When Shelter Island got over two feet of snow on Tuesday, The Northforker picked up my piece on snow sports Shelter Island-style, which originally appeared in the Suffolk-Times Holiday supplement. Read it here.
When Shelter Island got over two feet of snow on Tuesday, The Northforker picked up my piece on snow sports Shelter Island-style, which originally appeared in the Suffolk-Times Holiday supplement. Read it here.
Mimi Brennan with granddaughter Kara keeping an eye on her from the end table.
Published in the Shelter Island Reporter on January 22,2015
Mimi Brennan is a woman in charge.
Directing a visitor to make herself comfortable, she said, “Sit anywhere. Just not on the pinecones.”
Mimi was feeling provocative, one minute threatening to smoke a cigarette, the next showing off a series of yoga moves she learned in Jean Lawless’s class at the Silver Circle Social Club. “I’m 85 and look what I can do,” she said.
An Island mover and shaker for over 30 years, she’s been at the center of volunteer life with the Senior Citizens Foundation of Shelter Island, the Silver Circle Social Club, the League of Women Voters and Mashomack Preserve among others. She has written the Island Seniors column for the Reporter for over 16 years. In 2005, Mimi was honored with the Shelter Island Lions Club Citizenship Award.
Born in Brooklyn in 1929, she grew up in Valley Stream, seven years older than her sister Sue, and 12 years older than brother Michael.
She remembered listening to the radio with her parents when Franklin Roosevelt said the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and the day would “live in infamy.”
Her mother, Agnes Gross, was “a tough old bird,” she said. “She had a lot of great sayings. If you sneezed she’d say, ‘Your brains are dusty.’”
Mimi claims she caught the eye of her future husband, James F. Brennan Jr., when she appeared in a second grade play at St. Agnes School, and fourth grader Jay (as she called him) remarked to a friend, “Oh, isn’t she cute.” They didn’t date until high school, and shortly thereafter he enlisted in the Navy at the end of World War II, shipping out to the Pacific.
Mimi and Jay married in July of 1951 in Rockville Centre on a Saturday and “went away” that afternoon to the Shelter Island home of Mimi’s Aunt Gertrude and Uncle Arthur who had offered their summer cottage for the honeymoon. Gertrude and Arthur arrived the next day, to the surprise of the newlyweds. “We thought we’d have a week at least,” she said.
Nine months later, their first child, James F. Brennan III was born. Elected to the New York Assembly in 1984, he has served for over 30 years, representing the 44th District in Brooklyn.
Their second child, William, born in 1962, served in the Army, studied Russian at the Monterey Language School in California and now teaches social studies and Russian in New Jersey at Sparta High School. His 13-year-old daughter, Kara, said Mimi, “is the light of my life.”
For two decades, starting in 1963, Mimi taught in the New York City public schools, first as a substitute teacher at Washington Irving High School near Union Square. Although trained as an English teacher, she decided to teach speech therapy, and found she enjoyed helping the children with lisps, stutters and other impairments.
Her parents had a summer place on the Island, and she told Jay they should, too. When they met with the owner of a Westmoreland Farm property that was for sale, “We said we would like to buy, but we don’t have money,” Mimi said. “He said, ‘That doesn’t matter because you are a nice Irish family.’”
Summers and weekends, the Brennans inhabited a place crawling with children, many from very large families. “The people in the boathouse had eight, the Careys had 14 kids, we had two, my friend Christine had five,” she said. “The children moved like a pack. They would start out in the morning at one house and move from one to another over the course of the day.”
In the early 1970s, Mimi, Jay, their son Bill and an enormous cat named Godzilla moved to Tokyo when, she said, Jay was Asia editor for Time-Life Books.
It was an adventure for the whole family, especially Bill, who appeared on a Japanese Kellogg’s Corn Flakes box. She said, “He was a handsome guy, and the Japanese wanted him to promote ‘Breakfast American-Style.’”
During the years in Tokyo, she gave English conversation lessons to the Tokyo editors who were her husband’s colleagues and reveled in the life of the American ex-pat community. She recalled going with a friend to see tennis matches between the Japanese crown prince and the Russian ambassador. “The Russian ambassador was quite heavy and got red from exertion and my friend and I called him the pink pig,” she said. “He always lost.”
In Tokyo, she believed her teenage son was going to school every day, until she received a call from a policeman who said, in shaky English, “I have the body.” Mimi and Jay rushed in a panic to the Akishima Police Station where they found their son chatting with the police.
He had been picked up, along with two friends, for riding a motorcycle without a helmet. Mimi said, “Bill had spent most of his high school years in Japan in the coffeehouses and I didn’t know it.”
