Last week I woke at dawn, in the home of my husband’s family, and took out my laptop to squeeze out a bit of deadline while everyone slept, but moments later closed my computer, and walked out the front door, and kept on walking, across the island, until my feet were in the sand, and the spray of sea met my face, and the sun burst above the clouds in regal light.
I trailed the surf then until I came to “my” beach–between the Pan Am & the Crusader–and noticed how the empty lifeguard stands bore the name of roads–all flowers–instead of men or soldiers or continents; something I once dismissed and now appreciate.
I turned away from the surf then and trudged through the deep, soft sand, and into the dunes past the place where the prickers always found our feet or our ankles or our shins no matter how carefully we stepped, and past the beach hotels, across Atlantic, and down along the Little League field where Mrs. DelConte sold the Reese Cups; and across Seaview, alongside what remained of the beach houses not yet turned into condos, until I came to a rose bush, on the corner of Pacific, just across from “my” house, but I didn’t pretend that I lived there, not this time, I just kept on walking, past the Way’s house, the sister house to ours (and a better-looking one at that, having aged with love and continuity instead of loss and abandonment), and nodded across the street to the church where I went to Sunday School and married my husband and buried my mother, and nodded too to the big house beside it, the mother house of the 3, Aunt Sue’s, which was now a summer rental for the wealthy, and turned past the Johnson’s and the DelConte’s and what had once been the Parsonage, until I came to the other end of the block which was once my entire world, traversed barefoot, at the age of 4, big toe bloodied by sidewalks shifting on sand, “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.”
Nothing left but memory.
Anderson’s Corner Shop, my penny-candy Mecca, now a Realty Office; the bakery with the jelly donuts, a parking lot; and the Polish Shoe guy’s repair shop where he still charged a dollar to fix the pumps I wore as a young teacher, a Driving School. Sticky Fingers, across Cardinal, a Surf Shop, and Snuffy’s Hoagies, across Aster, where my grandfather opened me a summer account at the age of 7, now the Jellyfish Cafe. (Who wants to eat with jellyfish?)
I kept on walking across New Jersey Avenue past where I enrolled in the second grade, for two weeks, before we moved out to Colorado, and even though I told myself that I had no need to see the house that had once been my mother’s, especially with the sun rising higher in the sky, and the day growing warm, my feet took me toward the bay anyway, and I stood still for just a moment and felt into her presence, there on the porch in her wicker chair, with her tomato plants beside the stairs.
I sank into her steady, constant, contemplative presence, with those chesnut eyes like my first born’s and dark hair that she had dyed lighter and lighter and lighter until it was lighter than mine had ever been (which she had always admired/envied), and then it was the morning of my wedding, just after Jackie finished my hair and put on my veil, and I stopped by while I was still on the island, wanting to be sure that she was okay, and found her sitting on the front stoop, almost sober, still in her nighshirt, hair matted with neglect, and careful of my veil, married twice but never in a gown herself, somberly kissed me on the cheek, and as I got into my car, she stood to wave, leaving, beneath her, a puddle of blood, not knowing she was bleeding…
So I turned away, and headed north, walking until I left the shore once more and returned to the Green Mountains, a safe distance away, from the undertow of a lifetime of accumulated memory.
On a later August morning, I woke before dawn, and took out my laptop to squeeze out a bit of deadline, while everyone else slept in the home that now only belonged to my husband’s mother, but moments later I closed my computer, and walked out the front door, and kept on walking, east, across the island, until my feet were in the sand, and the spray of sea against my face, and the sun streaming through the clouds in regal light.
I turned south then to trail the surf and passed under the fishing pier and kept on walking until I arrived at the beach of my childhood–set between the Pan Am & the Crusader hotels–and I noticed how the lifeguard stands bore the name of roads–all flowers and birds and plants (instead of numbers or men or cities) which is something I long dismissed as fluffy, and now receive, as grace.
At Cardinal, I turned away from the surf and trudged through the deep, soft sand, and into the dunes past the place where the prickers always found our ankles or shins, and past the beach hotels, across Atlantic Avenue, and down alongside the Little League field, with the dugout and the concession stand where Mrs. DelConte sold Reeses Cups; and then across Seaview, beside what remained of the beach cottages not yet turned into condos, until I came to a rose bush, on the corner of Pacific, just across the road from what had been my grandparents house, and then ours.
