Angel Gifts

It takes two years to become a New Yorker. You’ll be walking down the street one day and something will happen on the sidewalk – a glance, a stumble, a remark, a collision – and without even thinking you react, but not in the way your old self would react, you react exactly like a New Yorker – with efficiency (that others, not New Yorkers, might consider brusque or mis-perceive as curt, but you have come to understand as a neighborly ‘cutting to the chase’). And, in that moment, something clicks, and you just know that you’ve graduated into a new reality, become a part of something wonderful, joined the great living clockwork of personalities and energies that miraculously mesh to elevate this dense urban soup of sensations onto a higher plane where potentialities for loving and sharing and creating and worshiping are intensified. At least, that is how I felt, though I am aware that there are many who find the hustle and bustle simply too frenetic, who don’t hear the subways as music, or dance with abandon to the rhythm of the city that so entrances me.

And, then, it takes six more years before it all becomes just too much – especially in the heat of the summer – and the second universal New Yorker reaction sets in: the need for a getaway, an escape from the concrete jungle. This is why almost everyone we know who has been here for eight years or more escapes on summer weekends to someplace apart – to the country or the beach – where tensions that build up from Monday to Friday can be shaken off, and human souls beaten down by corporate thrashers can stand back up and smile again before marching back into the workaday fray.

Fortunately, the city is surrounded by beautiful mountain countryside to the north and west, and sits astride the junction of two vibrant seasides: the Jersey Shore to the south, and the beaches of Long Island to the east, so there are many options for finding peace. The Hamptons, I suppose, are the most famous of these destinations, but if you’ve watched any reality TV at all, you’ve probably realized by now that to spend time in the Hamptons is as demanding as the city and comes with its own overstuffed folio of pressures. But there are hundreds of other possible retreats that are both much closer to the city (a drive to the Hamptons takes from three to four hours) and infinitely more relaxing, including the 32-mile long barrier beach just a few miles south of Long Island – not much more than a shoestring of sand – known as Fire Island.

These days, the sandbar and its delicate ecosystem is administered by the National Park Service and officially designated the “Fire Island National Seashore.” It is a magical place of overgrown pine forests alternating with saltmarshes dense with sunlit ferns where mallards nest and foxes play. It is the opposite of the city: a utopia where, utterly unafraid, a mama deer with twin fawns so new they can barely stand will walk right up for a taste of fresh wisteria prunings right out of your hand. It is a place where cars are not allowed, houses are built along six-foot wide elevated boardwalks (which, Superstorm Sandy taught us, actually float) rather than streets, walking is the only option for getting around, and any further development is heavily restricted. Indeed, had ecology been as important in the mid-Twentieth Century as it is today, Fire Island would most likely have been wholly designated as a nature preserve, but by the time ecological concerns were taking the ascendant there were already more than a dozen well-settled communities running from one end of the island to the other (but, wisely, with alternating wilderness areas in between, which has been key to the island’s preservation in spite of supporting a burgeoning summertime population for nearly a hundred years).

And, over the years, each enclave has developed its own distinct personality and unique population. Some are “gated” and very exclusive, some not so much, some are closely-held family towns, some are predominantly gay, and one particularly popular party place called Ocean Beach is famous for its never-ending “spring break” atmosphere perfectly attuned to the thousands of unattached, upward-mobile 20-somethings who flood there on weekends to forget the gray upholstered cubicles of ad agencies and brokerage houses where they spent their workweek. And, with no roads or cars, the only way to reach these towns is by “people ferries” that run from terminals on Long Island across the Great South Bay (where Blue Point oysters come from) to each of the individual harbors.

Now, having said all that, I don’t want to give you the idea that all these people can afford to rent a whole house every summer, because that would be far from the truth. In fact, the need of so many to get away from the rat race has necessitated the invention of a unique, as far as I know, system of time-sharing that allows for the maximum number of people to make the most of a three-to-five bedroom summer house and still have a sense that it is theirs for the season. Under this system, unlike the more usual timeshare that my parents enjoyed for two weeks every spring, like-minded friends join together for the full season in either a leased house or a house owned by one or more of them, where housemates may elect to take as little time as one week out of every four or as much as a bedroom for the whole summer and, as a result, the costs are spread out over as many as twenty or more people per house, but each having possession of a room at least one week per month from May through September.

