When Marilyn Monroe visited Lee Strasberg on Fire Island for the very first time, she said, "What a lovely place this is -- it's got water all around it."
Her statement, probably uttered breathlessly in front of a calm sea, is the thing that attracts so many to Fire Island to begin with. That same statement is the very thing that puts the fear of god in Fire Islanders whenever a storm approaches. With Hurricane Sandy, for many, our worst fears were realized.
Often when I watch other people on television who live in areas severely affected by storms I wonder why they live there. And I know that people watching my island on the news may now be thinking the same thing. Why are those people living on a barrier island? What did they expect? I thought it might help to tell you a little about my Fire Island, why I call it home. I hope that telling my personal story may remind us that, as with each overwhelming picture of destruction on any of the shores slammed by Sandy, there is a story of their own love for their home, their community and their memories.
Like most first-generation Fire Islanders, I came to the Island as a "grouper." During the summer of 1989 I shared a house with some college friends, bar-hopping and sleeping off the night's festivities on the beautiful beaches the next day. By my second summer there I met my husband. We walked into town to get a Snapple. He got taken in to the police station -- or arrested, as the embellished story now goes -- and I talked the officer out of giving him a $50 ticket, the usual fine for the old open-container law. We rode the Long Island Railroad home the next day holding hands, and have not let go since. By the following summer we were engaged, and the next, married. There was something special about watching young families in Fire Island that made you yearn to have one of your own one day, the simplicity and beauty and joy of it, and by the following summer our first daughter was nearly due to arrive. We knew that a home there was the greatest gift we could give our children and ourselves, and by the summer that our third daughter was born we officially went from renters to owners. I think part of us thought it was silly to put so much into a house where you could see both the ocean and bay from its roof and where the refrain "one big wave" was always lurking. That fear was overridden by the joy, pride and thrill of knowing we were in for a lifetime of the best memories we could ever have asked for.
It is easy to understand why a car-free town on a 32-mile island surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the Great South Bay would take one's breath away. Why the charm of arriving by ferryboat and being greeted by children pulling wooden wagons and others carrying groceries in bike baskets would stand in such juxtaposition to the ways of the rest of the world. I have never had a car that I treasure as much as my bicycle. The older I get, the younger it makes me feel. A ride back from town through puddles on a rainy night makes me feel so youthful that as the rain hits my face I laugh all the way home. It is hard to explain the pleasure of riding up and down sandy sidewalks with a toddler strapped in to the bike seat behind you, forced to listen to you singing "Moonshadow" by Cat Stevens until they hear it so many times they can't help but sing along. I remember the crushing feeling when my husband said "Isn't it time I take that bike seat off the back of your bike?" as my youngest was nearing 6, and even at her most exhausted state would not allow herself to squeeze her little butt into the seat for a free ride. The confidence of knowing that one day a seat will be slapped back on for my grandchild eased my mind. I brought my kids up in the most beautiful, idyllic place in the world, and they are acutely aware of the gift they have been given. Like others, I knew there is no way that they would not return with their own children. Until one day you wake up and hear that a storm is coming, the storm of the century, and you realize that maybe that dream will be out of reach.
This dream is not mine alone, it is one shared by most of my community, a community that spans generations. The half-hour ride from Bay Shore seems too short to catch up with whomever, 8 or 80, is sitting next to you. Visitors can't help but marvel during the trip from the ferry to my house at how many times we stop to say hello. "Do you know everyone?" they ask. A typical visit to the market, just a few minutes away, takes at least a half an hour when you add in the time you spend chatting up your neighbors. We are one. We sit on the beach and the ball field together; together, we welcome new babies and grieve over the loss of old friends. We watch over each other's children with a joy and a love usually only reserved for one's own. We patch up scraped knees from bicycle spills and hurt feelings from disappointing up-at-bats. We help older people with whatever they need and hopefully help to counter the loneliness that sets in after their own unthinkables happen. Today, together, we grieve over our island. The number of houses lost or condemned are mounting. The breach where the ocean met the bay is being called a permanent inlet. We are told, point blank, that the island will never be the same. I cannot get back on the island yet to see my house, but am told it seems to be fine. Others are not as fortunate. When I left before the storm the last thing I did was put my cherished photo album filled with pictures of Labor Day picnics, sandcastles, winning runs and first rides on two-wheelers on the top shelf of my closet. I am lucky, as I feel confident that it is still there. Others have lost everything, except for the memories in their minds. I know that each of them have their own Fire Island story. I imagine they never thought their stories would end like this. I know that our community will be there to help make sure that it isn't the end for them. There are people on Fire Island right now working tirelessly to begin the process; I thank them immensely and look forward to the day when we are allowed to return and can pitch in ourselves. There are busy hands and full hearts everywhere. But this is all after the fact. We need to start working on before the fact.
We live in an ever-changing world with an ever-changing climate. I pray that the world will take notice and will take action, working together to protect every community and every childhood memory as if it is their own.