Only I didn’t pretend that I lived there, not this time, I just kept on walking. Past the Way’s house, which was the older sister house to ours (and the better-looking of the two elegant brick homes, having aged with love and continuity, instead of loss and abandonment), and paused a moment to nod on the diagonal toward the church across the avenue where I went to Sunday School and married my husband and buried my mother, and nodded too to the huge white house beside it, the mother house of these 3, all built by Philip Baker, who first settled the island in the late 1800s, and whose mansion became the home of my Aunt Sue, but was now a summer rental, for wealthy strangers.
I turned west past the Johnson’s and the DelConte’s and what had once been the Parsonage, until I came to the other end of the block which had been my entire world, my solo adventure, from the age of 4, a large cement rectangle, traversed barefoot, big toe bloodied by sidewalks shifting on sand, “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back,” pennies in my pocket.
Which must be why, after a summertime at the shore, I was bold enough to abandon the first-grade, at the mid-day, crossing the streets of Center City Philadelphia, arriving home to our crowded high rise, unannounced, “Hi Mom, I’m home for lunch.”
Nothing left but memory.
Anderson’s Corner Shop, my penny-candy Mecca, now a Realty Office; the bakery with the jelly donuts, a parking lot; and the Polish Shoe guy’s repair shop where he still charged only a dollar to fix the pumps I wore as a first-year teacher, a Driving School. Sticky Fingers, across Cardinal, a surf shop, and Snuffy’s Hoagies, across Aster, where my grandfather opened a lunch account for me the summer I was 7, now the Jellyfish Cafe. (Jellyfish?)
I continued west, across New Jersey Avenue, past Phillip Baker School which is no longer there, where my mother enrolled me in the second grade for two weeks at the end of June, in between our move from Virginia to Colorado, because I begged and squealed with delight to have a desk beside Debbie DelConte, my very best friend of every summer, and then I continued up the road toward the bay, even though I told myself that there was no need to see the house that had last been my mother’s, especially with the sun rising higher in the sky, and the day growing warm, and only 36 hours in town, some of them sleeping, and yet my feet brought me there, and I stood still for just a moment and asked myself to feel into her presence.
And there she was.
On the porch.
In her wicker chair.
And wasn’t it the memory of her tomato plants beside the stairs
that brought my tears.
And here was her steady, contemplative presence, and those deep chestnut eyes (that live on in my first born) and her dark lustrous hair that she dyed lighter and lighter and lighter until it was lighter than mine which she had always admired/envied? like my light eyes.
“Hi, Kel,” she’d said, as she always did, having named me after her people, who lived only a few blocks away, on the Wildwood side of the street (the “other” side of town), instead of Wildwood Crest, home to her well to do husband’s family.
And then it was the morning of my wedding, just after Jackie fixed my curls and put on my veil, and so I stopped by before I left the island to be sure that she was okay, and awake, and I was relieved to find her sitting on her front stoop, almost sober, still in her night dress, hair matted with neglect (why hadn’t I thought to bring her with me to Jackie’s) and careful of my veil (married twice but never in a gown herself) she kissed me on the cheek, almost somberly, and stood to wave as I got in my car, leaving, beneath her, a puddle of blood, not knowing that it was that time of the month or that she hadn’t eaten for weeks.
And so, I turned and walked away, two blocks north back toward my sleeping family, and at the end of that day, I continued north, 300 miles, into the mountains, that have for 25 years, been my home.
Les vrais paradis sont les paradis qu’on a perdus.
The true paradises are those which we have lost. ~Marcel Proust
Better joy in a cottage than sorrow in a palace.
I was born beside the sea, delivered by the Sisters of Mercy, on the Feast of Immaculate Conception, of our Blessed Virgin Mary. From there I was placed into the arms of an overbearing Queen, my beautiful grandmother Lila, and brought to live with her in a castle on a barrier reef.
Rich, green ivy climbed the castle’s brick walls, and tall white columns ushered in honored guests. At the foot of the steps was a golden engraving, bearing the castle’s name: Sixty-Twelve.