A Gathering Place
Now, allow me to digress for a moment, and I promise I’ll get back to Fire Island shortly, but I need to reel this in and make it personal. Both Richard and I are highly social animals, and I don’t think it’s stretching the point to say we’re both endowed with strong senses of personal ministry. That is one of the primary reasons, I believe, why we were drawn to each other from the beginning, now nearly 28 years ago. And, from our first days as a team, we found ourselves looking for ways to bring people together – friends, neighbors and their friends and neighbors – in productive, uplifting social situations where we could support and embrace each other. Of course, this was the mid-80s, a time when we were losing close friends to AIDS with monthly, if not weekly, regularity, and the importance of finding ways to encourage and uplift ourselves and those around us was extraordinarily intense. Our first “big idea,” drawn up within months of our meeting, was to launch something called “The Gathering Place,” which we envisioned as a neighborhood family room where we could come together just to enjoy each other’s company, to smile, laugh, hug, and share our lives. A sort of analog “Facebook,” if you will, where the connections were tangible rather than virtual and the beauty, goodness and truth we each contributed might work to lift us up, even as we met each other’s need for shoulders to cry upon.

And, we were still considering the idea and looking for an appropriate location, when, during a drive across the South, we found our vision expanded into something much, much grander. The excursion was intended to show the world of my upbringing to Richard (a Chicago native who, except for DC, had never ventured below the Mason-Dixon Line) by touring some of the important places of my youth. It was summertime and we landed in Atlanta before heading to our first stop, Fort Valley, GA, about two hours south down I-75 and just a little past Macon, where Dad and Betty, our second mother, were looking forward to our arrival. (To clarify: Even though we were all well into adulthood when she did it, Betty, who married Daddy six months after Mama died, became our second actual mother when, in a profound demonstration of love, she legally adopted my sisters and me.) Fort Valley, the seat of Peach County, did its best to look Southern as we headed out the next day through miles and miles of orchards, but I could tell that Richard was a little disappointed with the “Southern” views we had seen so far. I think he was hoping for Tara to show up around every bend, but mostly, to that point, they were Stuckey’s (“Famous Peanut Logs!”) and truck stops we’d seen.

Nevertheless, knowing what lay ahead, I was undaunted, and along about Moultrie, as we continued down through Georgia, the landscape finally began to reflect his imaginings as the orchards gave way to cotton fields and live oak trees along the road trailed luxuriant shawls of Spanish Moss to ephemeral effect. A short time later, we crossed the State line into Florida, then drove the full two hundred and twenty-five miles of flat and nearly featureless panhandle to arrive, at long last, at our destination: the tiny mill town of Century tucked up about as far as it could go into the northwestern corner of Florida’s jagged western edge, the place where I grew up.

There are hundreds of stories I could tell you of Century, and God willing, perhaps I will in the days ahead. For now, though, let me just say that it was a sawmill town purpose-built in 1900 by a consortium of northern industrialists and southern landowners to harvest and profit from the vast pinelands of that place and time. And, because it was under one manager from the day it opened in 1902 until 1957 – the year we moved there – it was truly a slice of Victorian manners, architecture and sensibilities preserved in aspic. It was a unique and wondrous place for a child to grow up, and I was eager to show it to Richard. We spent the night nearby and the next day were feted with a magnificent luncheon served up by Mama’s best friend, Rissie, before getting back in the car to drive north to Montgomery and beyond. By now, we had seen a large swath of the South, but I still had the sense that something was missing from Richard’s experience, that he still hadn’t seen what he was looking for – that one memorable, iconic image that would finally shout “South!” to him. This was on my mind as we were driving out of Century when, all in a flash, it hit me like a ton of bricks. Of course! Tannenheim! The old Hecker Place!

Just outside of Century stands a home of extraordinary distinction. Among those northern industrialists I mentioned who invested in the Century enterprise was a man named Col. Frank Hecker who was one of the founders of the Peninsular [railroad] Car Company in Detroit and who, among other things, sent his architect, Louis Kamper (who began his career with McKim, Mead and White before being lured west by Detroit’s industrial boom), to design both the town of Century (houses, churches, boarding house, offices, schools, club houses) and, in particular, a special house for his son, Frank, Jr., to live in (as resident manager of the sawmill company) that would be so impressive it would suffice to entice his daughter-in-law, a well-known Detroit socialite, to leave the comforts of her luxurious life on Lake Michigan for the mosquito flats of North Florida.

The result is a 10,000 square-foot wonder of Greek Revival splendor sited at the top of the highest hill around that includes some marvelous architectural detail, and the entire three-story structure is built of some of the very best heart pine that ever was – deep red in color and far more rich and dense than anything growing today. Hecker dammed up a nearby stream to create an eight-acre swimming and fishing lake just down the backside of the hill, and planted hundreds of acres of pecan trees that, by the time I first saw them, had grown into giant formal processions of overspreading arbors leading in several directions away from the house.

