At the tender age of 7, my family left the East Coast for the Rockies–and I spent an entire summer at the sea with my grandparents before heading west myself.
During the ensuing years of my father’s surgical residency, I would fall in love with Colorado, but those solo months at the shore were a time of utter bliss for me. Instead of being the oldest of 3 (and later 4, and then 5 and 6…), for one splendid summer, I was an only child in a home with two adults who adored little else but me.
Forty-years later, this time still serves as a touchstone of self-awareness and expression; but as a mother myself, I’ve begun to question its place in my life, especially when I wake with a migraine after a vulnerable night with memories of this summer flooding in.
One big question I have is this: How was it possible for me or my parents to be separated for that long?
Despite a healthy dose of autonomy, my own children would never choose to spend an entire summer away, even at ten, let alone 7–and, I myself, couldn’t bear it, no matter how nice it would be to have one less child.
The funny thing is, I don’t remember feeling homesick, not a bit. In fact when the day came for me to fly out to the Rockies, I had to be yanked from under the covers of my grandparents’ bed; and later, at the airport, ripped from their arms. I cried so hard on the flight that the attendant slapped me in the face. (Such was the seventies.)
Weeks later, I found a letter that my grandmother wrote to my parents, saying that my Poppop had to wear his sunglasses out of the airport because he was crying so hard. I carried that testimony of love with me in my pocket and unfolded it day after day to read on the black top under the bright sun at my new school–the school where my third grade teacher put tape on my mouth. When that letter became so creased that the words began to fade, I penciled them down on an index card to make them (and me) last.
Time passed and the long, dark winter settled in, until I became so numb to feelings that I’d imagine some awful fate taking the lives of my grandparents just so I could cry.
At night, I would dream of their home and find myself back in their bed. That dream came so often that I began to think that it would transport me–if only I could remember to hold tightly to the bed post before I woke.
My own boys adore their grandparents just as much as I did; but in the end, they want to go home with me. At age 7, why didn’t I want to be with my family?
Interestingly, my grandmother was an alcoholic; and my parents knew that, but that didn’t stop them from leaving me in her care.
Nana didn’t drink until after 5 and so I was well tended–until dinner–when the food was half-cooked and she’d send me to bed with the sun.
On the nights when she went out on the town with my grandfather, she left me alone. Hiring a babysitter would be wasteful when I’d be sleeping, she said. The police and fire stations were right across the street; and “Tiger” was in the house (even if he was a Poodle.) It made sense to me, even if I did feel small in that big house all by myself.
Nana would tuck my tiny frame into the safety of her big bed and let the sound of the air condition hum me to sleep. As night fell, I’d watch the lights of the passing cars circle the ceiling as her four walls darkened.
Nana’s house sat on Pacific Avenue. Brick, with white columns and a manicured lawn. There were 3 bedrooms, two baths, and a parlor and sun porch on one side, with a large kitchen and equally large dining room. There was a dumbwaiter that ran from the second floor to the basement for laundry, and an “out” kitchen for storage, and a place to clean clams or crabs or turkeys. In the new addition, there were more bathrooms, a sprawling den lined with a dozen closets, and a large dormitory above the garage.
The “dorm” is where my father and his brothers slept when they were boys, and it was there that I was sent to sleep when I had friends or cousins over—-seemingly miles away from the master bedroom.
My home base was my Aunt Barbara’s old room right across from my grandparents. It had pretty yellow striped wallpaper with ruffles and bows–hung especially for her 16th birthday (while she was away at boarding school.) There were heavy drapes hung above each window, beyond which I could see the rich green ivy that climbed the brick.
In the summer, the radiators made nice perching places–especially for the countless stuffed animals that had been won on the boardwalk. There was a blue tub in my very own bathroom, and my grandparents had their own too, but I knew no boundaries between us.
I never tired of climbing up to sit on the counter beside their sink, looking at myself in the wall-length mirror; and opening and closing the medicine cabinet so that I could see countless me’s between the two reflections.
From the deck off their bedroom, I’d look straight out at the ocean, just a few blocks away, and then turn to see the bay in the opposite direction.
Down in the basement was my young Uncle Jeff’s room where he hung dark posters on the cement walls and lit up the space with lava lamps. There was a kitty in a box, and sometimes Uncle Jeff would take me and the kitty on a ride downtown or up to the Boardwalk Chapel where he’d give out flyers for Jesus who found him before he went to Viet Nam.
My Poppop wasn’t around during the day, but once and awhile he’d take me along to the hospital, and the nurses would give me cookies and milk while he did his rounds. On the weekends, we’d visit his friends and I’d drink gingerale while they shared something stronger. In the evenings, he might take me out for Chinese or for ice cream; and everywhere we went, he was famous–and by relation, I was too. “Hello Doctor!” the shop owners would call, practically begging us to enjoy as much as they could offer, free of charge.
On Sunday afternoons, Poppop took me up in his little plane and I would drink a small bottle of Coca-Cola from the red machine outside the hangar. I don’t know if I was air sick or if it was the smell of carpet inside the new plane that bothered me, but either way I delighted in being above the world with him.
