Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Good People of Island Watch by Ken Sieben

Though the modest, two-storied house atop Hudson Hill has been owned by George Brisbin since 1996, and, for two years before that, by the widow of Richard Courtney, it is still known as ‘the old Colbert place.’ It was built by master carpenter Lyle Thomas Colbert in 1927 for his bride, who died in 1980, and daughter, who died giving birth to Lyle’s only grandson in 1945. Lyle himself lived until 1993, the same age as his century. The house sits atop the highest point on the east coast south of Maine, with a 180-degree view of the Atlantic Ocean, Sandy Hook, The Waterwitch Municipal Harbor, the Earle Naval Ammunition Pier, the Nolford fishing village, Sandy Hook Bay, Lower New York Bay, Romer Shoals Lighthouse, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, Staten Island, Coney Island, the Manhattan and Brooklyn skylines, and (on a clear day) as far northeast as Fire Island.

George, a noted local architect, restored it to its original mission style beauty, removing the three coats of garish pastel paint with which the Widow Courtney had desecrated the original built-in stained oak cabinets, bookshelves, paneled window alcoves, and peanutstone fireplace, and removing the wall-to-wall carpeting, then re-finishing the oak floors. A bachelor till fifty-six, two years ago George married the Widow Keegan, Joan having resumed her maiden name five years after the death of her first (and second) husband, Walter Martin (more about whom later). Joan is four years George’s senior, a mother of two, grandmother of two, and great-grandmother of a five-year-old, yet she remains one of the finest-looking (and, by my observation, happiest) women in Waterwitch.

How do I know all these facts about other families, you are (I am certain) wondering? Allow me to introduce myself: Paul Parnell, seventy-one, at your service. As proprietor of the only hardware store in town for the past fifty years (also Elder of Hudson Hill Presbyterian Church and member of the Chamber of Commerce), I am privy to a great deal of personal information. I know almost every resident. I have fixed or installed things in half the houses. Most customers seem to feel a need to explain why they need an item only I carry. I learn which family member broke a cabinet handle or walked through a screen door or spilled a can of paint, what he (or she) was thinking about that caused distraction, and a status report on that and every other family member. I know, as well, the business of the members of my congregation and that of the other business members of the Chamber as well as much of their personal business. My mistress, the enchanting Darlene Kaye, now sixty-seven but still looking twenty years younger and acting thirty or forty years younger in bed, is a semi-retired realtor who still knows the value of and latest offers on, not only these Island Watch Condominiums (in one of which I live as her guest), but every piece of property in Lenape County. My older son, Russell, a local lawyer, and my younger son, Robert, a local CPA, could tell me far more details about their clients’ legal and financial situations than they ought.

Please don’t misunderstand; I do not gossip. I keep most of what I know to myself. I would never destroy a reputation through knowledge acquired in the aforementioned ways. I do, however, from time to time, make certain that people like you are informed of the meritorious behavior of some of our neighbors. When I see good people doing good things unto others, I feel a need to share. God, (if He ((She?))) exists, knows, really good people are a rarity, though not as much a rarity as most of us might believe. Further, some people do evil things but then repent of their ways. Think Isaac and Esau. I’m long a post-Christian, but I remember my Bible, Old and New.

Walter Martin was an example of the latter type. After fourteen years of an apparently happy marriage to Joan, he began to cheat on her. He had come to find her boring and predictable. Instead of encouraging her to try new, more exciting modes of expression and mutual affection, he simply sought the company of other, more lively, women. He continued going through the motions of marriage for another three years before walking out on her one evening during dinner. Within moments, he accepted an invitation for a boat ride with my Darlene and wound up making love with her twice. (The lovely Darlene has always been promiscuous by most people’s standards, yet she has her rules. Even during the summer of 1989 when my own ex-wife Justine deserted me, Darlene would not consider inviting me into her bed until my divorce was final. She accepted Walter because she truly ((but, for once, incorrectly)) believed that his love for Joan was gone forever.)
Most of you know the rest of their story, so I shall skip the details. Suffice it to say that Walter restored discipline to his life, developed a lucrative computer program, re-gained his self-respect, and managed to impregnate Joan again when he came down for their daughter Carolyn’s graduation. Walter and Joan re-married and had a son, Paul, sixteen months younger than their granddaughter.

