A Burning of Stories, Part I

Flames shoot out in a circle from the top of our chimney as over a hundred volunteer firepeople from both Fire Island and Long Island (brought over on a commandeered ferry) worked through the night to limit the fire to only the four houses that were lost.

Good afternoon, everyone. My apologies for being so long away from this blog, but I have the best excuse ever. Our house burned down. Yes, that house. Cedar House. The one from which so much of this blog has sprung. The one where our gardens grew so lush I could post photo tours here. The one with the best cook’s kitchen ever, where all the recipes appearing here were perfected over 22 years of experience. The one just steps from the sea on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world where we were given the honor of welcoming and hosting hundreds (at least 300) time-sharing housemates around our glass-topped table for a minimum of six weeks each – enough time for us discover and delight in the myriad ways each and every one of them revealed the Glory carried within, as well as the spiritual gifts so frequently contributed to our fellowship by their ever-mindful angels (whether their charges knew it or not). Of course, if you’re my Facebook friend, you already know all this, but for those few of you who only follow this blog, you might not have heard.

Even before we took it over in the winter of ’95-’96, Cedar House had seen twenty years of rich history. Built during the architectural heyday of Fire Island Pines, NY when so many modernist cedar statements arose from the sand that there are even coffee-table books about them (if you’re interested, Google “Horace Gifford”), at first, with stark lines and tiny windows, Cedar House followed the

The original Cedar House, c. 1974

prevailing austere esthetic. But it was bought in 1980 and converted to an early B&B, when both the living and dining areas were built out, a sixth bedroom was carved out of existing living room space, and our beloved 6′-wide stainless steel US Range was added (along with a restaurant’s-worth of professional cookwares – from 24-quart stainless stockpots to wok skimmers – that were such high quality that they were

Cedar House the first day we looked it over. Note that both the near and far sides had been built out in the intervening years, though there were still only the five tiny clerestory windows to light the expanded living room.

still just as good as the day they were bought until the fire consumed them).

It was during those years – the early 80s, before the epidemic that would utterly devastate the whole community took hold – that “Cedar House,” with room for a dozen inspired, eager souls around its great white Formica table (8′ in diameter and so large it was built in place, and required a Saws-all to remove when we arrived in ’95) first gained its reputation as a maelstrom of

I actually posted this photo on Facebook the day before the fire. Not quite the same angle, but you can see additions on the second floor and a vastly expanded roof deck.

gay culture out of which sprang much creativity, most of which has been lost to time, but with two grand exceptions that were born and nurtured there: first, the 1984 Rick James disco hit “Oh, What a Night” (originally published on the “Cedar House Records” label, we had an original 78-rpm pressing of the album in a plain white sleeve (that came with the house)  tucked away for safekeeping in the living room armoire) and, second, an early, all-gay Monopoly knock-off – Gay Monopoly – originally created in 1983 by Fire Island Games, Inc. (Although the Gay Monopoly was completely shut down after the creators were sued by Parker Brothers, it is a sought-after collector’s item today, with the going price for a set in good condition ranging from $250-450 on the Internet. Alas, we had four complete mint-condition sets, now ashes, that also came with the house.)

A photo found online since all of ours were burned.

Of course, as AIDS laid waste to these rich creative energies, Cedar House, too, suffered, and by the time Richard and I came along and took a look in the summer of ’95, it had been on a rental carousel for a decade or so as no continuity was possible when so many were falling so fast in every direction, and was in a sad and sorry state. Nevertheless, even through the neglect, we could see that it had three great things going for it: 1) the location was ideal by every measure, 2) the design was unique and inviting, and 3) it was the best stove we’d ever seen in The Pines.

By Thanksgiving week, the deed was done, and, as it turned out, it was truly a time for Thanksgiving since a new treatment for AIDS was introduced at the same time – the ‘cocktail’ – that fairly instantly converted a positive diagnosis from a death sentence to a difficult-but-manageable condition, so that, by the time we began welcoming our housemates to their new home in May of ’96, much of the scourge that had been dragging us down for so long (we had lost three housemates during the winter of ’93-’94) had lifted.