6012 was a child’s delight. There was a staircase taller than any father, and a cherry bannister that curved its way from earth to sky. Soft green stairs cushioned the descent of any who chose to ride.
There was music too. Piped into every room. An orchestra playing just for you.
Crisp, cool, mountain air, brushed your skin as you glided from place to place, no matter what the temperature outside.
Deep lush carpets and plush thrones lured you in forbidden rooms. An inner chamber beckoned you further–toward heavy drapes that hid the world outside. If you were brave and if you were strong, you could shove one of these aside and hold it in place with your face pressed against the glass to spy people passing by.
But better than the floor to window panes was the golden box built into a wall. If you could reach it, if you could drag a chair upon which to precariously stand, you might be able to touch the dials, and if so, your orchestra would grow hushed or suddenly boom.
The sun was strong. Just right for July. Summer’s peak. Like me, at 14.
We stopped at McDonalds along the way. I got my own fries. (Daddy wasn’t there to say, “Share.” )
I got a milkshake too. (Daddy wasn’t there to say, “Absolutely not.”)
I’d been living like this for a month. No parents. No little sisters. Just me and Linda and Larry who lived in the officer’s quarters attached to ours. (They even gave me my own room.)
Daddy finished up his commitment to the army in early June and packed up the house to join my grandfather’s practice at the shore. Mommy and my sisters went too. Everyone was finished school, but me.
I stayed behind to face my first set of Regents exams. Three years earlier, we were transferred from Denver, and it took me awhile to find my academic stride. Just as I did, it was time to leave the small base school at West Point in order to enter the large public high school in Highland Falls. The hallways haunted my dreams. The throngs of beards. The cleavage. The smoking room. The changing room. The parking lot. Tori’s perfect everything.
Linda helped prepare me for Math. She was a professor at the Academy, and she got her colleague next door to help me with my French. I aced EVERY ONE of those Regent exams.
On the last day of school, I moved from Larry and Linda’s to my best friend Janet’s house at the bottom of the hill where the enlisted men were housed. Janet and I made the base ours that summer. Traipsing around town on the buses, shopping at the PX, baring our new bikinis at Delfield Pond.
I still remember the moment. Big Boys Don’t Cry was playing on the tiny transistor radios. I was heading toward the high dive. A line of cadets lifted their heads from their towels as I passed by.
“Why are we going to the airport?” I say.
Linda and Larry called Janet’s house that morning and told her mother that they were coming to get me.
“Because your father’s flying in for the day, and he wants you to meet him.”
“Why is flying in?” I say, as I lick the salt from my fingers.
“There was some kind of accident. A higher-up. He asked for your dad.”
Linda and Larry are lying, but I don’t notice.
I sip on my shake. They ask if I’m excited about next week–my first time as a Counselor in Training at West Point Youth Camp where I’ve been a camper the past two summers.
They tell me about their time in the Peace Corps. How they traveled the world. I decide that I want to be just like Linda and Larry when I grow up.
The conversation stills as we approach the airfield and park the car. I grab my shake as we head inside the small terminal. Floor to ceiling windows look out over the runway and I watch as a small plane lands and taxis in.
I open the glass doors and step outside, shielding my eyes from the sun.
I feel the saliva stretch between my mouth and the straw as I toss the cup into the trash bin beside me.
When I see my father jump out of the small plane and head toward me, I bound down the wide set of cement steps.
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.
That a recipe could be attributed to my father, and circulated for decades among relatives and friends, is something that astounds me. I found it this summer in a cookbook belonging to my Aunt Ann.
To be fair, I do remember my father making it–once–for the neighborhood block party, celebrating the end of summer, 1975.
We had just moved into the duplex on Connor Road where most of the Captains and new Majors were housed at West Point on the Hudson. It was the summer my mother left to live with family at the shore. For a couple months, my physician father was forced to be both provider and parent–the latter a role he had never fully filled.
I remember him filling the bowl full with lettuce. I remember him grounding the garlic into it first. I remember the croutons and the Parmesan. (I don’t remember the anchovies.)
I still have that big brown wooden bowl which is usually filled with popcorn in my home, as it often was when I was a child.
The bowl belonged to my Nana Lila–who was a well known cook–and perhaps it was from her that my father inherited this renown family recipe for Caesar Salad.