m wood pen

illustrator of books, cocktails, travel + more

the thousand islands

i was recently wished an ‘alexandria bay day’, which brought time and an island straight to the front of my mind.

a really long time ago, three plucky gals from the southwest side of chicago decided, either on a lark or a whim, to hop aboard the train to new york to become ziegfield girls.

the concept seems unfathomable at this day and age to think it was that simple, i mean, no resume, contacts or shared connections on linkedin?

naw, they just…well, became ziegfield girls…at least two of them.  the third happened into a job as fdr’s secretary.  that’s not chopped liver!

as luck would have it, somehow within their high kicks and dazzling dance routines, each and every one of them snagged a husband, all millionaires.

after the fdr stint, lyle found herself on a vast sugar plantation somewhere in cuba with her first husband, a fellow named flagler.  her story continues in a moment.

bea was known to help soothe the aches and pains of the afflicted & ill.  married to an importer, she had a secret compartment configured into her make up bag, and smuggled vast amounts of opium to grateful physicians back in the states.

burt (a nickname for some flowery name that at the moment escapes me), married a fellow named hugo something-or-other, settled in a graceful estate in towson, maryland.  she hobnobbed with the opera diva rosa ponselle and that controversial wallis woman who stole the king of england.

lyle, a perky affectation of the more formal delilah, divorced her sugar plantation husband married a robust and jovial man named julius breitenbach.  his luck was two-fold: he had a heart as big as texas, and he inherited the fortunes of his family’s business: gude’s peptomangan.  home for these two was divided between park avenue in new york city, and an entire island a skip and a jump from alexandria bay, new york.

the adventurous and now comfortably well-off sisters had a sweet cousin, alice fortier, in chicago.  attending a dance at the alliance francaise, she met a dashing, intellectual older man. andre robitaille, visiting from montreal where he was a former member of the catholic brotherhood (we have a photo of him wearing a priest’s outfit), and teacher, the fellow was enchanted.  chatting the night away in french, the two soon fell in love, married, settling in chicago to began their family of four darling girls.

during the 30s, the happy house of the now editor and his family struggled, as did most of the country.  as an effort to give their daughters opportunities that were unavailable because of their circumstances, margot, irene and annette were intermittently sent to spend time with their exotic aunts on the east coast.  although the family ached to be apart from one another, the parents stood firm while depositing a 10 year old annette onto the train at the dearborn street station, bound on the overnight to baltimore.  the advice as they hugged her goodbye…”be a good girl, and go find some nice ladies to sit next to.”

thus, my mother spent her first of two years living in towson, taking riding lessons, eschewing her bratty cousin to play with the farmers roustabout children…all the while, missing her family sorely.  nixon, the limping butler who had suffered an injury in the great war, would arrive at the dining room table once prompted by bert’s toe discreetly pressing the button beneath the dining room table, and a chauffeur-driven grande automobile would often pick up little annette at the school.

the luxurious backdrop contrasted sharply with annette’s two simple frocks, worn every other day, and her tear-soaked pillows from missing the warmth and comfort of her father.  when returning home on a certain sunday in may, bert asked her niece where she had been.  “it was my 8th grade graduation today.”  need i say more?

the adventure away was interrupted by a terse demand to come home to see her father laid out in the living room, a make-shift funeral parlor back in the 40s.  stoic and brave, young nettie watched her relatives bellow and shriek from grief.  this little gal, hearty and strong, supported everyone else, and then made her way back, by train, to finish out the year in maryland.  but first, as a parting gift, her mother suggested that, in remembrance of her father, annette should now be called by her middle name, andree.

life went on, and the family of widow and her four daughters carried on as best as they could. during high school, andree worked at marshall fields on state street, in the gift court, handing her paycheck off to her mother each week.  irene, her best friend and older sister, suffered a nasty dose of rheumatic fever.  slowed down, but not to be trumped, she could be counted on to be andree’s partner in hilarity: the only way to survive such a childhood.

moving every year, their chicago teen years included bailing out a flooded basement apartment, having their uncle kick them out to make room for his litter of puppies; and sending all of their furniture out into the rain-soaked yard; & dodging incantations and splashes of unidentified liquids from a crazy lady who lived upstairs.  laughter made the whole thing much more fun!

several glorious summers, during the war, found andree and irene, together, spending the months with their aunt lyle and uncle jay.  here enters alexandria bay and the glorious thousand islands into our story!  living on maple island, uncle jay, after finding his house burned down to the ground, simply had the insanely large houseboat hauled up onto a foundation and called it home.