Joan was a lonely, sad woman in the three years between her marriages to Walter. She took up gardening to occupy the long spring and summer days and, with guidance from me as to seeds, plants, fertilizers, containers, and varying watering requirements, became rather adept. She won the first of seven Island Watch Garden of the Year Awards the summer seventeen-year-old (unmarried and un-boyfriended) Carolyn was carrying Lisa. Joan also started swimming, jogging, and playing tennis again that summer. She apparently had finally adjusted to life without Walter and was looking forward to being a young grandmother. Of course, I knew her only as a customer then, not as a neighbor, since I moved in with Darlene six months before Joan moved out of Island Watch and into the old Colbert place with George.
It is what Joan did with her money that I want to share with you. Mind you, I got much of this information from Joan herself who came to me a few times for financial advice because she knew I had long owned a number of rental properties. She apparently was merely seeking a second opinion. She had always confided in Betty Tucker during the three years Walter was away. After remarriage, however, Joan was so impressed with Walter’s business acumen that she didn’t question his judgments. He never made a decision without consulting her, but she always trusted his ideas.
For example, he had earned almost a million dollars in profits from the expert financial management system he and his partner had developed. When he sold out and returned to New Jersey to teach at Rutgers, he transferred the entire sum to his teachers’ retirement fund. He continued generating and investing royalties from the program. At his death, his pension was worth, as near as I can guestimate from Joan’s hints, about a million and a half, and the condo, which they owned free and clear, (according to Darlene) close to a million more.

The newly widowed Joan turned to Ted Harmon, whose wife had died four years earlier, the difference being that Ellen Austin-Harmon had been the corporate climber, the young vice-president, the owner of insurance, pension, and stock options, while Ted was a struggling freelance photographer. He had already had to muddle through her portfolio of financial plans and offered Joan his services if she became as confused as he had been for a couple of years. She felt as grateful for his empathy as for his advice but continued to discuss money matters with Betty (who had realized at the start of her long marriage to Tom that she had better learn to manage because he, a gym teacher and athletic director and all-around nice guy, knew as much about money as about ancient Phoenician cuneiform tablet writing).

Joan gradually grew attracted to Ted, though, and after the birth of her great-grandson, Walter Martin Boykin, resumed her maiden name. “If I ever marry again,” she told me with a quiet, confident smile that I took to mean that she was definitely considering re-marriage, “I don’t want to replace Walter’s name, but it would be unfair to my new husband if I retained my old husband’s name.”
Betty died three years after Walter, and two years later Ted became engaged to a woman he’d met on a trip to Italy. He sold his condo and moved to Florida with his bride. That event pretty much threw Joan and Tom together, for mutual financial advice. They soon grew quite comfortable with and emotionally dependent on each other and gradually discovered they were both considering marriage. To test their compatibility, Joan suggested they take a three-week SeniorTours trip through the Mayan country in the Yucatan Peninsula. She argued that her three-week Chesapeake cruise with Walter had brought out the best in both of them. Tom showed his best, also, by saving the life of a falling elderly woman at the expense of his own. Joan told me she felt widowed a second time before she had even married him.
Joan, heartbroken a third time, tried to draw closer to her family for solace. She realized she herself was aging and could die at any time from unexpected cancer like Walter or in an unexpected accident like Tom. So could Carolyn, Chris, even Lisa. She spoke privately with Carolyn and suggested she had an obligation to Lisa to identify her biological father. No-one else, not even Joan, had to know, but Lisa should have the opportunity. Carolyn finally agreed. On Lisa’s twenty-first birthday, December 2, 2007, Carolyn arranged for them to meet at a picnic table by the harbor and, after formal introductions, left father and daughter alone to get acquainted. Lisa herself told me about the meeting, though she refused to say anything about her father except that they immediately felt a mutual affection and respect and that they agreed to keep the relationship their secret. “My father also said,” she told me, “that his wife insisted he pass on to me the news of an opening for a Pastry Chef at the four-star restaurant where she works as Soup-and-Salad Chef.”

“And why so?” I asked, knowing the answer, but looking forward to the joy of Lisa’s telling it.

“My husband, Mike, is a pastry chef looking for a permanent job.”