My Nana took me out as well, but not as much, and I don’t remember going many places with both of them together–except for the Yacht Club. There my Poppop would laugh and dance, while Nana got drunk, pulling me onto her lap to lavish hugs and kisses while she told anyone who would listen just how much she loved her oldest granddaughter. I liked leaving her there and wandering up the stairs to the fancy veloured powder rooms where children didn’t belong. From that vantage point above the main hall, I could see my Poppop’s oval-framed face among the previous Commodores who portraits circled the walls.
Even though I was only seven, I knew how to be a “young lady” so my Nana did bring along with her Women’s Investment Club to our “River Place” in Delaware. There they cooked up lobster and crabs and played cards at the felted poker table upstairs–which even had places for drinks and poker chips. I wasn’t allowed at the table, but before I was sent to bed, I got to watch them play.
I also got to go shopping with my Nana and my great-grandmother. My Nana insisted on finding her mother an appropriate blouse for an upcoming occasion. She settled on a silk one, in cream, with a large ascot at the neckline. Waiting in the car, I discovered that I didn’t like shopping even if I knew how to be a lady; and that a great-grandmother could seem like a child in the presence of her grown daughter.
Sometimes my great-grandmother would visit us at the shore; and she and I would sneak out to the corner store for bubble gum which we would hide deep in our pockets and chew behind the book shelves in the den so that my Nana wouldn’t find us.
Most days were shaped solely by seven-year old me. After breakfast, I’d head to the beach with friends, go out to lunch at Snuffys (where my grandfather kept a tab for me), and head over to the ballpark in the afternoon to eat Resees Cups with my friend Debbie whose mom ran the concession stand.
The world was clearly my oyster.
Imagine the joy of shaping each of your summer days without the interference of parents. My own boys would be in heaven!
Or would they? I often look back and wonder how a seven-year old survived with such little care.
I crossed streets and went about the town on my own. I went out too deep into the ocean and a big wave took me down. My friends didn’t notice because they were all taller than me. I could swim, but I almost drowned. Ever since, big waves have frequented my dreams.
In truth, there was some structure to my days. There were swimming lessons and sailing lessons. There was a week in Atlantic City with my great Aunt Jane, and overnights with my mother’s family who lived nearby on the “other” side of town.
That grandmother was an alcoholic too. But unlike Nana’s nightly cocktail hour, “Gram” only drank on the weekends when she wasn’t cooking for the priests out at the Retreat. She’d start on Friday night and drink through Sunday, taking to her bed with a bottle and a pile of books. Both grandmothers were uncharacteristically warm and loving when they were drunk, even if it was over the top.
At Gram’s house, there was no dinner time or bedtime and I could stay up well past midnight, watching old movies like, Arsenic and Old Lace. I could drink black tea with loads of sugar, and I could climb the fence and run over to the seafood place by the bridge for crab cakes; and chew as much bubble gum as I wanted.
One night, when a big storm was coming up the coast, Gram and my mom’s sisters found out that my Nana was leaving me home alone. They took turns calling to offer to have me overnight, but in the face of their concern, my Nana dug her heels in. Once she left the house, they descended upon it and sat with me in her bedroom until her car pulled into the driveway. I fell asleep equally fascinated and fearful of both the thunder and the commotion that my care had caused between families.
If my parents welcomed a summer with one less child, particularly one with a strong independent streak who talked incessantly, they paid for it when I arrived back into their lives that August.
For I had expanded into a world of wild abandon, to the likes of Pippi Longstocking and Huck Finn.
Somewhere around the birth of my third sister in the subsequent summer, my mother started drinking, and my nightmares shifted from waves to fire and back again. Steeped in the sorrow of my lost summer at the shore, and without a clear sense of my place in my family, my feelings of freedom and love were transmuted into loneliness and responsibility.
I spent the ensuing years, begging to return to the sea, and when that miracle of miracles finally took place, seven summers later, my grandmother was killed in a car accident on a bridge just before I arrived.
Though my family had already resettled at the shore by this time, I had been left behind to finish school and to serve as a summer camp counselor. I stayed with our neighbors–a thirty-something, child-less couple, who gave me the very first room of my own and treated me like one of them.
That was the first time since I was seven that I had a sense of self outside the definition of family–and it felt good, and essential and life saving–and then criminal, upon the news of the tragedy that took not only my grandmother’s life, but those of her three card playing friends, my dear “aunties,” who were all on their way to an event together.
A few months later, my mother gave birth to my fourth sister and then the next year, to my fifth; after which my parents’ marriage disintegrated and my mother started drinking again. At 20, I extracted myself from family once more, putting the wide expanse of the Atlantic Ocean between us. While I was abroad, my mother’s mother died, but she never called to tell me.
And that is how fire and water, and freedom & loneliness, belonging & guilt, and got tangled up between me–and the sea.
Kelly Salasin, October 2010, Vermont