Beach memories from the past
At times, when thumbing through a photo collection, I seem to slip into another time, find myself in another place. Today, however, I have not dipped into a literal album but rather have pulled up a snapshot that was never really taken but is deeply imprinted in my mind’s eye and my memory.
It is of a bright and eager young woman — “five foot two, eyes of blue,” as Dad would sing of her — wearing peddle-pushers over her bathing suit and standing beside a red wagon spilling over with the trappings of each day’s outing to the beach. She is around 25 or 26 at the time. Her light brown hair is piled high onto her head in what is called an “upsweep,” and those very blue eyes are alight with anticipation of the fun that awaits us at the cove down the hill.
We leave our little house early — by 8:30 a.m. — and by the time she gets us up and in our bathing suits she has packed a picnic breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, quartered tomatoes, chocolate milk and slices of fresh rye bread smeared with butter. She also brings along a cooler full of assorted sandwiches, fruits, cookies and juices that are meant to continue the picnic into and well beyond lunch time.
Of course, she has also folded a blanket and towels and brings along several changes of clothing for my sister, then a toddler, and for me, probably 5 or 6 years old. Though our goods are piled rather precariously onto our wagon, Mom somehow manages to tuck “the baby” in between things, with me tagging along after her as she laughingly maneuvers us all down what seems to me a very steep hill.
Since Mom links up with several of our neighbors, we make a rather curious caravan zig-zagging our pilgrimage to the rocky beach below.
Breakfast on the beach
Once settled there, we enjoy our postponed breakfast and no foods have ever tasted better. Perhaps it is the sea air, the sunlight wrapping us round or the sand in our toes — or all of the above — it is beyond delicious. Mom makes us wait at least three-quarters of an hour before we can swim, so friends and I wade and collect rocks and shells and fill an empty glass milk bottle with scraps of bread for bait.
We gingerly place this contraption on the rocky sea floor and wait for the mummies to swim in, which they foolishly do. If they survive after a whole day in the pail into which we dump them, we later take them home along with our new cache of stones and seashells.
Mom teaches us to take small sheets of shiny green seaweed, cup them and fill them with water, through which we are startled to see a fish’s eye staring up at us.
After a long day in the water and in the sun, we climb the very steep hill for home. By this time, I am inevitably burned to a crisp. This notwithstanding that my mother always puts a t-shirt on me over my bathing suit. My skin is so fair, she always says, “The sun burns her right through the shirt.”
Because she knows I am in pain, she finds a place for me in the ever-expanding wagon, and this time pulls two sleepy children up the hill. I am moved to a tearful smile when I think now of her strong young body and her boundless energy.
When we arrive home she very gently cuts the shirt off me and wraps me in face-cloths soaked in water and vinegar, her own sunburn remedy. As I grow older, I say I smell like a salad. But as a little girl, I just feel the pain, which is strangely mitigated by her soothing fingers, her loving gaze and even the cooling vinegar compresses. The pain part over the years seems to have simply dissolved in the sweetness of childhood memory.
The truth is that what I call a memory is really a series of them — a collective of distilled recollections — years of summer days committed to the pursuit of fun, which I now realize was a planned program to which my parents deliberately dedicated themselves.
Indeed, the purchase of a very small beach house, which was located in Long Meadow, a neighborhood in West Warwick, R.I., at a time when we do not even own a city house is an act that draws criticism from family members and friends alike. At the time, in the early 1940s, the little house costs $800. However, when talking about it, my dad always seemed to relish the story. For as he would describe it, “It was the best thing I ever did.”
The house expands
The house itself is really tiny: four unbelievably small rooms, but which seem to expand as my grandparents join us on a regular basis. There are two bedrooms and a little screened-in porch. My Baubee sleeps on the living room sofa, and Zaidee stretches out on the porch cot. He loves sleeping under the stars. My sister and I share a room, as of course do my parents.
My Zaidee is a short, lithe man, and a very strong swimmer. When he accompanies us to the beach, we can only see him at a far distance as he swims out for miles far beyond a place we can ever imagine someone going. He spends several hours in the water and then wraps himself in a towel and walks immediately back to the house. None of this playing on the beach for him.
However, he is an actor in other very early childhood memories: he owns a candy store in Providence where I often sit on the outdoor steps playing “Cat’s Cradle.” And he frequently takes me to Roger Williams Park, where he puts me on the carousel. Later we lie on the grass looking up at the shapes taken by the clouds. An undemonstrative man, when he kisses me, it is what he calls, “Ah kish un kopp!” (A kiss on the forehead.)
Baubee doesn’t swim and always remains at the house. She putters in the small cottage or in the yard or just enjoys breathing the fresh country air as she sits quietly on the little porch. I recall her as kindness wrapped in a housedress and an apron. She gives us unconditional love: she is always there to cuddle and console.
Another beach house photo
Another beach house photo I see from early childhood is of me in the long rectangular kitchen sink where my mother bathes us. She stands me up to rinse me off and I think I am almost as tall as she is.
Daddy has filled half of the very tiny backyard with a Victory Garden in which he plants peppers, cukes, radishes and tomatoes. He is very proud of that garden, perhaps because it connects him with his roots to a farm where he was born, and also gratifies a deep yearning in him after so long having been a city guy.
Several years later, when my brother is born, we move to another four-room beach cottage just two doors from our little one — but with much larger rooms. There is a wonderful outdoor shower there where we stand in the sunlight washing away the sand from our days at the beach.
A few years after that, when yet another sister has entered the picture, we move across the street into the big house. It boasts four large bedrooms, living and dining rooms and a kitchen.
The most fun room of the house is not really a room at all; it is the half-way wrap-around screened-in porch, where we spend many hours reading or playing cards or Monopoly. The family joke as Dad comes to tell it is that if there are any more kids coming along, the next move will have to be to the hotel that stands on the top of the hill on the way to the beach.
In the end, there are no more kids — just the four of us — and we never do move into the hotel. We just return year after year until some of us are grown and move away. The bonus for all of us is to return with our own children — to bring into that house of memories our own infants and toddlers, to introduce them to the world of the beach house and to their grandparents: the family’s two intrepid orchestrators of summer fun.