Oct 11, 2009

A Place and Time




However weathered and tilted the axis, we rely on our memories of summer places to remain as fixed as the North Star, a sure compass to the past.

My memories of Virginia Beach stretch back to the 1940s when my parents bought a new shingled house, panelled and furnished in matching pine, a block from the dunes and the wide, white beach. A screened porch and windows opened to hot breezes that smelled of bayberry, honeysuckle and gardenias. Yuccas stood at attention by the clothesline and blackberries provided endless picking for pies I wasn’t yet old enough to bake.

Before I could remember, photos show me running free, bare as a butterfly in the sea grasses, my mother’s sunglasses falling from my nose; we hugged under a striped umbrella; my father waded into the waves with me high on his shoulders.

My father commuted to the beach from New York where he worked in advertising. We lived in a brownstone on17th Street, the Stuyvesant Park sandbox my first touch of the seashore. Later, we moved near the gated gardens of Gramercy Park. My parents were both Virginians, however, still rooted to the state of their births.

At THE Beach - as only Virginians label their home terrrain - my parents made life-long friends with neighbors they looked forward to seeing each summer. The Morrels from Baltimore, the Baldwins from Lynchburg, the Jeters from Roanoke. They gathered in the mid-day sun, cigarettes lit, to watch their children and darken their tans. Before the sun set, they met for cocktails and stories of the day. The Morrels’ handsome older son went to the Gilman School. Just looking at him made me speechless. One day, I was invited to his house for lunch; in excitement, I choked, sputtered and spouted a gulp of milk from my nose. I ran home in morbid disgrace.

The Jeters lived next door and had no children. Fielding Jeter, a quiet man with the face of a choir boy, grew petunias and made fresh peach ice cream so rich it clung to your tongue. He carefully weeded rows of lettuce while hummingbirds hovered in the pink mimosa trees. The sprinkler spritzed the grass, teasing me to sleep on the porch swing.

The Worthingtons lived up the street, close to the steep dunes. They were a sprawling family who gathered under one roof each summer. Their long-legged daughter was rightly named Sugar and the sturdy father and son both named Ben. I looked forward to seeing Lucy, the family maid, more often than not in grey uniform and white aporn washed laundry in the open garage. She was light-skinned and lean like a stalk of bamboo bending easily in the wind. She knotted her dark hair at her neck. She smiled and waved me into the shaded garage, a welcome mat from the street’s hot stones. I didn’t wear shoes to show I had tough feet.

Lucy let me peer into the three-legged barrel where dirty clothes churned in sudsy water. Then she squeezed the soggy shirts and linens through a wringer, twisting out any extra moisture. Sometimes she let me crank the handle. She stacked the tin tubs with wet laundry, ready to hang on the line like tiny masts.

Other happy hours were spent reading "Mopsy" and "Wonder Woman" comics and Nancy Drew mysteries which caused my usually cheerful grandmother to cluck in protest. She made up for it, teaching me to play Canasta and handing out nickles and dimes at the first ring of the Good Humor truck’s afternoon bell. We all ate fresh corn on the cob, blue fish and spot; we cooled off with sunset rides on the boardwalk’s merry-go-round and ferris wheel.

Storm clouds only gathered at Virginia Beach as the tides came in from World War II. Military manuevers heightened at Army bases on both ends of Atlantic Avenue. Convoys of camouflaged trucks carried solidiers from post to post. I waved to the troops from behind our white-washed fence. Landing barges spilled ashore in practice landings; B17s and 24s flew in Vs overhead. My father, eager to be part of the war, volunteered for the Navy. He was turned down for being under weight and near-sighted. Determined, he worked out, ate carrots and took eye exercises and then the Navy welcomed him aboard.

Once accepted, I sat beside my father at the ocean’s edge, quizzing him with flash cards to identify U.S. and enemy planes. Too soon, he was shipped to far away Hawaii. From this mythical place, he wrote and illustrated tales of wind gods, rare white deer, ducks who fall in love on the Central Park lake.

He also sent me a grass skirt and goldfish that I believed had miraculously swum across the Pacific. In fact, my mother found and purchased the fish at the local 5&10. Years later, I realized that she performed other magic throughout the war, keeping the beach house full of friends and laughter, while writing to my father every morning hoping the return mail would only bring good news.

