” And she was completely unfazed and accepted and loved him the same as when he was seven.
Fire Island was the place to vacation in the 70’s. We went to Dunewood, a sleepy town where many of our other classmates’ parents from Rodolph Shalom rented. If you were a comfortably off Upper West Side Liberal, this is where you went for the summer. Or if you were gay, but that was on the other, less sedate side of the island. Straights and gays didn’t necessarily mix but were accepting of each other. Fire Island is only nine miles long, but the two groups were good at sharing. One time my sister and I saw two guys in banana hammock bathing suits walking together on the beach while we building a “drip-drop” sand castle (we’d build the castle conventionally and then take wet sand in a bucket and drip it over the molded castle to give it an old, stucco look).We had a sense of what being gay was, even though no one at that point had explained it to us. We were slightly curious but not shocked. The foreignness merited only a glance up and no stares.
My dad had his voice-over auditions during the week and came out reluctantly on the weekends. He made a good living. Life wasn’t as expensive in the 70’s, but two girls in private school, owning a two bedroom apartment with a terrace overlooking the Hudson and a month-long rental on Fire Island wasn’t cheap. Since there wasn’t air-conditioning and there were no movie theaters (with air-conditioning), he had to look for obsessions where he could find them. His was poison ivy. He was like Van Helsing if Van Helsing had run away screaming from Dracula instead of driving a stake through his heart.
To be fair, poison ivy and mosquitoes were two of the Fire Island secular Jews’ greatest tormentors. Nazi shrubs and insects, feasting voraciously on our bodies. As my father taught me at too young an age about the Holocaust, I have taught my children about mosquitoes and poison ivy.
When I take my boys to the east coast—where poison ivy and mosquitoes luxuriate and thrive in the humidity—I also instill them with my fear:
Children, look up this Devil plant and living succubus [female mosquitoes are the ones that drink your blood], and fear and loathe them as you would my murderer. No man who encounters them will leave unscathed.
We had pocket-sized books about birds and mammals and plants. The only dog-eared page was the one describing poison ivy. My dad always felt like he was about to break out in an incurable rash. He saturated countless cotton balls with calamine lotion and splotched his body with the pink liquid. “Jenny, put some on my back. I can’t reach it. I feel it coming.” Same with mosquitoes. He constanly felt like he had been bitten. The funny thing is he never was.
I’m not sure of the exact circumstance because it certainly seems out of character, but my mom told me my dad had decided to clear some brush in front of the house. A kid came by and yelled something to him. My dad couldn’t hear him because it was windy. The kid kept yelling. Annoyed, my father finally went down to the wooden planks that served as paths and asked, “What is it, kid?”
The boy replied, “Mister, did you know the stuff you’re cutting is poison ivy?” I have no idea how a man as obsessed as Ishmael with his whale couldn’t have seen what he was pruning, but he did have bad eyesight. He ran into the house and jumped in the shower hyperventilating. He washed himself three times and spent the rest of the day and night inspecting his arms and legs for raised angry welts to surface. They never did, and he seemed almost sad.
However, I was cursed. Mosquitoes loved me. Every summer I spent on Fire Island was a delightful harvest for them. My legs and back were covered with bites. They buzzed around my head at night, waking me up with their whining, disappearing like Houdini when I turned on the light.
And the poison ivy. My god, the poison ivy. One time, as part of a flock of kids looking for something to do before dinnertime, I accidentally rode my bike off the boardwalk and into poison ivy that lined the path. My friends wouldn’t help me up because they didn’t want to touch the shiny leaves themselves.
I ran home as soon as I could, my heart pounding. Like my father, I also took multiple showers. Unlike my father, I was done for.
The rash was everywhere. I was feverish. I didn’t want any part of my body to touch the other. I walked around the house, legs akimbo like Frankenstein. I was a living advertisement for calamine lotion.
One thunderous night on a weekday when my mom was by herself with me and Meg, I was rocking back and forth on a barstool next to the kitchen counter. Mom was preparing dinner for us and asked me to stop. She wasn’t a hovering mother who was anxious about looming dangers, so I should have listened to her but of course I didn’t. I even felt a tinge of pleasure that I was annoying her. Attention is better than no attention. It was easy to get attention from my dad, but my mom was more of a challenge.