summers here were idyllic, and zany.  paddling a canoe over the choppy waters of the st. lawrence seaway, the sisters would venture to town to devour the books in the library, post letters, shop for notions, and go to church.  one day, they snuck off with a few of their aunt’s cigarettes, paddled all around the other side of maple island (against the current), tied it up to smoke.  alas, they had forgotten matches!

another outing via canoe, accompanied by their aunt’s dachsund, rhett butler, the girls explored the deserted neighboring heart island.  a magnificent castle built, nearly to completion by george boldt (of waldorf-astora & thousand island dressing fame) in the turn of the century. it stood, unfinished, boarded up and too inviting to pass up!  armed with paddles, dree, renee and rhett explored the entire castle, floor by floor, climbing as high as the rooftops to take glamorous fashion photographs.  making their way through the unopened crates of imported italian marble and exotic european imports intended to adorn the castle, rhett began barking and shrieking insanely.  looking in the direction of the dachsund’s beady and fierce eyes, the sisters watched a blue light eerily float down the stairs.  not staying around to welcome the ghost personally, they all dashed back to the canoe and paddled like crazy to get back to maple island in one piece.

graduation came, with college out of the question.  supporting one another and their mother, they set off on careers and marriage, along with children and suburban houses northwest of chicago.  partners through it all, they amazed at their good fortune to navigate from the first chapter of their lives into such happy times.

well, this part of the story always hurts to tell.  when andree married richard, she picked out lovely bridesmaids dresses.  richard’s sister, lynn, wore hers onstage in a summer stock production in texas one year.  elise wore hers at fancy parties in years to come.  and at 32, irene was buried in hers, with three young children and a husband left behind.

so, if you were andree, and your childhood neighborhood was now a pretty scary gang-infested area of chicago, pretty much the only place you could turn to for some vibrant and life-saving memories, you’d aim your car east and head straight for alexandria bay, new york.

and so it was, my childhood, plopped into the back of the buick station wagon, driving out to the thousand islands with my parents and my brothers and sisters.  the tour was, and is, always the same.  maple island; the southern end where they tried to smoke cigarettes; the cobbler where uncle jay paid to have new shoes made for all of the little boys and girls of the town when they couldn’t afford to buy new ones; the sturdy, stone-built library; the castle with it’s grand foyer, now rebuilt from the rickety ladder my mom and aunt used to clamber up on their trespassing adventures;  the basement with it’s eerie ghost-past; the church up the hill that refused to bury my mother’s aunt lyle because she was married to a jew.

in the thousand islands, renee is alive to my mom.  and here, my mom is a giggling teen, full of life and adventure and spirit and hijinx.

so, the layers are layered and my summers to the bay growing up are sprinkled with the summers that my mom spent, and her aunt spent, and now, my children have spent.

about twenty-five years ago, andree had just had it with the visiting aspect.  she announced to my dad that she was going to use her ‘fun fund’ and go buy a cottage in the thousand islands. never one to pass up a road trip, i volunteered to ride shotgun for this merry week spent in and around alexandria bay with my mom.  hopping into the realtor’s outboard, we boated from island to island, swearing we would not leave without nabbing a cottage!

so, welcome to tar island, on the canadian side of the st. lawrence across from alexandria bay, where my family soon set up a replica of the interiors and experience of my mother’s past in the thousand islands.  no television, we spent our evenings reading and playing board games and cards. a radio was permitted.  wicker furniture, a crazy collection of maple furniture and a pair of iron twin beds, dubbed the ‘cigarette beds’ as my mom and i picked them from a trash pile and traded two packs of pall mall’s to the owner for them!  adventures continued, another layer set in place.

i honeymooned there; i spent a crisp october amidst the chill of the north wind, warmed by the cozy blast of heat from the wood burning stove, pregnant with my first child; my parents watched noel catch his first fish from their dock & delighted in watching noel, hallie and corey run and climb amid the granite and hollyhocks, swimming in the inlet, and dutifully, each and every year through their later teen years, take the grand andree-led tour of the castle.

are there really a thousand islands?  we’ve never counted, but what we do have are more than a thousand sparkling wondrous, island-filled days, a story about the spin of life, the serendipity of a place, the path that three plucky sisters took that lead us all, happily and gratefully, to alexandria bay.

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