Jay’s work was high-powered and his health failed. In 1979, their time in Tokyo ended abruptly when he suffered cardiac arrest and was diagnosed with end stage renal failure. She brought him home to New York. Jay died a few months later at the age of 55.
Mimi did not remarry. “One husband,” she said, “is enough.”
In the early 1980s, she taught speech and conversation skills in adult education classes in East Harlem. Although the goal was to teach skills that would lead to better jobs, many of the students couldn’t read. “But teaching reading wasn’t what the people in charge wanted us to do,” she said.
Unsatisfied with teaching only conversation, she said, “One student had come up from the South where she had actually picked cotton. She wanted to go for job interviews, but I thought she could learn to read. So I began teaching them to read. You never say somebody can’t do something.”
Mimi doesn’t call her work volunteering. She calls it payback. “People need to pay back for the life they have lived,” she said. “For the beauty of the place where they have lived. They owe it to the world.”
Since 1985, Mimi has been active at Mashomack as a board member and volunteer. Working at the Visitor Center on Sunday morning is still her favorite “payback,” especially when it means talking to the youngest visitors. “I don’t tell them the preserve is 2,039 acres because they don’t know what an acre is. I tell them to walk in the woods, to watch for the birds, to look out for the turtles. It is my sincere wish that they will learn about nature by walking here.”
Well into her 80s, Mimi participated in the annual Turkey Plunge, a fundraiser to benefit the Shelter Island Public Library, appearing several years in a red wig, a body stocking and a bikini and wading into the frigid waters at Louis’ Beach right up to her ankles.
Now that’s payback.
COURTESY PHOTO All in the family. The Bankesters in concert. The band, which will perfom Saturday night in the Shelter Island School auditorium, received the Independent Music Award for Best Bluegrass Album in 2014.
Published in the Shelter Island Reporter on January 15, 2015
A clan of two parents, three daughters, a son-in-law, six dogs, and two cats are set to rock the Island Saturday night.
Meet the Bankesters of Carbondale, Illinois, arriving at the Shelter Island School auditorium with another important number — three Top 20 Bluegrass albums of the year. Daughter Emily won the first International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Momentum Award for Vocalist of the Year in 2012, and their latest release, “Love Has Wheels” won the Independent Music Award for Best Bluegrass Album in 2014.
Before they packed the van, Phil Bankester (“Daddy” to his band mates), arranged for daughters Melissa Triplett and Emily Bankester to talk to the Reporter about their family and their music. Phil and Dorene Bankester, and daughters Melissa, Emily and Alysha have been performing for about a decade, but they’ve been singing together since before there was a family.
“My dad sang to my mom when he was trying to get her to fall in love with him,” Melissa said. “It started everything off.”
Eight years apart, Melissa is the oldest at 27, Emily next, and Alysha is 19. “I can’t remember a time when we didn’t sing,” Melissa said, “We grew up hearing harmony, singing together.”
Those harmonies will be on full display Saturday night. In what has become a tradition, 2015 will be the 20th year a bluegrass concert has graced the Island. The moving spirit behind bringing Appalachia east has been Tom Hashagen.
Concerts were held every year beginning in 2004, but with no fixed date or season. It wasn’t until 2007 that the concert found its place on the Saturday of Martin Luther King’s birthday weekend, where it has remained ever since. Garth Griffin, the town’s Recreation Committee coordinator, was helpful in getting the town involved for several years, especially with ticket production and sales, Mr. Hashagen said. And Sylvester Manor has helped recently with getting the word out for one of the great events of the Island’s winter.
Mr. Hashagen will be kicking off the concert Saturday night, fronting the band Large Print Edition, opening for the Bankesters, playing pop songs with emphasis on the American Songbook. Large Print Edition is a “new, old band” said Mr. Hashagen, who will play guitar, along with Dan Skabeikis on fiddle, Doug Broder on bass and Lisa Shaw, vocals and piano.
The Bankester’s first recorded in 2005, a family act with adorable vocalists, the youngest of whom was 9 years old. To grow as a band, they had to “get past the cute family factor,” Melissa said.
In 2007, Melissa met Kyle Triplett at a music festival, and soon the family had a son as well as a banjo.
“Kyle brought true bluegrass into what we were doing,” said daddy Phil. “He’s just a phenomenal banjo player.”
As for the cute family factor, Melissa said, “I think we are past it. We’re not really all that cute anymore.”
On that point, there may be dissent.