Much had been accomplished over the winter months to return Cedar House to it’s storied past. The living room had been transformed into a regal, inviting space by removing the bedroom that had been so rudely carved out of its original 24’x 24’x 12′ dimensions, adding seven 5’x2′ picture windows to drench the room in summer’s light, and moving the interior fireplace to an exterior wall. At the other end of the house, we had found enough roof space available where the kitchen had been built out in 1980 to add the two additional second-floor baths required to provide each bedroom with its own W.C. By the time we were done, almost all the cedar paneling on the inside of the house, and the cedar siding on the outside had been replaced and all five bathrooms were made new from the subflooring up with  eight different kinds of marble and granite plus thousands of glass blocks. In addition, a long list of other improvements – all new solid-core interior doors (each one given two coats of stain and three of polyurethane), all new fixtures (lighting and plumbing), all new appliances and all new, stunning furnishings gathered from many disparate sources by both of us throughout the winter months – had been accomplished as we did our best to optimize the house in every way we could. As a couple, we were at our most powerfully creative during those cold months of construction, and when it was done, we had accomplished much of which to be proud.

We have both marveled at how, in the last few weeks before the fire, we were particularly attentive to so many of the little things around the house, and the memories that went with them. Perhaps some metaphysical inkling of the future was at play that inspired us to take it all in with renewed appreciation and gratitude, but whatever it was, they were the stories that went with those little things that made them worth our time.

It has been my unhappy task, for the last few weeks, to compile a list of all the contents of the house, from wash cloths and serving spoons to all our wonderful art and antiques, but even as I was making the list – what it was, where it was bought, how much it cost, etc. – I knew that a greater tragedy would be the loss of the stories that went with the things on that list, the stories that were the heart and soul of Cedar House. But, this is a tragedy I have the power to prevent by telling these tales; by reviving the associations and aromas that each little thing evoked when Richard or I spent a moment or two taking it in, recalling the love that came with it, often the love of those who long ago passed on to higher planes. Yes, the house may have burned, but not the sensibilities, and there are stories to be told, so many stories. Here are the first three..

The Homeless Hydrangeas

Close-up of a few of the blooms on our Homeless Hydrangeas. Note the tiny purple centers!

“Wanna buy these?” asked the bedraggled, clearly homeless man as he came straight for me out of all the dozens of people near us on the sidewalk, and thrust the shoe-box top in my face.

It was a sunny day in early March of ’95 and I was walking down Broadway just short of 106th Street, about a block from our apartment, and once I had recovered from my surprise, I was astonished to find, nestled precariously within the edges of that shoe-box top, four tiny green plastic flowerpots containing four utterly wilted baby hydrangea plants.

“How much do you want?” I asked.

“Twenty dollars,” he “replied.

“What?,” I asked incredulously. “I’m not giving you twenty dollars for those things.” But then, feeling more sorry for the hydrangeas than the man, I continued, “But I’ll give you ten.”

“Sold,” he said, as he handed them over, and my orphan hydrangeas and I went home.

His timing had been excellent, because what he didn’t know was that we were even then doing the rebuild of Cedar House, and that one of the very first things I had done was chart out gardens for one half of the yard and had already anticipated using hydrangeas in several places. And, for the next several months – until I could finally erect a deer fence in June – the little hydrangea plants remained in our sunny Manhattan living room windows, gaining strength for their eventual move to the beach.

Three of the original four plants, en banc along the front of the house, taken last year.

When the time finally came, I placed them against an East-facing wall, where they thrived in the morning sun and the sandy soil, and by the next summer they were ready to bloom and we discovered their wonders: enormous pale pink blossoms (often more than 12″ across) and at the center of each little flowerette, a tiny spot of purple. They are, in short, the most spectacular hydrangeas I have ever seen. More than a few friends and neighbors have asked for offshoots, happily given, and in all the years since, I’ve never seen any others quite like them. For 22 years, they held pride of place along the front of Cedar House, where they welcomed so many astonishing souls to our home with their exuberant beauty,  and I am determined that they shall do so, again, since I have already rescued and replanted them in enormous pots for safekeeping until they can be put back where they belong.

Also, just for the record and to the best of my knowledge, I had never seen that haggard homeless man before that day, nor have I ever seen him since. And you know how I do go on about angel gifts…

The Memorial Mermaid

“George…,” Alex asked in that timid tone that implied he was about to need a favor, “Do you think we could ask my new friend, Tom, to join us for dinner?”