Joan, pleased that Carolyn had acted on her advice, was happy to learn from Lisa that she had established a positive relationship with her biological father without harming her loving relationship with Chris Powell, her adoptive father. Joan took as much comfort as she could in her family. She vaguely prayed for enlightenment to the Catholic God she still vaguely believed in, despite the vicissitudes of life. Joan was especially happy for having had the privilege of being loved unconditionally by her husband during their second marriage. She was also grateful for having had the opportunity to begin to feel loving affection for Ted and a genuine love for Tom. Then, though, at fifty-one, she knew she must learn to forget the longing for romantic love. Her duties were toward her children, grandchildren, and great-grandson.

In April 2008, Joan’s sister Catherine died of heart failure. At the funeral, the entire family was surprised to make the acquaintance of George Brisbin, the architect who had been contracted by the owner of the Riverton apartment building where Catherine lived to explain the planned alterations to the residents and elicit their opinions. Kate had mentioned George to Joan once, but she hadn’t realized how well acquainted they had become. George knew all of Catherine’s relatives by name and age, and they all took an immediate liking to him.

Joan soon grew comfortable enough with George to ask his advice about what to do with the Perth Amboy house where she had grown up, which Kate had left to her. Knowing a developer was trying to raise money to convert four riverfront blocks, two blocks deep, to luxury condos, George suggested she rent it out for a year or two and wait for the value to increase. That was when Joan first began to ask my advice, and that was when I realized Joan Martin—excuse me, Joan Keegan—was falling in love again.

Joan and George were married in October. Following George’s (and my back-up) advice, she rented out the Island Watch condo. Insisting on maintaining her independence and refusing to be a “kept woman,” Joan contributed half the expenses for mortgage, taxes, and upkeep of George’s Hudson Hilltop house. She had two rental incomes, one quite substantial, her continued royalties from Big Bucks, Walter’s life insurance (3½ times his final salary), and a monthly income from his pension.

A month into her new marriage, Joan decided that her children and grandchildren needed money now, not after her death, and thought it fair that they should receive at least part of their inheritance from their father at once. George concurred, I thought the gesture quite logical (and typical of Joan’s generosity), and we all agreed (i.e., Joan and George first, then Joan and I) that she needed the services of a professional estate planner. I suggested the most intelligent, ethical, knowledgeable, and discreet attorney I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing, Ms. Lee Forman. (Again, more about her shortly.)

Lee, discreet as she is, shared none of the details with me. Joan, though, trusting as ever, reported that Lee insisted she keep the Perth Amboy and Island Watch properties in her own name, get herself listed as co-owner of the Colbert Place in return for giving George half his down payment and renovation expenses, for which she could use Walter’s insurance money. Joan is also to retain half of Walter’s pension and royalties (for self-support in case her marriage to George eventually fails) and pass on the other half to her children. Naturally, Lee set up trust funds for them so they would not have to pay extra income taxes.

Carolyn’s half goes to her immediately, and she knows exactly what to do with it.
She and Chris will buy Joan’s Island Watch condominium and add the rent to their income until the tenant moves out and they move in. They will sell their split-level, now worth (according to Darlene) $400,000. Chris will take $100,000 to purchase an empty lot behind his marina for expansion of the business to do antique boat restorations. They had been planning an equity loan against their house and a loan against Carolyn’s pension, but now they will have the cash, plus enough left over for the necessary new equipment and expertise.

What surprised me even more was Carolyn and Chris’s faith in their son-in-law Mike, a graduate of Lenape County College’s culinary arts program with five years experience in several top-notch restaurants, and an excellent reputation. He’s always wanted to open his own place, but when Lisa told him that the Pastry Chef at the cooperatively owned Admiral Benbow Inn (Time out: Since I know Peggy Bond is Soup-and-Salad chef there, her husband Tim, mate on the party boat Morning Star, must be Lisa’s biological father, another piece of information I will keep to myself) is planning on retiring as soon as a replacement can be found, he grew quite interested. For $80,000, he can buy a 10% share of the finest seafood restaurant in the county, be paid a top salary, and collect a bonus of 10% of the profits every year. “Chris and I told him,” Carolyn mentioned casually one day, “that it’s an opportunity he cannot possibly pass up and offered him the cash against Lisa’s eventual inheritance from us.”

“You must have a lot of confidence in your son-in-law,” I observed.

