PROLOGUE, “WATER BABY”
Fire Island in the day
By Susan Israelson
As the hurricane of ‘38 hurtled throughFire Island, Mother dashed around the house with surprising energy for a woman in her seventh month. The barometer plummeted, the wind raged, the windows shivered, and rain assaulted the roof. She put on more steam, determined to make the rickety, fisherman’s shack water tight, no matter what. The drawer containing the towels for this task, stuck. Mother wheedled and cajoled, made one last inspired tug. The drawer gave way. All its weight collided with her belly, giving us both such a jolt that my water bag burst. Out I came, feet first, two months early, four and a half pounds. At that very same instant, theAtlantic Oceanbreached the dunes, surged over the quarter mile width of the island, embraced her daughter, theGreat South Bay. There must have been something quite extraordinary about that day, those winds, the water, because that was the first recorded time thatFire Islandflooded; the first and last time that I was either early or underweight.
Miraculously, that stubborn, sandy, thirty-three mile thread didn’t snap, sink, or float away. Neither did I. We survived the most devastating hurricane of the century. A stormy baptism, indeed. Our two destinies were to be forever intertwined. Magic.
Was it the way it smelled? The languid fishiness of theGreat South Bayon the ferry ride over; the fresh scrub pine perfume as you walked along the boardwalks. Was it the strong salt air that blew from the ocean, intoxicating in its purity, free from car fumes. Or those starry, starry nights, as I watched the Milky Way stretch across the sky, shooting stars streak, sizzle, dazzle. It was certainly the way it looked — a picture postcard from paradise. The wide white beach stretching to infinity; high dunes crowned by stubborn beach grass; glistening poison ivy punctuated with plump red beach plums. It was also the way it felt: toughened bare feet on splintery walks, sand as fine as sugar in between toes, the way the sun felt, toasting skin.
Most of all it was the water — how it felt as I floated, swam, rode the waves, played; for hours on end. I never tired of my satin sea – it kept changing, inconsistent, unable to make up its mind. Just like me. No sameness, or patterns. Many moods. One day sapphire blue with angry whitecaps; the next turquoise, tranquil. My ocean caressed me when it was calm, challenged me when it was rough. I never knew what to expect, never bored, loved being in, under, on top. Soul mate. Best friend. Water was home. We were one.
There was a bond between Fire Islanders that was as close as blood. We shared a secret. We were the lucky ones. We lived on the most beautiful beach in the world. It ran East to West. We could sun bathe, all day long.
When we were there we loved it passionately, reveling in our perfect island, pioneers separated from progress and reality. Our light was kerosene, our heat sunshine, our transport wagons. When we were away, we would talk about it, dream about it, count the days until we could get back to its purity, its isolation — even its poison ivy. We were only fifty miles fromNew York, but it felt like fifty thousand. It was the magic that bathed our suntanned skins and penetrated our souls.
Later,Fire Islandfound and lost, I headed east to the Hamptons, sister beach, hoping to recreate it again, in vain. My memories would sting like the beach flies of a sticky August day.