So I rocked, hands on the counter to make sure I got the maximum amount of sway. I felt the stool tip. I landed on the ground, the leg of the stool inside me.
My mom dropped her knife and ran to my side. I was screaming and bleeding. Meg, who was five, started screaming in solidarity. My mom was shaking. I strangely felt little pain, but my mom thought I might be in shock. There was no hospital on Fire Island, so my mom had to call the fire station to send an ambulance and take us to the mainland. The storm amplified the terror in our collective hearts.
Now that I’m a mom I can imagine what was going through my own mother’s head. The combination of anger at her child and desperate worry that she wasn’t paying sufficient attention to keep her safe. The iconic fear of being singly responsible for two little children’s fate, knowing that she would be blamed by her husband, friends and strangers if her daughter were left negatively altered by her *negligence*. Her child’s injury was only matched by her guilt. I admire her surface British stoicism in this case. Her emotions must have been roiling inside her but she maintained a relatively calm demeanor so I wouldn’t be scared. I try to copy that with my own children when they are hurt or in distress. She was a good teacher.
The ER doctor examined me. I had stopped bleeding. I was holding my mom’s hand. Meg was curled up asleep on bed on another examining table.
“Mrs. Hartig. Everything is just fine. There is no real injury.”
“But how is that possible?? She was bleeding so much. How can everything be okay now?”
“I know this will sound strange, but the leg of the stool broke your daughter’s hymen. This sometimes happens when girls start riding horses but I guess your daughter was more dramatic about it.”
I lost my virginity to a stool. I suppose I should thank the stool for making my first time sleeping with a human being less traumatic. My poor mother was probably unable to look at a bar stool without absurd associations ever again.
Meg and I loved Amy. Mom hired her to be our babysitter so she could have an actual summer break away from her kids sometimes. Believe me, now I completely understand.
Amy seemed like an adult to me, but she was probably just in college or a senior in high school. She was pretty, blonde, cheerful and good-natured. She was from Long Island and she had a similar situation to ours in that she came out to Fire Island during the summertime because her friends did also.
There wasn’t much to do at night, save an occasional casual dinner party, so Amy mostly took care of us a few days a week. Making us lunch, bringing us to our swimming lessons or play dates or finding us activities to do on rainy days so Meg and I didn’t go stir crazy. She was good at Connect Four and braiding my hair.
But what my Mom didn’t know, because Amy told us not to tell her, was that sometimes Amy would take us to her friend’s house to hang out. Well, more like to watch Amy and her friends hang out. She didn’t ignore us. She’d let us stay in the living room with them, but the focus was definitely more on teenagers than it was on a five and seven year old. Their MO was benign neglect and Meg and I didn’t mind. I had always liked loitering at the grownups’ table so this was my cup of tea, listening and trying to understand what they were saying.
Amy’s boyfriend would sling his arm around her, his hand dangling loosely over her tanned shoulder, Amy smiling, not looking at him. It may have been the first time I began to understand the concept of a boyfriend. It was like practice for marriage, I guessed. They seemed to like each other because they kissed.
I don’t know where her boyfriend’s parents were. Maybe he and his buddies were older and rented this house on their own. I remember the living room was dark and it had laminate wood paneling that was fashionable in the mid to late 70’s. There were wicker lounge chairs and all the furnishings were in many variations of brown.
Meg and I would be installed on the couch while Amy, her boyfriend and about five friends would drink beer and play records and laugh and talk. And smoke funny smelling cigarettes. My mom loved her occasional Gitanes, but these cigarettes were a different scent and they shared them, which I had never seen Mom do. I thought it was really generous of them. It was drummed into our heads at school for me and Meg to share.
Listening to their records was cool, though. Especially the song, “Under My Thumb,” whose lyrics, thank god, I didn’t understand. The song was catchy and simple and melodic. I liked the way Mick Jagger sang it. I couldn’t comprehend fully what the song was about but I picked up on its darkness somehow. It lured me i
Strangely enough, Mick Jagger sent his daughter to Meg’s and my middle school. He would always go up the back stairway for parent-teacher conferences so as not to attract attention, but word of his visits would catch on like a raging wildfire and all us girls would find some reason to coincidentally be in the stairwell at the same time. Mick-sighting stories were a sought-after commodity.