“Turn here,” I said abruptly, changing my previous instructions.

“What?” said Richard. “I thought it was this way.”

“It is,” I said, “But we’re not going to the highway yet. There’s one more place you need to see before we leave Century.”

So he turned as requested, and in only a few miles the pecan orchards appeared on our left and I was saying: “Here it is, turn left.”

The drive winds about two-hundred yards up the hill between rows of ancient crepe myrtles and the trees were in stunning full bloom that morning. Just beyond, in profile view, stood the four massive white columns at the front of the house and “Oh. My,” Richard said as he slowed the car to a crawl to take it all in as he proceeded up the gravelly road. I could tell from the look on his face that I had hit one, finally, out of the park.

Frank Hecker, Jr.’s wife did, in time, consent to move to Century to be with her husband and live in her big fabulous house, but she might have been wiser to say no, since she was struck down by yellow fever only two years later and died in 1906. Shortly thereafter, Hecker married a young woman from Mississippi and, in 1913, her young nephew, Johnny Hare came to live on the place and work for his uncle. In time, he built a small house across the road from the mansion and married one of the area’s most eligible young ladies, Miss Elsie Jones, who was one of Century’s most fabled and favorite English teachers. And, ultimately, when the widowed Mrs. Hecker died in the early 50s, Mr. Johnny and Miss Elsie took full ownership and moved into the main house, themselves, where they lived very happily until her death a few years before we were there.

In other words, on that day when Richard and I turned up the driveway, Mr. Johnny, 89 by then, had been working on the place for seventy-five years, and had owned it outright for nearly forty. He and his wife had been very good friends of my parents when we lived there, we attended the same Methodist church for ten years, and I had learned to swim in his lake and fish from his rowboat, so I was completely unconcerned about showing up at Tannenheim – the given name of what everyone in those parts always just called “The Hecker Place”– unannounced, even though it had been at least twenty years since I had seen Mr. Johnny, and he had never met Richard before.

For seven long year this magnificent homeplace called Tannenheim was in our sights as a place apart, a potential retreat, art and conference center, but it was not to be.

For seven long year this magnificent homeplace called Tannenheim was in our sights as a place apart, a potential retreat, art and conference center, but it was not to be.

 

I knew there was a porte cochère around the far side of the house, so as we pulled up in front and began driving around the reflecting ball on a pedestal in the center of the circular drive, I looked to see if there was the expected pick-up truck, but not a vehicle in sight, so I suggested that we at least stop the car and get out for a moment so Richard could take in the full beauty of the place. The sixty-foot magnolia just beside the house was in glorious full bloom and though the parade of fifteen-foot tall camellia bushes were long past blooming, one could still marvel at their size and dignity. They had clearly been loved and looked-after for generations to have grown so tall and healthy.

And, as we were admiring those camellias, I just happened to look down and there, to my horror, I saw that Richard had planted himself right in the center of an enormous bed of fire-ants that, in their consternation, were already effecting their counter-attack and halfway up his trouser legs (and, I knew, halfway up his socks, as well).

“Take off your pants!” I said urgently. “Now!”

“What?” he said, looking at me like I had lost my mind, and then the first bite…

“You’re standing in a fire-ant bed! Take off your pants!” I repeated as he jumped, first to get out of the ants, and then as he began to feel them. It didn’t take any more insisting before he quickly stripped and handed the pants to me to swipe the ants away even as he was jumping up and down and swatting his legs with both hands to stop the little biting monsters from getting any further.

And, of course, in that very moment, up drove Mr. Johnny, only to be greeted by the astonishing sight of an unknown Yankee wearing nothing but his tidy-whities doing St. Vitus’ dance right there in his own front yard.

It was a heck of a way for them to meet, but a true friendship based upon admiration and respect grew up between Mr. Johnny and Richard after that day. Richard was as smitten with the place as I had always been, and as we drove north up I-65, we began talking about how we might find a way to buy it. We had great visions of making something very special of it; an even more ambitious “gathering place,” where not only friends could come, but we might attract all those who would be drawn to the beauty and tranquility of the place. And, that was the beginning of what became a seven-year negotiation with Mr. Johnny (including dozens of conversations and several trips to Century, sometimes with lawyers or historic preservationists in tow) that grew into a warm appreciation on both sides and, though we were ultimately told, in 1995, that he had decided to sell it to someone local with dependably deep pockets and with whom, I am sure, he was more comfortable, I don’t think either one of us has ever regretted that seven-year learning curve, and I know that we both count Mr. Johnny as one of the most memorable and well-loved characters in our life together.