I’m sure I gave him one of my patented looks, but it was rare for him to ask, and he looked so hopeful that I said “yes” as soon as I calculated in my head whether or not there was enough food, and that was how we met Tom.

It must have been about 2003, or so, and I think his last name is now lost to history. I called Alex to ask but he doesn’t remember, either, but we both remember Tom.

For one thing, he was very tall (Alex is very tall, too), but more importantly, he was just a delightful guest to have at our Saturday night table. We were all in our 30s or 40s in those days, and Tom fit seamlessly into the Cedar House dynamic. A farmer from northern Wisconsin (as best we can remember), he was charming and funny and a real breath of fresh air at our table full of jaded New Yorkers.

He told us it was his first trip to Fire Island, a pilgrimage of sorts that he had been hoping to make for a lifetime, and how his week had been everything he wanted it to be, and that topping it off with dinner at Cedar House was icing on the cake.

Now, we have had many wonderful dinner guests at Cedar House, and after 22 years, I’m sure I would be hard pressed to remember a great many of them, but the next day, before he left the island, Tom did something that made him unforgettable. He dropped off a beautiful thank you gift for us that he had just purchased in a local shop: a heavy cast-iron mermaid about 17″ long in a sitting position with a bronze patina. In other words, it was a not-insubstantial gift, and I can say without fear of contradiction that it is still, to this day, the most extravagant thank you we’ve ever received for nothing more than dinner. We were touched and surprised and delighted but by the time we discovered his gift, he had already left the island and was on his way back to the Midwest.

Since Alex was the only one of us with contact information, we asked him to please let Tom know how much we appreciated his generosity, and we assumed that, in the fullness of time, we would hear from him again. But, quite to the contrary,  it was only a few weeks later that Alex told us that Tom had died. He had apparently been afflicted with inoperable stomach cancer that had taken him quickly following his return to Wisconsin. It is Alex’s recollection that Tom was unaware when we met him of just how ill he was, but I have to wonder. Maybe it was just intuition, but it surely seemed to us that Fire Island was on his bucket list, and judging by his gift – our mermaid – that dinner was important to him.

And so, we have thought of Tom many times over the course of the last decade-and-a-half as his gift has been dusted, held, and admired. Her perch was on the corner of the piano from which she could survey all who passed by, until both she and the piano were consumed by the fire.

Nevertheless, the gift shop is still there, and still selling her sisters, so I guess we shall see if another will take her place…

J.W. the Dancing Bear

J.W. Bear in his accustomed chair, facing the ocean.

Our late friend, Father J. W. Canty, who grew up in Chicago, started his college career in the mid-60s at Michigan, then moved to New York as he began to spread his wings, where he completed his first degree at Parsons School of Design, was never really in anybody’s closet, so by the time he graduated and headed off to divinity school for his next academic adventure, his parents were already coming to terms with what might loosely be called his idiosyncracies, which were many. For most gay people in the 60s, coming out wasn’t even an option, although, to be fair, it would have been nearly impossible for J.W. to keep his lifestyle to himself. In many ways, he was “out and proud” long before it was a “thing” and he wore it on his sleeve, so if his family was going to accept him, even in those early days, well, they would just have to accept him the way he was.

And, much to their credit, they did. I will be writing a full profile of J.W. in the coming months as part of my series on those dozens of friends we lost to AIDS, so I won’t go into it all here, but he was ever and always on the cutting edge and it should be no surprise that he discovered Fire Island Pines during it’s very earliest days as an LGBT destination and comfort zone, and soon joined with a friend to rent the house that had originally belonged to Jerry Herman (creator of the Broadway smashes “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame”, among others) as the first of many Fire Island addresses he enjoyed over the next quarter-century.

And, it was in that house, around 1970, when he was joined for their first Fire Island summer by his parents, who had decided to demonstrate their support of their gifted son by taking their own room in the house, and for the next several years they continued to spend their summers with him and his friends at the beach. “Those were the best times of their lives,” J.W.’s sister Trudie told me. “They truly loved The Pines and spending their summers there.”