In seventh grade, Meg became friends with his daughter. One day, Meg went over to her house and Mick was there. Meg told me he hung out with them in the kitchen.My sister had terrible taste in music, Just awful. She didn’t play any records and listened solely to Top 40 radio. Mick asked her if she liked The Rolling Stones and she said, “I don’t really know your music except for a couple of songs and they’re not really my taste.”
This was/is my sister: bold, opinionated, rebellious, often pugnacious and above all, honest. I would have been speechless in front of one of the most famous people on Earth, but not Meg. He was just a human being who was maybe a little insecure. To his great credit, she said he laughed out loud. He probably admired her fearlessness too.
Meg and I kept our word and didn’t tell my parents. But Amy overplayed her hand. One of her friends had a speedboat, and one day she took and me and Meg on it. She put life-jackets on us, but the water was choppy and the boat bumped up and down and spray went all over us. I was scared, but meg wasn’t and we both had fun being bounced around the boat cutting through the waves at rapid speed. I was happy when it was over.
The day after, My mom noticed bruises on our bottoms and thighs when she was giving us our baths. We told her that it was probably from bouncing on the boat.
“The one that Amy took us on.”
Amy had forgotten to tell us not to say anything.
My mother was frightening when she’d get angry. My father often yelled, but I wasn’t scared of him. He was emotional, I was used to it. My mother, on the other hand, was like a cobra—still and deadly. When our dad spanked us, he almost cried. When mom spanked us, it hurt like hell.
I saw the switch flip in Mom’s eyes and I was sick with worry for Amy.
She called Amy’s house and told her mother to send her over immediately. Amy arrived. She had a giant bruise on her leg as well. It hadn’t even gotten to the purple stage. It was red and angry looking, but it didn’t even compare to my mom. She took Amy in her bedroom and screamed at her through gritted teeth. Meg and I stood in the living room wide-eyed and terrified, but also intensely intrigued. We couldn’t make out what was being said, but we could tell Amy was wailing, confessing all. Our mom was a lioness pouncing on a mortally wounded gazelle. Amy ran out of our house, not even bearing to look at us.
And that was the end of Amy.
Jeff was a lifeguard and my swimming teacher. He was eighteen and lean, and his brown curls were tinged with blonde from being in the sun, the ocean and the bay all summer. He looked and acted like Apollo but without any human failings. He wore a puka shell necklace that looked even whiter against his honey-colored skin. Most the moms were secretly in love with him and I was extremely un-secretly in love with him. I was a child who had crushes at an early age, but this one was true and deep. I would crawl into his lap and hug him at the end of each lesson. All the kids were drawn to him.
For a teenage boy, he was preternaturally patient, gentle and kind. He radiated goodwill. It was impossible not to be at least a little enamored. You’d have to be a misanthrope or dead not to have warm feelings for him.
I was not an adventurous kid. I was pretty much scared of everything. Learning how to swim, certainly. Jaws had just opened that June. Even though I wasn’t allowed to see the movie, I was still terrified of Great Whites. My sister and I would cast out rods at the end of the dock for two hours and only catch a couple of small snappers but I was sure if I went in over my head in the bay I would become chum for Bruce. I could convince myself that he would get me in the bathtub. It was a frustrating summer for my mom.
It was fine while I was in arm’s reach of Jeff, but when he told all the kids to jump off the edge of the dock and swim back to where he was wading in the bay, I refused. It was probably the only time in my life I played hard-to-get, and it was because of sincere fright.
“Come on, Zandy. I know you can do it. I believe in you.”
“I can’t. I don’t want to.”
“Yes, you can. I don’t want to hear you say ‘can’t.’”
“Well, then I cannot.”
“Zandy, if you do it, you’ll be so proud of yourself. I’ll be so proud of you. Don’t be scared.”
I wanted him to be proud of me, but I weighed it in the balance with being eaten alive and Jeff’s pride didn’t tip the scale.
He paused. He strategized. He sized me up. All the kids were staring, waiting for me to jump so they could move onto the next challenge. Life on Fire Island in 1975 hung in limbo.
“Zandy, if you jump off the dock and swim over to me, I’ll give you a kiss.”
When I was little, no matter what story I started to write it always ended up being Cinderella. Cinderella was blonde, I was blonde. She liked dogs and horses and mice, I liked dogs and horses and mice. She loved her Handsome Prince, I loved Jeff. If I made it to shore without being a shark snack and kissed him, we would live happily ever after.