Melissa and Emily described how they chose material for their new album; a process similar to the way some families decide what to put in the cart at the grocery store. “Each of us girls brings two songs that we’ll be able to sing lead on,” Emily said. “Then we bring it all to the table and everyone gets a say.”
Melissa and Kyle wrote two songs on the new album, “Love Has Wheels.” Melissa said of her song writing, “I like to hear emotion coming across in a song and it’s easier to write that if you are coming from a place of real feeling.”
The inspiration for “Time and Love” came when Melissa was up in the middle of the night comforting the couples’ 19-month-old baby in the wee hours. Unable to fall back to sleep herself, she wrote some beautiful lyrics about holding back time. The next morning, Kyle read them and heard a great bluegrass song.
A local organization in Illinois called This Able Veteran, which pairs service dogs with veterans struggling with physical disabilities such as PTSD, asked the Bankesters to write a song about their organization. Melissa and Kyle responded with the song, “Found.” The chorus of that song, “You’ve taken what was lost and now I’m found,” described the way a good dog can help a veteran negotiate daily life.
Emily and Melissa agree that performing and traveling together has been rewarding. “We have been blessed to actually like our family,” Emily said. “The three of us girls are just best friends. We can be on the road for 10 days and come home and still want to hang out together.”
They’ve heard tell that such harmony does not abide in all families. “That’s what we have been told,” said Emily. “No, we did not know that.”
On Friday, January 16, the Bankesters will conduct a bluegrass workshop at the Shelter Island School for grades 8 through 12. The workshop is made possible by grants obtained by Keith Brace and Jessica Bosak from the Shelter Island Educational Foundation and the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA.)
Published in the Shelter Island Reporter on January 8, 2015
Susan Cincotta came to Shelter Island from New York City in the 1980s, pretty, adept at putting on accents, fresh from the roles of waitress and starving actor. She did not wear blue jeans.
Through three decades of Island life she married, built a home, raised two children, established herself as an outstanding real estate professional and learned to fish. She wore jeans.
In life, as in trousers, Susan believed in moving forward.
Raised on Long Island in a big Italian family, Susan’s father, Giuseppe Cincotta came to the United States from Italy and married Susan’s mother, Fortunata. The couple — known as Flo and Joe — had five children: Angela, Angelo, Salvatore, Giuseppe and Susan.
Susan was supposed to be Josephina, until her parents laid eyes on her and decided it didn’t fit. “They said, ‘Oh my God, we’ve done the impossible. We’ve given birth to an American,’” Susan said. They named her for the most American song they could think of, “Oh Susanna.”
In October 2012, as Hurricane Sandy shut down the East Coast, Susan and her family went ahead with her father Joseph’s funeral on Long Island amid downed trees, battered umbrellas and wind-scattered flowers.
Afterward they gathered at her mother’s house without electricity or cellphones to mourn their patriarch and celebrate a life well lived. More than one family member observed that he picked a heck of a time to pass away. “It wasn’t Hurricane Sandy,” Susan said, “It was Hurricane Joe.”
Susan went in her own direction from an early age, the only one in the family who wanted to be an actor. She studied theater at Stony Brook University and finished her college credits at the Manhattan Theater Club.
The life of an aspiring actor in New York in the 1980s was tough. “I starved,” Susan said. “No two ways about it.”
She worked for a theatrical publisher updating the “Producers Masterguide,” a reference book for filmmakers, and found she was good at running the telephone gauntlet of assistants and secretaries to get to the producers and directors with the information she needed for the publication.
It was in her East Side neighborhood that Susan met Gregory Fehrm, a transplanted New Yorker from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, who was working in the garment district. They fell in love and she brought him out to Shelter Island for a summertime visit. “He didn’t want to leave,” Susan said. “He loved the fishing and the lifestyle, he wanted to be a lobsterman. He embraced Shelter Island year round.”
By May of 1985, they were married and living on the Island. In addition to lobstering out of Montauk, Greg was a volunteer fireman and Emergency Medical Technician with a strong belief in giving back to the community he loved. Susan and Greg bought land on Midway Road and built their home.
She worked as a real estate broker on the East End, starting shortly after she settled here. A top salesperson, she credits her mother’s example. “My mother has a 100 percent sales ratio,” Susan said.
“Her product is food. Even if you come to her house having just eaten a 12-course meal, you will not leave without eating something.”
Real estate paid the bills, but acting has always been an important part of life for Susan on Shelter Island, as a performer and as a volunteer. Shortly after she and Greg settled here, she auditioned for the Shelter Island Players’ production of “Dial M for Murder,” thinking she’d be lucky to land a bit part. “I came home and said, ‘I got the lead!’ and Greg said, ‘Are you crazy? Did you tell them you are pregnant?’”
