Seaweed. The taste of salt on my lips. The smell of sea air. These are just a few of the things that come to mind when I think of childhood summers spent on Cape Cod.
The year was 1966, and it was the first time we had ventured to that popular ocean getaway favored by so many upstate New Yorkers. On the advice of family friends who rented a house there every year, my parents thought it sounded like just the ticket for our young family of six.
My five-year-old self was beyond excited by the prospect of dipping into the ocean for the very first time. Up until that point, my swimming was confined to our navy blue kiddie pool, constructed of canvas and supported by a frame of metal tubing; or the lake at Cherry Plains where we had huge family picnics with my parents’ relatives. At one of those affairs, an old Italian great-aunt tricked me into eating a piece of barbequed “chicken” which later turned out to be rabbit. But that’s a story for another time.
My father rented a cottage for us in Dennis Port. Just the word “cottage” thrilled me, since cottages where only ever mentioned in fairytales. I pictured an enchanted house built of cobblestone and thatch, covered in flowering ivy. It had a beautiful garden and a wishing well. If they had called it a bungalow, I probably would have envisioned jungles and men swinging on vines; certainly a different kind of vacation altogether. But no. I would spend one charmed week in a cottage by the sea.
For several days leading up to the trip, my mother prepared. She bought each of us new sunglasses. She packed our clothes, our sheets, towels, pots, pans, cleaning supplies… Were we moving to Cape Cod?
I distinctly remember the chaos of jamming everything into our sedan. My father packed the trunk without success. There were things that simply wouldn’t fit.
“We just can’t take everything, that’s all,” he said with a shrug. He started to eliminate items based on I don’t know what.
Enter my mother. When she saw what he was doing, she bolted from the house. There were words, if I recall. She unpacked the trunk and put everything on the ground next to the car. With her hands on her hips, she surveyed her inventory and then slowly and methodically repacked all of it into the trunk with not an inch to spare. She shot my father a look of great satisfaction, he muttered something under his breath and, with that, we were ready to go.
My father slowly inched our over-stuffed boat of a car down the slope of our driveway, scraping the bottom of it just as we pulled onto the street.
I remember a few things about that interminable drive to my storybook vacation. I remember my oldest brother, Dominic, trying to ignore the rest of us because he was a teenager and simply too cool. I remember being sandwiched between my brother, Michael, and sister, Diana. They were needling each other so much that my parents threatened several times to turn the car around and go home. I remember the floor of the car had a hump upon which I rested my feet. But what I remember most was being too little to see out of the windows and all the horn honking, swearing and swerving my father did during that ride made me nauseous and terrified. Not being able to see made it just that much more unnerving. Is this how it would all end? I simply couldn’t die before seeing my cottage!
By the time we crossed over the Bourne Bridge, I was barely holding on. But I knew if I threw up on my siblings, I would die a worse death than anything a major car accident could hold in store for me.
“Look out the window, kids!” said my mother, as she opened hers to the fragrant salty air.
I got up on my knees and could see the water and blue skies and sail boats. It was nothing short of magical.
Consulting his maps and handwritten directions, my father drove to the rental office, picked up the key and we headed to our rented property. The paved roads became narrow bumpy lanes covered in sand. We pulled up next to a modest wooden affair, with sun-bleached cedar shingles, an asphalt roof and a screen door.
“Here we are,” said dad brightly. “Home sweet home!”
This? This is my cottage? Where’s the stone? Where’s the ivy? Where’s the ocean?! Instead of a garden and a wishing well, there were some spiky clumps of sea grass, two Adirondack chairs, a charcoal grill and a yellow plastic sand pail the previous occupants had likely forgotten or couldn’t fit into their trunk. The cottage was situated among a cluster of others just like it. There was not a drop of water in sight. I was totally and immediately disenchanted.
At this point, I’d like to switch gears for a second and tell you about the very first date I had. Out of necessity, it was actually a double date – with the boy’s parents. We were both 14 and therefore too young to drive. They took us out to dinner and I ordered the Salisbury steak, for two reasons. One, it was the cheapest thing on the menu so I thought that was the polite thing to do. Two, it was steak. When it was served, imagine my surprise to learn that it was not a steak at all. Rather, a Salisbury steak is a gargantuan oval-shaped patty of ground beef covered in a brown sauce.
So, why am I telling you this? Well, right about now, you might be thinking I was an ungrateful brat. And who could blame you? But try to bear in mind that I was five. A five-year-old doesn’t understand that her father works long, hard hours, often missing dinner and bringing work home from the office, so he can take his wife and four kids on a vacation. A five-year-old can’t appreciate that for her mother, this is not much of a vacation at all. It’s more of a relocation. She’s still cooking, cleaning, and tending. So, in my defense, I was simply a five-year-old child – with a wild imagination and impossible expectations – who didn’t get the steak she thought she’d ordered. Now, back to Cape Cod:
We spent the next eternity unpacking the car and fighting over who got which rooms.
Children are not famous for their patience, and in that respect, I was a normal kid. At about this time, I started whining, “When are we going to the beach?”
“The beach? Well, if there’s time, we’ll go after we get back from the supermarket,” my mother said while making up our beds.
If there’s time? The supermarket? WHAT IS HAPPENING? Wasn’t this supposed to be a beach vacation? Since I was not running the show, it appeared I had no say in the matter. We piled back into the car and left to partake of every child’s favorite vacation activity – grocery shopping. Once the food was purchased and unloaded, I could stand it no longer.
“I thought…we came here…to go…to the beach,” I cried, lips quivering and voice cracking.
I’m not sure if my mother took pity on me, or wanted us out of her hair while she made dinner, but she told my father, “Start the coals and then take them to the beach. Come back in half an hour.”
“Yippee! We’re going swimming in the ocean!” My tearful sobs turned into gleeful delight. I was alternately jumping up and down and running around in circles. “Woohoo!”
“Um…” my father proceeded gently, “we’re not actually going to swim.”
I stopped mid-twirl and stared at him, confused.
“Tomorrow,” he said.
When he saw the waterworks about to start again, he quickly added, “I promise! It’s too late to go swimming today, but tomorrow we’ll spend the whole day at the beach. And the day after that, and the day after that, and every day we’re here. Today, we’re going to go to the beach and see the ocean. We can even put our feet in. But tomorrow, we will swim.”
My father kept that promise. We swam. Boy, did we ever! And when we weren’t swimming, we sat in the warm sand and ate the sandwiches my mother packed in the cooler. We were even allowed to drink soda, which was normally reserved for only the most special of occasions. Dominic decided he wasn’t too cool to play with us and taught us how to body surf. He and Michael pulled Diana and me around on rafts. We peacefully played games together. We all collected seashells, flew kites, played miniature golf, went out for ice cream, visited a lighthouse and a sailing museum, and on and on and on.
When the week was up, I hated to leave the beautiful little gray cottage I had fallen in love with. Nearly every summer after that, we did our best to return to Cape Cod. Each time, I dreaded the long drive but turned giddy and relieved as soon as we reached the Bourne Bridge. Our rented homes got bigger with each vacation to accommodate more of our extended family – aunts, cousins, and eventually spouses and children of our own.
I still come back from time to time. My husband and I take our children to play mini golf at the same places I played. We go out for ice cream at the same parlors. We swim in the same big ocean. In fact, this post was written in Dennis Port. From a house by the sea.