I jumped. My head went under. I swam fast, directly to Jeff. He was my lighthouse. I saw him beaming at me. I started to smile too. He held his arms out to me and pulled me in, picked me up and kissed me on the cheek. I didn’t stop holding his hand until after he brought me back to my mom and told her how happy he was with me for overcoming my fears and swimming to shore. He was right. I was proud of myself. But it’s amazing what love can make someone do.
Judged by present times, I could see how a seventeen year old boy telling a seven year old girl he’d give her a kiss as a reward might seem suspect. This would not fly now. Jeff might be disciplined or fired. But I swear in my heart that it was pure and loving. It’s fine if I can’t convince you of its innocence, but I feel it for myself, body and soul.
One week that summer I must have come down with the flu. I had a high fever and couldn’t do anything but sleep. Everything ached. I was hot and uncomfortable. I couldn’t take a bath and my hair was so dirty it hurt. I missed swimming lessons for over a week which of course made me sad.
Jeff noticed I wasn’t in class and asked my mom where I was when he saw her at the grocery store in Fair Harbor. My mom told him that I was just getting over a fever and was weak so she wanted to make sure I was stronger before she put me back in classes. He asked if it was okay for him to come over later to say hi to me. Mom was charmed and knew how happy it would make me so she told him yes.
I was overjoyed but ashamed of the way I looked. I had lost weight and my hair was filthy. I had mom wash it with Johnson & Johnson’s No More Tears three times to make sure it smelled good. I put on a clean nightgown.
Right before dinner, he came over with a couple of fashion magazines he’d probably asked his mom if he could give to me. I was in heaven but was painfully shy. My mom was right there in the kitchen but I still felt I had him all to myself. I didn’t know how to handle my happiness. I could barely look at him. We sat on the couch with Meg although I hardly noticed her there. I just remember hearing jazz on the radio in the kitchen and knowing that Jeff was sitting next to me.
I felt vulnerable and exposed. I usually had a lot to say to him but I was tongue-tied. I think he sensed my discomfort and placed the burden of conversation on himself.
I had a noticeable gap between my two front teeth, which I called my “rabbit teeth” because they were so big. I became especially aware of my imperfections now that Jeff was so close. I felt like I had to come clean to him.
“I hate my teeth and also my gap between my teeth. It looks so weird. I can stick spaghetti through it. I really hate it.”
Jeff looked at me and said, “No! The little things you hate about yourself might be something that other people think are special. Like, the stuff that makes you ‘you.’”
He opened one of his mom’s magazines.
“Let me see if I can find something in here.”
He flipped through the ads in the front and found what he wanted.
“You see this woman? Her name is Lauren Hutton. She’s really famous. She has a gap in between her teeth like you do! And she’s maybe the most beautiful woman in the world.”
Jeff was right. She was beautiful. But more than that, she was special. Vibrant, stylish, bright, fun and unique. Something to work towards after I accepted my teeth. I started smiling wide to show him I had understood his lesson out of the water.
Jeff was my Handsome Prince. He even gave me his puka shell necklace, like the Prince gave Cinderella her glass slipper. His sweetness to me has lasted forty-three years and counting in my memory, so in a sense, it was happily ever after.
Fire Island was and still is one of the safest places a kid could spend a summer. A small island where no cars are allowed and people know and look out for each other. There were lifeguards on the ocean, and the bay was calm. Deer, piping plover, seagulls and butterflies kept us company. The worst thing that could happen to you was getting stung by a jellyfish or falling off your bike on the boardwalk path and getting a splinter or the aforementioned poison ivy rash. Meg and I would have hermit crab races with thumbnail-sized ones we found in the bay. Parents would tell their kids, “Be back for lunch,” let them out the screen doors and not worry that any real harm would come to them. We spent all day going back and forth from the ocean to the bay. On rainy days, the volunteer firehouse would screen movies for the kids. Every summer Meg and I would look forward to going to Kismet, where the lighthouse was, and eating soft-shell crabs. Fire Island was both a few hours and a lifetime away from Manhattan. Its freedom and simplicity was a wonderful gift to give us as children. And it was entirely thanks to my mom who gave us this gift of sun and water and freedom.
Recent photos of Fire Island, quite the same place it was when we were little.