Friday, August 11, 2017

ONE IN A THOUSAND

“They say it’s haunted, you know.”
He mentioned it between bites of his tuna fish sandwich.
Ted had met us at the dock in Alexandria Bay, NY, and shuttled us to the island two days ago. By now we are friends, and I know he lives in the off season in Seattle with his wife and four-month old baby girl whose Japanese name means ocean. He spends his summers as part of the small staff on the island.

“They say it’s Mrs. Miller, the woman who donated the island to the club. But I’ve been here nearly every summer of my life and I’ve never seen her, though I do admit there are doors that slam when no one is there, and windows that are mysteriously opened. The floorboards creek when the house is empty.”
Dave and I are situated for three days in the Yellow Room, Mrs. Miller’s room, in the Hemlocks Lodge on Deer Island; one of roughly 1500 little islands in the Thousand Islands region of New York. An invisible line in the water divides Canada from the US.
This particular island was donated by the Millers and is now the property of the Knights of 322, members of a very old society of students at Yale University. At the end of Dave’s junior-year he and 14 other students were tapped for the club. Their last year at Yale they spent regularly gathering to philosophize, fraternize, feast and otherwise make memories with each other. They have been brothers ever since. Now, over four decades later, they are still friends and continue to make memories. This is their first reunion on the private island since they graduated in 1974.
In their day the club was an all-male organization. This weekend we are sharing the island with a club that graduated in 2014. Half of that club is female. The dynamic is different, but the friendships seem to be as true among them as they are with these fellows.


I’m not sure who they are, individually, in their homes or workplaces, these brothers of my husband. They are all accomplished, dynamic men, with stories to tell that set them apart. But when they get together, they seem to become boys, full of dreams and adventure and camaraderie. And yet there is a depth to them that makes them able to weep with each other. Two years ago they lost their first brother, Jon B., right about this time of year. He and his wife were driving home and hit a massive longhorn bull that had escaped the fence line near their home in Texas. Jon was killed instantly.
Brian K. went back to Yale a few years ago to earn his master’s degree in Divinity. His searching soul was led there after his wife Billie had been killed in a tragic hotel fire.
As Dave and I drove here from Michigan, where we had spent the last two weeks at our cottage near Tawas, we got a call from Brian, asking where we were at that moment. Dave answered that we were about a half hour from Toronto. Turns out another brother, Larry B., was stuck at the Toronto airport when his flight to the island area was cancelled. We picked up Larry and brought him with us the remaining four hours to the island. As we drove we caught up. Larry told us about the tragic passing of his wife, Diane, two years ago.
These brothers share their joys and sorrows. I have learned from them the beauty of presence, of ties that bind regardless of time and space, and I have also learned about acceptance, and embracing each other just the way we are. I think of them, collectively and individually, each time the clock in our study at home chimes. They gave us that clock the night before our wedding, at the Blair Mansion in Washington DC. It reminds me, thankfully, how our greatest treasures are timeless.


I sit today in the old easy chair, situated in the corner of Mrs. Miller’s Yellow Room in the Hemlocks on Deer Island, listening to the water lap against the shore, hearing the musical hum of small engines conveying people to and from various surrounding islands, feeling the chill of the breezes wafting through the trees and into the wide, screened windows lining the walls of this space. The place is quiet today. All the boys have gone on a fishing expedition. Only Julia B. and I remain. She is comfortable and easy to talk to, and I will join her soon, I think. But for now I am holed up in this room, making preserves of the season, stirring the images and memories into my computer so I can savor them later, like late summer berries put into jam to spread on toast on a winter’s day.
This island is full of charm and history and mystery.
About 40 acres of wooded, rocky landscape, with paths and shrines and boats and tubes and swings.

The water is exceptionally high this year, so much so that the regular pathways to docks and lodges are covered in water and we have to make our way across the island though woody pathways to get to Beebe lodge, where they serve our meals. The ground is spongy soft, like we are walking on fairy dust topped with mulch and moss. Someone, through the ages, has laid down stone stairways, and rocky bridges over small tributaries. My poor neuro-challenged legs are suffering.
But the rest of me thinks it divine, though humid and hot. Today is has cooled to the point of closing some of the windows in our room. The pine tree just outside the window by my chair creaks as she bends gently in the breeze, her branches raising and lowering in a gracious wave to neighboring islands. Her bark is spotted with a colony of muted green moss making its way up to her branches, where the sunlight dances and dapples through slender emerald needles.
I pretend I am a work-worn executive from Manhattan who has made his way northward for a reprieve, and these trees sweep across my worries and whoosh them out to the waters. They float away toward the sea. I imagine how refreshing this would be to a city mouse.

Yesterday, Simone shuttled Dave and me on the small boat over to Boldt Castle on Heart Island, the island just beside us. You can’t really walk to your neighbors in this place. Dave recalls the year he graduated, when the whole club came up to the island. They loaded all the gang into a boat, to where it was almost below water, and they motored late at night, with not lights on, across the channel, miraculously avoiding freighters and other vessels, over to Boldt Castle. 
 

The castle had been built in the late 19th century by George C Boldt for his wife Louise. It was massive, and elaborate. Just before it was finished Louise died, and George, brokenhearted, abandoned the project and never returned to the island. Through the years, it fell into tremendous disrepair, to the point that vandals removed most everything of value and left their names and dates as scars upon the walls.
About twenty years ago the state took over the island and its buildings and rebuilt and finished, according the architectural plans, the castle as Boldt had intended it. It is fabulously re-done.
Dave was in awe through our whole tour. “Over there, by the grand staircase,” he said, “a full-sized tree was growing, right up through the center of the house.” I was reminded, as we walked through the beautiful home and grounds, how it is sometimes a gift to use one’s money to create something massively grand. Not always, mind you. Money can be used in so many helpful ways, for mankind. But once in a while, man-made grandeur is magical, and I am grateful that someone supplies it for us.
Simone returned and took us back to Deer Island in time for a chat with friends and a refreshing nap. Dinner was steak and rhubarb pie.

Afterward the knights gathered round a circle in the lodge, in the room lined with bookcases full of musty summer paperbacks and board games, with a non-playing player piano on one end, a stone lined fireplace on the other,
and a cubby-cove lined in wood where someone has displayed a rather large collection of stuffed wild birds, probably a hundred years old now.
Here and there you’ll find skulls sitting on shelves, or 322 scratched into a rock.
Long Devil (Brian K.) and Chip and Larry, on a dare, clomped across the roof of Beebe hall and jumped two stories down into the cold water.


Bruce sat next to me in a reclining lawn chair, icing a torn hamstring from a tennis game earlier in the day. Dave and I decided to leave the dining hall early in the evening, knowing that the light of the day would soon be gone and my uncooperative legs might not find the pathway home. We took the inner-island path we had discovered earlier in the day, when we visited the honeymoon cottage and the burned-out ruins of an ancient stony mansion.
We tiptoed through tender ferns and soft mint colored moss, past where acorns are turning into new trees and fallen trees are being cut for firewood.
There is an outdoor oven made of stone and mud, the broken statue of Buddha and the engraved shrine to Mrs. Miller, and so many more treasures we have not found in this short adventure.
When the fishermen return this afternoon, Dave and I will gather our goods and load them into the Mistress (one of the island’s boats) and return to the mainland. We will make our way South in New York, to the home of our Kate, then later in the week on to Manhattan, where Dave has judicial meetings.
For now, though, I will close this page and make my way across the island for lunch. I have to remind myself, as I walk, to inhale, and to pause in my journey to look up.
One day we will return to this island, perhaps with our own little treasures, and let them discover what once was, and what still is, and whatever will be.