Her wishing worked and my father returned home with war stories of a last minute assignment that kept him off a cruiser that was later bombed and intelligence assignments that based him squarely in the Officers’ Club swimming pool. My father joked that he’d only been given 10 minutes to recount his "harrowing" war experiences. Instead, they were buried like ghostly sandcrabs, making sure that only sunshine beamed brightly on our beach idylls for many years to come.

Family summers at the beach continued until I was in high school. Soon after a houseparty on my 15th birthday, my mother’s doctor said her skin was ripe for cancer if she continued to bake in the sun, something we were all too eager to do. She reasoned that if the sun was ruled out, so was our reason for coming to the beach. The next summer, the house was sold.

Still, I never stopped coming to the beach. John and I decided to get married in the moonlight over the breaking waves. Every summer, we rented apartments or cottages and carted our children to the beach, even before they could walk. They chased the sandpipers and squealed at the whitecaps, and, later in high school, they stayed out late, no doubt, also watching the stars dip into the sea.

We now make the yearly trek without parents or children. We stay at a hotel and request an oceanfront view. I still anticipate that moment of reunion, that baptism of the steadfast sky and sea.

This year, we stayed in a cottage two blocks North of my family’s old house. Every day, I walked South on the beach, tempted to stop on our street. The last afternoon, I tiptoed past workmen building a walkway onto the beach.

At our house, facing the busy avenue, the legustrum hedge was now too high to see in, the blackberry field covered in cement. The Baldwins’ had been upscaled with wrought iron pillars; the Jeters’ was crowded with cars and toddler trucks.

A black man was cutting the bushes at the house one back from the beach. “Do the Worthingtons live here?” I asked. He pointed. “No. Next door. Ring the bell.”

I hesitated and circled the driveway. “Go ahead,” he said. “It’s ok.”

Following his urging, I rang the bell. A man I didn’t recognize opened the door, someone athletic and strong, with a ruddy face deeply lined from summers in the sun. He wore kakhi shorts and a pale green safari shirt. “I’m sorry to bother you,” I said. “Are you Ben Worthington?” I wondered if I clearly remembered Ben the father and Ben the son, two men whose military bearings remained formidable in my memory.

“Yes, I’m Ben Worthington,” he said politely.

“My family used to live in the house on the corner,” I said. “I’m Elizabeth Howard. I was Betty Meade.”

He extended his hand, a smile slowly forming. “Ev Meade’s daughter?” I nodded.

“A great guy. Funny man. Great guy. Please come in; have a seat.”

“No thanks. I just had a peek at our old house and wanted see if anybody I knew still lived on the street. I remember your sister, Sugar. And Lucy. She was so nice to me.”

He stared over his wire glasses, looking perhaps for a girl of 13 or 14 whom he might have known as a young man in his 20s. “Funny, that you should stop by today,” he said. “I was just working on Lucy’s estate for her children and grandchildren. She died last year. She was 85. She worked for my mother for 52 years.” I was glad the garage was closed where Lucy once strung the laundry.

With our backs to the beach, we stood on the steps, Ben suddenly eager to tell me about his family: his older sister now lived next door; Sugar and her boys owned a place on Maryland's Bay; his parents had died and left him the land where his house now stood surrounded by clusters of rhodendrons, hostas, azaleas and camellias.

Ben said he'd attended Virginia Military Institute, and had seen my father one summer in a business program at the University of Virginia. He said he remembered him well and was sorry he’d died. He was retired, and two years ago, had had a stroke. He said he couldn’t drive anymore and sometimes got things mixed up.

Ben said he still loved the beach; it was too bad my parents sold their house. “Won’t you please come in?”

“Thanks but my husband’s waiting on the beach. He’ll wonder where where I am. Maybe another time.”

Ben showed me to the beach path now umbrelled with bent holly trees. “Remember how high the dunes used to be here? They got pretty well flattened in ‘62.”

I started up the path, remembering the dunes and my parents sheltering there in partial shade before walking the rest of the way home.

“Please come back,” Ben called.

“I will. Thanks so much.” I waved, grateful to this stranger watching me leave, still uncertain who I was and why I’d come but willing to believe and bear witness that I had been there too in a place and time that we’d surely never forget.

-Virginia Living, 2009