By The Sea

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. 

Dramatic Reenactment

            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.

(L-R) Me with my sister Diana that first summer in 1966

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.

(L-R Circa 1970) Dominic, Diana, Michael, Mom, Me, Dad in another rented house in Dennis Port

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. 

Many years later, my father flying a kite with his first grandchild on West Dennis Beach

Daddy’s Greatest Hits

On weekdays, we didn’t see much of my dad – he’d usually leave the house before we got up for school. If he made it home in time, we’d all have dinner together and then, after the dishes were cleared, Dad would open his briefcase and spread out the work he brought home. He’d toil until after we’d gone to bed.

***For the podcast, with additional interviews, stories and merriment, click HERE!***

This was perfectly normal for typical, middle-class American families of my generation. Moms worked inside the home, Dads worked elsewhere. It seemed that moms did all the heavy lifting.  She was responsible for the house and kids, laundry, going to school meetings, making and keeping dentist and pediatrician appointments, shopping for groceries, cooking, pet care – the list goes on and on. It’s funny, but none of us thought of them as “working.” Some people still don’t, but I’ll save that rant for another time.

How do regular women manage?

How do regular women manage?

There was only one mom – our neighbor, Mrs. Norris –who always managed to look as glamorous as Tippi Hedren did in The Birds (before the avian invasion of her beautifully coiffed French twist), even though she had four or five kids and no husband. Full disclosure: they all lived with Mrs. Norris’s parents so, in retrospect, I suppose they did all the work while Mrs. Norris bleached her hair in the kitchen sink (which I’d seen her do on more than one occasion).

Dads were of a completely different species. They got up, shaved, slapped on some AquaVelva, dressed, grabbed their fedoras and backed out of the driveway. Eight hours later, they’d drive back in, looking as fresh as a daisy.

On weekends, however, the tables were turned. Our dad would take us off our mother’s hands so she’d be free to go out for coffee with her friends, or wallpaper the bathroom.

There are so many wonderful things I did with my dad, too many to mention.  Instead, I’ve put together my Top 5 favorite moments.  Here we go:

Number 5: The time my mother had to go to a PTA meeting and left my father in charge of our dinner. He was supposed to make hot dogs, which he did, but he also treated us to a nutritious side dish of popcorn. There was no such thing as microwave popcorn back then because there were no such things as microwave ovens. So, dad made it on the stove and, to entertain us, kept taking the lid off, letting the popped kernels shoot all over the kitchen. Dinner and show!

Number 4: The hours spent tobogganing at Frear Park in the freezing cold. My dad had an analytical approach to this winter pastime focused on maximizing speed. He had four little kids on a heavy five-man toboggan. In order to balance the sled, he took great care in the distribution of our weight and would, therefore, seat us oldest to youngest from the front. He’d then push us to get us moving. Just as the toboggan began its decent down the hill, Dad would make a flying leap to take his place on the back. The set up took ten minutes, the ride took five seconds. We’d reach the bottom and trudge back up the hill to do it all again. If we complained about getting cold, he’d look at his watch and say, “We can’t go home. Your mother’s making hot chocolate and it won’t be ready yet.” I suspected he was under orders to keep us out for a certain amount of time or he had no concept of how long it takes to make cocoa.

Baby, it's cold outside.

Baby, it’s cold outside.

Number 3: Miniature Golf. This activity should have it’s own special exhibit in the Fatherhood Hall Of Fame. I don’t know about you, but we loved playing miniature golf with our dad. On one memorable evening, while playing mini golf on vacation in Cape Cod, Dad was at his hilarious peak. He was goofing around, cracking jokes, using his golf club as a pool cue…he had us all in stitches. At one point, he fell down on the ground. A coup de grace! We roared. Pratfalls were not previously a part of his customary comic repertoire. It took a few moments for us to notice, through our joy tears, that he was rolling around on the ground wincing in pain. Turns out he fell due to a twisted ankle and not for our personal amusement (although, truth be told, we still laugh whenever we tell this story).

