Throughout my childhood, August 1st meant Zavikon,
my maternal grandfather's marvelous summer house
in the Thousand Islands. Until he died in 1968, his family, or at least those of three of four daughters, and about thirteen grandchildren spent the first two weeks of August on the two islands in the middle of the St. Lawrence River between Alexandria Bay, New York and Rockport, Ontario. After Baba died we usually went the first two weeks of July and celebrated Canada Day and American Independence Day with our own fireworks display
on the smaller island.
Some of the happiest moments of my childhood were spent in Canada on those two islands, a bridge and boats with cousins, aunts and uncles, and ‘patriarch of righteous magnanimity.’ The big island was named ‘Zavikon,’ the smaller one, ‘Kiwa.’ Supposedly the two names together meant “Welcome to the Happy Wigwam” in Iroquois. But I think that was ‘20’s Jazz Age jive. My grandfather, Robert F. Rich-- for whom I was named-- had been a conservative, if not reactionary, Republican congressman for two decades. He was a successful industrialist in the middle of the Great Depression. (He probably would have disowned me, had he known I was gay).
Anyway, at Zavikon we had lots of traditions and rituals. Every day started with all the grandchildren waiting outside Baba's bedroom. After his bath, he would open the door, then the cousins would hold his, and each other's hands, and process down the staircase. All would sing lustily and out of tune: "Old soldiers never die, never die.......they just fade away." (He had been suitably impressed with Douglas MacArthur's farewell to Congress). The irony was that my grandfather had never been a soldier, and it just wasn't true: old soldiers do die. But somehow it's all right.
At birth, the only certainty is that each one of us receives a death sentence. What's important is the time in between. Zavikon was a magical place. At one time I wanted my ashes smuggled up there and put in the flower gardens. (I guess I still do. And with Dennis' example, there will be plenty to go around and still officially reside in the North Tower at Grace Cathedral.)
Baba had spent his honeymoon in the Thousand Islands, and always retained a warm place in his heart for that part of the world. (Too bad his daughters had cold blood and cold feet and so passed up the opportunity to buy the place for a song in ’75.) Just after the war, in the mid 40's, Baba had purchased that wonderful pair of islands smack in the middle of the St. Lawrence River with the small bridge connecting the two.
After only one year, he realized the upkeep was exorbitant, so he sold it to his own company and continued to use it one month each year -- the first two weeks in August for the family and two weeks in September for his fishing buddies. (I still maintain that we cousins could have maintained the place ourselves. That would have meant that vacations would have been working vacations, but it would have been well worth it. But as Uncle Charlie said at the time: “Life is made up of epochs. Zavikon was but one. Life goes on to the next one.”)
Cousin Charlie and I shared a bed on the third floor dormitory all the way through elementary school. (I remember how Mother later protested: “I never thought that was a good idea!” As though that would have made any difference in my orientation.) There were four single bedrooms at the ends, and two bathrooms.
I have one of the framed engravings that used to be on the dormitory wall. I took it when the place was for sale; but only because somebody else had already pinched the companion picture. The caption for the one I have, reads: “When a man’s single, he lives at his ease.” The other said: “When a man’s married, his wife’s never pleased.” Whoever took it should have taken them both. I don’t like to break up sets. Since mine shows the man slouching in his chair, I’ve hung it on the inside door of the water closet on 23rd Street.
At Zavikon, we had two formal meals a day around that huge table in the dining room next to the living room, divided by handsome Tuscan Doric columns. Breakfast was at 9:00 and dinner at 4:00. That allowed time for eighteen holes of golf after breakfast - and with daylight savings - another eighteen after dinner.
I caddied for Baba in Canada in the summer. I’ve never really cared for the game. You can say that golf is a form of socialization, a venue for business deals, a way to enjoy the outdoors, a physical and a mental game, a form of Zen --one shot at a time-- a competition against yourself, and so forth; but ultimately it’s about hitting that ball into a hole, and to be any good at it takes more time than I’m willing to devote.
Ibby was known to play round after round. I think the most she ever played was four rounds of eighteen holes in one day – that’s 72 holes of golf! Up at Zavikon, as it grew dark and Dad waited for her in the ‘Fishing Boat’ or the ‘Woolrich,’ Mother lit matches in order to finish putting her last hole.
Unlike Mother, Dad was not a passionate golfer. He would rather drive the boats and take the nieces and nephews to Alexandria Bay. He loved to buy us ice cream, candy, hot dogs, popcorn. He, too, loved to eat. It was hard for him when he started having a sugar problem. But he figured he could just take a pill, and cheat with a hot fudge sundae.
I think Dad enjoyed driving the ‘Fishing Boat’, even more than the ‘Zavikon’, that 1955 mahogany Chris-Craft, like the one crashed in the film “On Golden Pond.” The fishing boat was a sleek, long and narrow mahogany craft indigenous to the Thousand Islands. It had a steering stick, instead of a steering wheel. Forward was right, backward, left; or I guess I really should say, starboard and port. (I’m sure you already know that ‘posh’ originally meant “port out, starboard home” for Brits going to and from Indja.)
Dad could be impulsive, nonchalant, and sometimes in a hurry at the same time.
Another word might be careless. I guess that word by itself could have several implications. I think they all applied to my Dad, Sherry. One summer when the water was higher than usual, Dad took the 'Zavikon' over some rocks on the way back to the boathouse, and lost the propeller. Uncle Charlie later dived and retrieved it. The propeller was damaged and twisted. Uncle Charlie had it brass plated, bolted a curved hammered metal piece to it, and gave it to Dad as an ashtray for Christmas. I still have it in San Francisco.
As of March 1, 2003, there is no more U.S. Customs Service; we are now the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection within the Department of Homeland Security (even, the Trade side). But back in the Zavikon days, we had to deal with Customs almost every day. For years, we did our grocery shopping in Alexandria Bay and brought them back directly to Zavikon. However, the house and boathouses were in Canada. In fact, both islands were in Canada, despite the claims about the bridge and the huge American flag on the smaller island. It’s true the international marker was on the smaller island, but maps showed the actual boundary was 20 feet or so off Kiwa.
Eventually we learned that if we bought groceries on the American side, we would have to go all the way to Canadian Customs in Rockport before returning to Zavikon. That would be as if you lived on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, and bought something in North Beach, and then had to go all the way to Oakland before returning to Treasure Island. From then on, we did our grocery shopping in Canada. When the Heisey’s joined us after Baba died, Helen preferred going to Gananoque anyway. It had wonderful wool and china outlet stores—good restaurants, too.
For several years in my adolescence, I expected August 1st to be my wedding day. My best friend as a child was our dentist's second daughter, Beth Heisey. Ken and Helen Heisey were my parents' best friends. Certainly, Helen was my Dad's. But Mother and Ken played golf together, and all four were regular bridge partners -- that is, Ken Heisey and Ibbie Bell; Sherry Bell and Helen Heisey.
It just made sense that I would marry Beth some day. And since Ken & Helen were married on July 1st, and Sherry and Ibbie on September 1st ... well, you get the picture. Of course it didn't work out. And it would have been a disaster. Still it was a schoolboy fantasy of mine for several years. As you've gathered, I have a thing for anniversaries. So I still think of August 1st as a special day for me... a little like the Coronation of Edward the Eighth.
Ever since I was a child I wanted to have my ashes eventually reside in the flower gardens at Zavikon. But now I have a paid spot reserved for me next to Dennis in the North Tower Columbarium at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Perhaps there will be enough to spread around.