It sounded almost like a wedding march and, in a sense, it was. The organ in church this past Sunday at Point O’ Woods piped the first notes of “Glorious things of thee are spoken,” and in your mind you could see a bride walking down the aisle, smiling, her life-mate before her, beaming back. Two of them in a Chagall painting eye-lock. It was a wedding march, of sorts, yet it was years late, and misplaced, for me.
And as the congregation started to sing the opening line – Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion, city of our God! – my throat constricted, my eyes watered, my voice weakened and ultimately failed. I could not sing. I was being beckoned to wed a place, this place, this community, in which I had effectively grown up, though it was just during summers, yet summers where life is lived and hopes are created and young romances are kindled and then replaced by other young romances like freshly pressed doilies on a dresser. Life, where friendships are forged and never forgotten, where parents are seen in their relaxed state, away from the din of New York and the press of subway-sweaty flesh, now clad in seersucker and sporting bronze skin from white sand beach laughter. I was being asked to spiritually locate my soul in this place, this place where I have more memories than I do of the City – the City where I spent 11 of 12 months each year, and to which God continually calls me back from wherever I have moved, as He has done recently.
Yet, I couldn’t do it.
He, whose Word cannot be broken,
Formed thee for His own abode.
As we sang the second line I – wanting to sing in parts, which I so love and which the organist Mary had trained me to do from my youth up through the adult choir – I had to sing the melody. I couldn’t let my voice go free with the tune or the lyric. It was Sunday morning, 36 hours after I had arrived on Friday night, my first visit to Fire Island and to POW since 2002, six years ago, our last summer in the house, the summer after Mom died, the summer when Karen spruced up the downstairs and made it airy and delightful and fun, which ultimately helped it sell in the fall. My in-laws came for a visit that summer and later, after the house sold, my father-in-law spoke for us all when he said that he never would have left if he knew he wasn’t going to return.
I didn’t return. Not that I didn’t want to.
That fall, 2002, I went back to pick up personal items from the house and take the Bunger longboard over to Dave K’s. My plan had been to stay over a Friday night and then drive back to New England Saturday morning. My stay was in fact less than three hours. I walked into the house and felt that the life had been sucked out like from a halved grapefruit whose juice is all gone and what is left is the rind and the sad, drying pulp. I couldn’t see myself sleeping in my – the new owners’ – bed and then rising on the weekend morning, when Mom and Dad would be dancing around each other in the kitchen, he letting his tea steep with the leaves perched in an aluminum strainer over a chipped plain white cup in a non-matching saucer, she busy like a bee with too many flowers and not enough time, smiling at you when you came around the corner of the staircase that descended between the kitchen and the living room, crying out, “Morning, lovey!” Her voice, always greeting, yet now silent, not even echoing through these rooms which belonged to another. The living room floor, deep with the stain that Mom applied after hours of removing linoleum tiles in the off-season and throughout a summer, now was a silent mourner, waiting for new feet and new voices.
I couldn’t stay.
So I left on the late evening boat and probably cried behind dark glasses or something like that. I drove the five hours home, probably cried some more. I don’t remember. All I know is that after that visit to the owners’ new home that fall, I didn’t go back to Point O’ Woods until this past weekend, at the invitation of my childhood friend Jon and his wife.
I arrived, and there were Jon and Nancy, and Dave B., and Kinsey, and others, looking as young and vivacious as ever. They, and the place, had not changed. This is a cliché that runs throughout our narrative: the unchanging nature of Point O’ Woods.
“There’s surf,” Jon said. “I think we’re going to get an evening session in.” It was 7:45 p.m., and by the time we got in, we’d have another 45 minutes or so of surfable skylight. Which we did. And there were waves all weekend; I surfed four times for a total of almost seven hours. (Karen and boys were in Texas.)
Saturday night was the Lobster Party, with Dave K’s dad leading the Dixieland Band that has played there since I was a kid and perhaps before that.
On the Rock of Ages founded,
What can shake thy sure repose?
With salvation’s walls surrounded,
Thou may’st smile at all thy foes.
I still couldn’t sing, my mind reviewing the events of the weekend behind me: seeing Al and Sandy and Jenny, learning of Jen’s daughter’s diagnosis of Type-1 diabetes – I had missed this in their lives. Missed it because I wasn’t around. Lexie wasn’t out this weekend, but I had also missed being near her when her father passed away from a sudden heart attack. There were other life events that I had heard about through email or a call one night from Dave K – “Dave C has committed suicide” he said through heaving sobs. Where was I? Where was Dave C’s brother Al? How was Al – I wasn’t there for him.
See! the streams of living waters,
Springing from eternal love;
Well supply thy sons and daughters,
And all fear of want remove:
Who can faint while such a river
Ever flows their thirst t’assuage?
Grace, which like the Lord, the Giver,
Never fails from age to age.
Slowly, I got my voice. I stood there, next to Jon and his 6-year-old son Evan. Jon: who might have been thinking about the words to the hymn or might have been thinking about his tennis doubles final in about 90 minutes, a match that he had played and replayed with his brother as partner for the last five years, which all of my friends were aware of and perhaps had seen. Except for me.
I sang parts for the second verse. It came, and I sang about the streams of living waters, the supply they gave the Lord’s sons and daughters, the thirst that was assuaged. This thirst of mine – the thirst for connection, this thirst for memory, for reunion, for fellowship of a human and divine nature – this thirst for something more than a shell of a house which will turn to dust one day, the thirst for something imperishable and immutable, this thirst was being assuaged as I sang.
Blest inhabitants of Zion,
Washed in the Redeemer’s blood!
Jesus, whom their souls rely on,
Makes them kings and priests to God.
I realized that I was no longer an owner at Point O’ Woods. I was not an owner in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, nor even a citizen of New York. My citizenship, my inhabitation, was elsewhere. These people around me that Sunday morning were my friends. They would always be my friends.
Savior, if of Zion’s city,
I through grace a member am,
Let the world deride or pity,
I will glory in Thy Name.
Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
All his boasted pomp and show;
Solid joys and lasting treasure
None but Zion’s children know.