She had not.
Her condition was revealed, and a solution was found; “They borrowed a couch, so I could walk behind it, and my obstetrician choreographed the scene of the murder so I wouldn’t get hurt,” said Susan.
Their daughter, Rachel, and son, Victor, were born and raised on Shelter Island. Rachel and her daughter, Juliana, also settled here. Victor is a finance manager in Florida.
Susan faced significant challenges over the years, coping as a single mother when Greg became seriously ill. With her nearest relatives 65 miles away, she relied heavily on the Shelter Island community — and the hardware store. Susan said, “Once the washing machine broke, the phone rang, and it was a friend. I told her, ‘I need a man.’ And she said, ‘you don’t need a man, you need WD-40. And go turn the damn water main off.’”
Susan credits Greg with teaching her the importance of community before he passed away in 2005. “Living on an island you have to get to know your neighbors,” Susan said. “You are all drinking from the same glass of water.” She is on the Board of the Chamber of Commerce, a regular volunteer for the Mashomack Dinner Dance and volunteers as an acting coach for Shelter Island School productions.
In 2012, Susan performed in a staged reading of “Love, Loss, and What I Wore” to a standing ovation at the Shelter Island Library. That production, directed by Terry Brockbank and also featuring Linda Betjeman, Kathy Brockbank, Jenifer Maxson and Sara Mundy, will be reprised at the North Fork Community Theatre on February 14 and 15.
Susan’s next stage appearance will be in “Mom, It’s My Wedding!” — a play for which she was also a muse. “I found out the hysterical monologue playwright Ilene Beckerman wrote was with me in mind,” she said, Susan will perform in the Southampton Cultural Center Stage production from January 15 to February 1.
She treasures the pace and texture of life on Shelter Island, even if moving forward sometimes takes patience.
Here, she said, the rules of the road are different: “In the traffic circle, you don’t just yield to the left, you yield first to your mother’s friends, then to your father’s friends. Turtles, deer, birds, raccoons all have right of way. Never stop for turkeys, they will part. Two cars stopped going opposite directions? That’s a Shelter Island conversation. Does anyone beep? No, you stop and wait.”
Published in Northforker Holiday 2014 Supplement
Although I am a grown woman, snow in the forecast makes me very happy. I have cross-country skis.
It only takes two or three inches of white stuff to ski on Shelter Island. Last winter, that was no problem from Christmas right through March. The 2014/2015 Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts another winter of above-normal snowfall for our area.
“Out here, people often hunker down in a snowstorm,” said Holly Cronin, a Shelter Island resident who has skied all over the Northeast “When you ski, you get the joy of being outdoors in the snow, and even on a cold day, you will sweat.”
The only officially-designated cross-country trails on Shelter Island are at Mashomack Preserve. Bring your own skis or snowshoes, and don’t expect groomed trails, snowmaking or much company.
“It’s whatever Nature provides,” Cindy Belt, Education Coordinator at Mashomack said, “On the weekends, there might be half a dozen people in a day.”
Shelter Island resident Kim Reilly agreed.
“The difference skiing at Mashomack, that I haven’t experienced elsewhere, is the sense of being completely alone and surrounded by nature.”
In the summer, dense foliage hides Miss Annie’s Creek, one of the most charming bodies of water on the Island, but in winter, glimpses of the creek show through bare trees. “You really appreciate the ups and downs, the hills and valleys,” Belt said.
A six-mile cross-country loop consists of parts of the Mashomack trail system connected by a section open only during the winter. For a 10-mile loop, add the longer (and bumpier) “Blue” trail. Mashomack is open 9am to 4pm October through February and closed Tuesdays. In January, the Visitor Center is open only on the weekends.
When the first flakes fly, and school is out, the entire able-bodied population of Shelter Island heads for Goat Hill, also known as The Shelter Island Country Club. A nine-hole public golf course, it boasts the highest point of land on the Island, with spectacular views.
The last time I “Skied the Goat” it was crawling with sledders, including my sons. I kept to the middle of the fairways making a long loop around the course. Swooshing past the bottom of the hill, I avoided human missiles on unsteerable contraptions like giant salad bowls. I loved every minute.
Sylvester Manor Educational Farm is a 243-acre property laced with footpaths and trails that wind through farmland and woods with views of Gardiner’s Creek. Executive Director Cara Loriz said that although they have not yet established cross-country ski trails, they welcome wintertime visitors, provided they call first.
A fireplace is an important amenity after a day of skiing. Two Shelter Island inns with fireplaces are open in the winter: The Ram’s Head Inn, with fireplaces in the lobby, bar area and restaurant, and the House on Chase Creek with a fireplace-equipped suite.