(As an aside, after negotiating with us all that time, when the date arrived for the closing to other buyers, Mr. Johnny sat around the table at the bank signing papers with all of the interested parties , and when he had penned his last signature on the last document to make the sale complete, he died in his chair where he sat. He was, by then, 96 and it was always clear that he saw the proper disposition of his extraordinary estate as his final and perhaps most important task. Knowing that, we like to think those seven long years of talks helped to keep him alive and vibrant for all that time.)

Of course, you know what they say about God closing doors and opening windows, and as it turned out, all the while we were pursuing Tannenheim, we were also growing seeds for a gathering place of a different sort that, almost immediately after the Tannenheim deal fell through, came to full flower. Let me explain: Some years earlier, in 1982 to be exact, I had enjoyed a very relaxing vacation in Fire Island Pines, one of the two predominantly gay Fire Island communities, so when I discovered during our first summer together, in ’87, that Richard had never been there, we planned an excursion one hot summer Saturday. We had intended to only go for the day, but, once there, it was such a perfect antidote to the pressures of our high-anxiety jobs that we expanded our stay to a full weekend and, soon after, were inquiring about options for taking a share the following summer.

This is our little town of Fire Island Pines with the harbor in the center, the Atlantic on the left and the Great South Bay on the right. No streets, no cars, only birds, the ocean and the occasional beat of a distant bass line to break the silence.

This is our little town of Fire Island Pines with the harbor in the center, the Atlantic on the left and the Great South Bay on the right. No streets, no cars, only birds, the ocean and the occasional beat of a distant bass line to break the silence.

The process involved being interviewed by potential housemates and, in the end, we took a half-share (every-other week) in a four-bedroom house full of strangers who were mostly, on our weekends, architects from D.C. who were absorbed in their own dramas and not very embracing, but we did not regret our decision for a moment since we loved our time at the beach together. We did, however, determine to improve our lot the next year, and invited two of our best friends (not a couple) to please take the room next door to ours so that we would have others with whom to share the extraordinary beauty and ease of the place. They agreed, and consequently our next summer was vastly more fun, so the next year we invited another two friends, and before long we had gathered together enough of us to take our own lease on a house. The house we chose that summer – the summer of ’91 – was magnificent, three bedrooms with a 15’ high and 40’ long sliding glass wall facing the pool that could completely disappear into the structure on hot summer days.

Unfortunately, after our second summer in that house, three of our housemates succumbed to AIDS in one of the more intense periods of loss we suffered in those years, so we took a break in ’93 from our routine and found other ways to enjoy the summer.

By ’94, though, our seasonal household was hankering to reclaim our place in the Pines, so we took another three bedroom house for a year, and then, in ’95, our first four-bedroom, by which time, our list of friends/housemates had expanded into a “family” we could depend upon, and the wisdom of purchasing a house rather than paying exorbitant seasonal rentals to real estate agents became clear. And, of course, as the angels would have it, this was exactly coincident with the death of the Tannenheim dream.

It is, of course, only coincidence that tannenheim translates from the German as “home in the pines,” and that, thusly, we found ourselves giving up our long-dreamt-of home in the pines for a five-bedroom home in The Pines. It was suddenly irrefutably logical for Richard, who had been putting aside his shekels all those years in anticipation of purchasing Tannenheim, to invest in a Fire Island Pines house, instead, and it was this house that, at long last, become our very own gathering place, and has served that purpose with remarkable success ever since.

Our first summer in the new house was 1996 and it was filled with wonderful people, including one of those first two friends we had persuaded to join us in ’89 (the other, by then, was a Senior executive with Turner Network Television and had moved to Atlanta). And, in the eighteen seasons since, it has been our honor and privilege to share our summer weekends with hundreds of shareholders as some have fallen out, others fallen in, some have moved away or died, but always the universe has a way of filling our rooms with singular people leading extraordinary lives with remarkable stories to share.