It was during those early years that another tradition took hold in The Pines, the Fire Island Tea Dance, which was inspired by the afternoon “tea dances” that took hold during prohibition in the 20s in resorts like Atlantic City and the Poconos. Held on the expansive deck of The Blue Whale, a local restaurant and bar, these afternoon gatherings were truly the birthplace of what, today, we call disco as the innovative DJs who headlined these gatherings kept the beat going and growing year after year until Studio 54 took it up and channeled it into the mainstream. And, Gertrude Canty, J.W.’s mother, just loved spending her Saturday afternoons at tea dance more than anything, and, she told me, more often than not she wore her special tea dance outfit that featured a full-length peasant-style skirt in a patchwork print (it was 1970, after all).

Now, fast forward about twenty years, to the early 90s, which is when we first met J.W. through a friend, and for a couple of years he took space with us in the house we were then renting in The Pines for our still-forming group of summertime companions. Unfortunately, in about 1993 his health began to fail, and it was in the spring of 1994 when he died, but not before Richard had become one of his most attentive caregivers, attending to his needs as best he and a few other close friends could. It was telling of his unique contributions in earlier years that when he died, the fabled Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore of the New York diocese, who had been one of J.W.’s mentors, officiated at his funeral before his ashes were permanently placed in the Columbarium of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

And, as it turned out, even after he had been laid to rest, there was much to be done for J.W., for he had been something of a hoarder, and his Manhattan apartment was filled to the ceiling with his acquisitions from years of worldwide travel, and once again, it was Richard (and our friend Richard Plumbon) who rose to the occasion and agreed to tackle the clearing of the apartment’s contents with J.W.’s father, a process that took weeks, not hours. (Among the adventures that had generated so many worldly goods, J.W. had served as the on-board chaplain for the QEII for several years as it sailed the globe, had roped Carol Burnett into traveling with him to the U.S.S.R. to introduce Alcoholics Anonymous to that country for the first time (and set up the first Moscow meetings), and spent significant time in the East, including Bali and Chou En-Lai’s China, so his over-stuffed collection was both wide-ranging and daunting for those who took on the task of disposing of it).

And, largely, I believe, as a result of his tireless work over those weeks, Gertrude took a special liking to Richard, and from those days until her death in her 90s, only a few months ago, she would regularly ring us up just to chat, catch up, and, in some small way, at least, keep her son alive by retelling those Fire Island tales and rekindling those memories.

And so it was that, not very long after we moved into Cedar House in the spring of ’96, a package came in the mail from Gertrude, by then living in Michigan near Trudie, and nestled within the box on a bed of tissue paper lay J.W. Bear with a note from Gertrude that said something like this, “Going to tea and dancing the afternoon away at the Blue Whale was one of my all-time favorite pastimes, and my favorite outfit included the peasant skirt from which I made this bear for your new house. His name is J.W., and please place him where he can see the ocean. Sending with gratitude and love, Gertrude”

Naomi, daughter of our friend Amy Zimmerman, and J.W. Bear in the early days. Naomi just turned 21.

And so we did, and perhaps a thousand times over the years when he was inadvertently moved I would replace him to face the ocean from one chair or another. I had even sat him up in one of the blue Betty chairs (another story) the night he burned, but not before he had been hugged, over the years, by many children of every age, and, as Gertrude undoubtedly hoped, introduced on many occasions through the years the colorful stories of his inimitable namesake.

“I have many bears my mother made,” Trudie told me just a couple of days ago, “and I’ll be happy to send you a new one. It won’t be made from her skirt, unfortunately, but if you want one…”

“That would be just wonderful,” I said. And it will. J.W. II is coming soon.


Literally hundreds of you have reached out and touched us with your notes, comments, loves, likes, teary faces, prayers, words of sympathy, understanding and support during these last two months since the fire, and there are really no adequate words for expressing just how uplifted, sustained and gob-smacked we have been during these challenging times by your outpouring of love. There is not a single one of you who is not loved and valued from our deepest places, and I’m sure I can speak for Richard, too, when I say that we both thank you all so very, very much. Every gesture of lovingkindness grows exponentially when received in times like these.

© 2017 by George Thomas Wilson. All rights reserved.


This entry was posted in AIDS, Angels, belief, Death, faith, God the Father, Holy Spirit, Love, prayer, Rebirth, religion, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A Burning of Stories, Part I

  1. richard plombon says:

    Your such a talented writer George. This was great. For your piece on JW, let me know if I can provide any info. I didn’t know the JW Bear story.

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