“He’s a fine, responsible young man, of whom we’re both very proud. Lisa was young when she fell in love, but she made an excellent choice. We’re proud of her, too.”
Because of responsibility for baby Walter, Lisa herself needed three years to complete an A.A.S. in Computer Science with a Web Development Option at Lenape County College. She then began working part-time from home as a web designer and took another semester of on-line courses to earn her A.S. That enabled her to transfer to the Communiversity program and begin working toward an eventual B.A. in Information Systems from New Jersey Institute of Technology. She had been planning to expand her business hours after Walt starts kindergarten in September, but she and Mike decided to try for another child. “With Mike’s new job at The Admiral Benbow, we can afford it,” she told me. “We don’t want Walt to be an only child.”
But I was an only child, I thought but left unsaid, and look how well I turned out.
Joan and Walter’s son Paul, another caring, intelligent, level-headed young man, just finished his bachelor’s in Spanish at Rutgers and wanted to be a high school teacher since first developing a crush on his own teacher (who moved to Island Watch at the age of three). But she persuaded him to aim higher. He has been accepted in a six-year Ph.D. program in Spanish Literature at the University of Madrid. He was also offered a three-year teaching assistantship at Columbia to finance his M.A., but now the Powells can afford to send him off to Europe.

Joan’s grandson, Carolyn and Chris’s son Matthew, has been dating Megan Bailey, daughter of Joan and George’s late next-door neighbor Whitfield Bailey since junior year of high school. By senior year they were head-over-heels in love, with full approval of Megan’s widowed father and Matt’s parents. Poor old Whit died this past January (he was sixty-six when his daughter was born), and Megan, then seventeen, was placed under the legal guardianship of the aforementioned attorney, Lee Forman. (Another bothersome time out, please: I can’t pass on this opportunity to call to your attention the accidents of fate that determine our lives. Ms. Forman lived in a house built in 1857 by her great-great-great-grandfather, a freed slave. She wanted an addition that would not destroy the integrity of the original structure. To that end, she called George Brisbin’s firm because George had asked Lee’s grandfather to consult with him on another historical project several years earlier. George and Joan were on their honeymoon at the time, so Sam Lane, an historical preservationist, was recommended. Sam and Lee worked together to come up with an outstanding design for an addition that matched the original so perfectly that Sam said he would love to live in it himself just for the sense of history. I’m not certain who proposed to whom, but Sam and Lee were married a few months later, and Sam adopted little Frederick. Think about it, please: if George had not been away, Sam and Lee might never have met.)

Megan helped care for Frederick and cooked weeknight dinners for the four of them but slept in her own house. Lee sorted out Megan’s father’s complicated estate (he having been a world-class historian and author of a dozen books, including the definitive history of the Pacific campaign of World War II, as well as hundreds of scholarly articles). The royalties alone will support Megan for life, but she, having attended the academically challenging Marine Institute of Science and Technology at Sandy Hook, decided to become an oceanographer. So Lee helped her with college applications, and Megan was accepted into MIT’s Mechanical and Ocean Engineering program. Matt was also accepted into the regular Mechanical Engineering program.

Megan and Matt, with the approval of Chris and Carolyn, and Lee, will share an off-campus apartment while pursuing their studies. As Matt explained to me, he (and I would add, Megan) will not, unlike most undergraduates (yes, I remember my three years at NYU), waste half their free time looking to get laid; they will have good, loving sex whenever they wish and can, therefore, devote their free time to study. “Megan,” Matt added, “hopes to earn an appointment to the joint MIT-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute doctoral program after graduation, and she’ll need top grades to get one. They conferred Ph.D.s on only eleven students this past June. I might also go to graduate school, or teach high school in Rhode Island or wherever she winds up. I might eventually work as an engineer, teach engineering, or possibly return to Waterwitch to take over my dad’s marina. I’m a damned good student, but Megan’s a genius. I’m perfectly willing to build my career around hers.”

“Spoken like a man, son! Good for you!”

Que sera, sera! Matt’s probably right about Megan, but, in fact, they are both highly intelligent and refreshingly mature, and, though only eighteen, make as lovely a couple as Joan and George, Joan and Walter (during their second marriage), Carolyn and Chris, Lisa and Mike, Darlene and I. The world needs more good people like them.

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