It has also been a wonderful training ground for Richard and me. We fenced in the yard – a pretty big yard for The Pines – and began our landscaping work the very first summer, and over the years our gardens grew big and beautiful (only to be brought low by the saltwater inundation of Superstorm Sandy two years ago) and taught us the lessons that can only be learned when husbanding life from seed to seed. And, with ten people around the table for Saturday night dinner every week, my cooking skills have progressed far beyond anything I could have originally imagined when I first decided that the only way I would ever be able to relive the wonderful tastes of my mother’s table would be to learn how to recreate them myself. People often remark that I must love to cook, but the truth is I find cooking to be a chore, but I do so love to feed people. To see a table full of animated, interesting personalities who are absolutely silent because they are so intent upon eating the food in front of them is, for me, a wonderful treat and moment of great personal satisfaction.

The back garden before the flood... it will come back!

The back garden before the flood… it will come back!

So, in case you’ve been wondering where I’ve been lately, well, there are two answers. The first and most obvious is that I have been working at the beach house. Because northern winters require draining the pipes and shutting it down completely from November to April, we’ve been busy restoring it to life, cleaning, replanting, and generally getting it ready for the season. The second is that I’ve been truly trying to figure out the best way to share the Fire Island part of my life with you in a meaningful way without betraying the privacy of all those with whom we share our lives in the summer. After all, they have only rented a room, not auditioned for a role in a “reality blog.”

For a time, I thought perhaps the wisest route would be to thoroughly compartmentalize my life to the point that Fire Island would simply remain outside my musings here. But, as you know by now if you’ve been reading my posts, I’m all about beauty, goodness and truth, and to leave out such a huge part of our lives that is so replete with the beauty of our surroundings and the goodness of our fellowship would seem to fly in the face of truth, itself, not to mention my intentions here to honor the angels who are so generous in their support of us in our endeavors, including our ministry at the beach.

But, then, of course, as I was considering all these points, something happened to make up my mind for me.

We were at the beach house about three weeks ago and hosted a few friends for cocktails on a Saturday night that included a new face – a Vancouver native who they knew from Burning Man –who happened to leave his sweater behind at the end of the evening. The next day, when he came by to retrieve it, I gave him a tour of the house and we had made it to the far end of the roof deck overlooking the Atlantic when he asked about this blog and why I was writing it. I then, at his insistence and in as few words as possible, described my beliefs as I laid them out in “Uncle Jesus,” and when I was talking about my prayers for others I remarked that it was my daily prayer that each of us might enjoy those little signs and signals that tell us we’re on the right track: synchronicities, coincidences, perfect timings, close calls. “I call them ‘angel gifts,’” I said (though the truth is that I had never called them that before but knew even as I said it that I always would from then on), and he said to me, “like this one!” meaning the very conversation we were having. And I knew in that instant that it would not be possible to divorce the beach experience from the angel experience because, in truth, the beach is replete with angel gifts in an astonishing array of sorts.

Every day I go out in the garden and rejoice in the beauty of nature. And, every day, there is another angel gift – or lots of them – awaiting my arrival. This has been especially true this year as the true tale of Sandy devastation is finally told. Last year we couldn’t tell what was living and what had died from the saltwater inundation. Now we know, and while the 30’ tall magnolia I gave Richard as a sapling fifteen years ago is utterly dead, the wisteria continues to command a place, and many of the hostas and other ornamentals that were absent and missed last year have miraculously come back. These are angel gifts.

These are the hardy plants that survived the salt water and still share their beauty with us at every turn.

These are the hardy plants that survived the salt water and still share their beauty with us at every turn.

For many years I have left up to my angels as many decisions as possible when it comes to color patterns in the garden, since it is often true that you can’t tell until they bloom what color a lily or impatiens will turn out to be, and I have been astonished on many occasions to find things planted in a perfect place that I truly didn’t put there. It could be random seeds planted by birds, of course, but I prefer to think of them as angel gifts.

And in the kitchen? My, oh my, I don’t think I’ve cooked a meal in years that at least once or twice I didn’t hear that little voice in my ear telling me it’s time to take the cake out of the oven, or that the stew is at its peak of flavor and take it off the stove. Angel gifts. I have to believe that some of you wonderful gardeners and faithful cooks out there can vouch for these phenomena, and I’d love to hear from you if you can.

And, dear readers, now that I have all this housekeeping out of the way, you can also expect to hear from me more frequently in the days to come, as I’ve already started several posts that have been waiting in the wings for this one to manifest. And, more than that, today is already the first day of summer and the beauty of God’s bounty is growing like Topsy all around me: by the pool, on the sun decks and in the yard, and I can’t wait to share the beauty, goodness and truth of our wonderful gathering place with all of you in the weeks and months ahead.

Thank you for your patience. Lot’s more to come…

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