If you go:
Mashomack Preserve, 47 South Ferry Rd., 631-749-1001
Shelter Island Country Club, 26 Sunnyside Ave.
Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, 80 North Ferry Rd., 631-749-0626
Published in The New York Times on December 17, 2014
My mother had invited us on an all-expense-paid beach vacation at a resort in France. There was just one problem. As I told my sons in our living room, “It’s a nude resort.”
“I’m out,” the younger one, then 12, said.
“No way,” said his 15-year-old brother.
Always putting our children’s welfare first, my husband added, “No boy should have to see his grandmother naked.”
My parents, former groovy college professors, had gone to this resort for years. It wasn’t hard to understand that skinny-dipping in those quiet waters made them feel free and young. But my father had died two years before and my mother, now a slim, attractive 71-year-old widow, wanted to relive her best times, with children and grandchildren in tow. Any daughter with a shred of decency would do this for her mother.
So, easily handling the lightest travel bag I had ever packed, I found myself standing at the gate of a nudist colony at Leucate, France, on a blazing July day, sweating through a cotton shirt. Somewhere inside the gates, my mother, younger sisters and their four female children had already settled into the rental apartment. (Unlike me, my sisters weren’t fazed by this vacation. They both became college professors, too, and although they didn’t walk around their homes without clothing, I’m pretty sure I was the only one of us who had ever worn pantyhose.)
As I walked through the complex, looking for my relatives, I saw families enjoying the pool and the beach, sitting on benches — all naked except for sunglasses and chalky dabs of sunscreen. People stared at my clothing. A bare man on his balcony, apparently doing some home repair, put down his power drill and regarded me sourly. Finally, I heard my mother, walking briskly toward me, calling my name. I hugged her loosely, not daring to squeeze or look down.
Leucate is not the Riviera. Its nudist beaches are a destination for budget vacationers, mostly European families, who prefer to relax undressed. I learned that in this place, covered skin was forbidden outside the apartment. If you wanted to wear a burlap sack inside, go ahead. Outside, it was rude not to be nude. Nobody even thought of trying to go for a dip in the pool wearing a swimsuit.
I decided to wear clothes inside our beachside rental. One of my nieces wore her underwear in solidarity with me. In some ways, this was like our usual family reunions: I was the cook, in a shirt and apron. In other respects it was different: the complete absence of our husbands and sons, and having to get undressed to go outside.
On the beach each morning, I spread out a towel and lay on the sand, looking like a cod fillet in a fish market. A fillet with stretch marks and an odd pattern of moles across my middle. How I longed to wrap the towel around myself.
The resort operated an entire buff village, with stores, a laundry (not that there was much to wash) and even a restaurant. We never ate there, but it must have been upscale because at the tables, each chair had a thin round of tissue paper (presumably disposable) for the comfort of bare-bottomed diners.
When we ran out of fresh fruit, I went into the small grocery store. “Maybe I’m starting to adjust,” I thought, as I shopped haunch to haunch with the other customers. I bought a small watermelon, and found that my imperfect French embarrassed me more than the sight of my breasts as I forked over the euros.
But after I got back to the apartment and cut into the fruit — so perfect on the outside — I found it was rotten within. My thriftiness overwhelmed my modesty, and I removed my T-shirt, stripped off my briefs and marched back to the store. If it was hard to buy produce without clothing and with a poor command of the language, it was more difficult to return it. Perhaps the poignant sight of a flat-chested, middle-aged American woman seeking to buy a voluptuous French melon melted the icy heart of the clerk. She found me another watermelon.
As I made my way back to the apartment, I passed an outdoor shower, where beachgoers rinsed off before going inside. A man about my age, balanced on one leg, was carefully rinsing the sand off his other leg — a prosthetic that he held under the shower like a baby.
This was the moment when I should have accepted my public nudity. After all, if a one-legged man is O.K. with his body, then a dermatologically challenged woman should be O.K. too. I was not.
I could guess why my parents loved this place. This trip was my mother’s gift; a way to show me the beautiful people she and my dad had been when they were together.
But instead of being grateful, I was anxious, lumpy, not the least groovy. The sight of my mother’s bare body made me as dizzy as the sight of my own blood. It was too much truth.
Still, as a devoted daughter, I would do anything for my mother. Once.
The next summer, my husband and I took our boys on vacation to the Canadian Rockies. I stuffed my luggage with socks, thermal underwear and an enormous flannel nightgown. I wore every single garment. My skin never saw daylight.