Number 2: What favorite moment between a woman and her dad is more memorable and sentimental than the day he walks her down the aisle? In the months leading up to my wedding, the anticipation of this short stroll brought tears to my eyes every time I imagined it. I’d be walking to my office, think about it and start crying. I’d be in the grocery store, think about it and start crying. I’d be riding the subway, think about it and start crying. I went through a lot of tissues and so, I figured, by the time the big day came, I’d be all cried out and we’d sail down the aisle of the chapel dry-eyed with beaming smiles. And that is exactly what did not happen. I wept and, as everybody knows, when the bride is crying everybody is crying. It was a 5-hanky wedding, for sure.FullSizeRender

Number 1:  The time spent with my father cannot be boiled down to a single moment at all. Rather, it’s a collection of lessons, all of which lifted me up, advised me, assured me, or set me straight. He eased my anxiety about motherhood when my first child was born. He coached me on how to ace a job interview. He gave me pointers on buying a car. He explained what to consider when purchasing a house. He counseled me on navigating the minefields of those tricky newlywed years. He taught me how to make French toast. And he probably didn’t even realize the weight of his words in those moments because my father is not a “let’s sit down and have a heart-to-heart” kind of guy. Much of his wisdom was imparted to me simply by his being. I learned by watching him, listening to him, laughing with him and loving him.

My Dad

My Dad

So, thank you, Daddy…for everything. Happy Father’s Day.

 

Matzo Ball Soup

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In the Spring of 1990, Easter and Passover landed on the same weekend. It just so happened, that was also the weekend I chose to bring my boyfriend home to meet my family. Since we are Catholic and he is Jewish, I thought why don’t I surprise him and make matzo ball soup with Easter dinner?!

I had never made it before and, truth be told, I’d never eaten it before either. But, I figured, it’s soup. How hard could it be?

Since I wanted to make a good impression, I called his mother and asked for her recipe.

“Manischewitz,” she said.

“Is that a cookbook?” I asked her

“No, no,” she said. “It’s a brand. It comes in a box. From the supermarket.”

“Oh,” I said. “But I kind of wanted to make your recipe. The one he grew up with.”

“Manischewitz,” she repeated. “Just throw some fresh chopped parsley in there. It makes it look more homemade.”

So, I went to the store to find the mix. The package claimed that one box made nine servings: a cup of broth and one matzo ball each.

This was perfect because 18 people were coming for dinner. I bought two boxes. Following the directions, I prepared the matzo meal, but when I rolled out the balls, they were as small as walnuts – miniscule.

I would be embarrassed to offer such a puny portion to my boyfriend. So, I went back to the store and bought two more boxes, then combined all the matzo meal and doubled the size of the balls. They still looked small to me, but it was actually better that way. I wouldn’t want everyone to fill up on soup, since my mother was cooking a huge ham. As you may have guessed, I hadn’t fully thought things through, menu-wise.

Once the balls were done, I carefully dropped them into the prepared broth. As per the package instructed, I covered it tightly.

While waiting for the soup to cook, I chopped the fresh parsley.

All this was going on at the same time that my family was getting to know my boyfriend. And by “getting to know” I mean “interrogating.”

After the soup was allowed to cook for the prescribed 20 minutes, I removed the lid.

It was like a David Copperfield trick. All of the broth, ever last drop, had disappeared. And each matzo ball had magically transformed into blobs the size of a grapefruit! But it was too late to start over. My mother had called everyone in to dinner and they were already seated. So I had to serve it.

Sinker!

To make matters worse, my mothers fancy china came with dainty little soup bowls. I could barely fit one ball in each.

My sister came into the kitchen to help me serve. She looked at one of the bowls, looked in the pot and asked, “What the hell are these?”

“Knock it off” I snapped. “They’re matzo balls, of course. What do they look like?”

“Grapefruits,” she replied.

“Never mind, just bring them out,” I said, as I hit each bowl with a few sprinkles of parsley. Oh, yeah. That parsley made all the difference. They looked homemade all right. Homemade by a shiksa who can’t follow directions from a box of soup mix.

My boyfriend looked at his bowl and I knew that he knew that I knew I’d screwed up. And then he said, “Sinkers! My favorite! These are just the way my mother made them.”

Now what do you do with a guy who’d tell such a sweet lie. You marry him of course. And that’s just what I did.