Saturday, August 05, 2006
THE LAST SUMMER OF CHILDHOOD
PEAKS ISLAND, MAINE
I wonder how often we experience “the perfect life” – if only briefly – and are totally unaware of the miracle while it is happening. Or, maybe it is just in looking back thru the half closed eyes of time that all seems so perfect. I am not sure. So often we remember scenes from our past, especially periods of time from our childhood as being far more wonderful than they really were – then. Our brains have the wonderful ability to forget so much of the bad stuff and just keep the better moments for us… well, for most of us, anyway. Or maybe those of us who remember horrible childhood experiences just didn’t have that much good to remember.
My memories of childhood are mixed, probably like most folks, some was good, some was bad, most just was. Know what I mean? Many kids who lived in serious poverty were totally unaware of it. They were loved, they were happy. Just as many kids who are born to great wealth just assume that is how life is and do not realize their advantages, if indeed wealth is an advantage and I am not sure it is. I think a bit of, well, maybe not serious poverty, not starvation type poverty, you know, but not having everything you want the moment you want it might be better than growing up in a house that looks like the annex from Toys-R-Us. I think having chores to do and learning responsibility is a good thing – it gives kids a sense of self-worth and an appreciation of life and other people.
I will not use this venue to discuss the miserable part of my early life, the shame of wearing second hand clothes from a cousin who was several years older than I and not at all the same size. To this day I despise green jackets or coats. It must have been Jean’s favorite color. But, I digress. Sigh. My favorite sport. They should have an Olympic event for being able to digress more than anyone else in a 5 minute period… see? I have done it again.
What I really wanted to put on here today are some pictures and a bit about one of the best summers of my life – the summer I spent living with my Aunt Kathryn and her family on Peaks Island in Maine a gazillion years ago. Maybe it was because it was my last summer as a child, my last time being carefree probably forever. I was 10. It was the mid 1950s.
I had been an only child for all of those 10 years. Spoiled, no doubt, by loving grandparents with whom I was blessed to live for the first 9 years. My father was in God-knows-what-country in the early stages of his Foreign Service career when my mother divorced him and moved on with her life which really didn’t include me much. She remarried in ‘52 and, unfortunately, I had to go and live with them. Grandma always said if you can’t say anything nice about somebody, don’t say anything at all. So I won’t even mention my stepfather’s name. All I will say is he was jobless again in ‘54 so we migrated to Maine and more or less moved in with my Aunt Kathryn, her husband, his uncle, and 4 cousins on an island just off the coast of Maine and stayed there until he found a job.
As much as I missed spending the summer with my grandparents back in Pennsylvania, I was excited to be with my cousins. It was almost like having brothers and sisters, I thought, as if I knew what that would really be like. And to this day, I feel closer to these cousins than I do to the people with whom I share a parent’s name on my birth certificate.
And then there was the ocean. For the first time in my life I got to experience the ocean. Waves. Starfish. Seaweed. Sand dollars. The magic kingdoms of tidal pools. Wild strawberries. Wild blackberries. Not wearing shoes for a month or two. The freedom of an island, an island where kids were safe to come and go… well, at least safe from human predators and traffic. There were few cars on the island.
We left the house in the morning and headed out, usually to the beach, a few hundred feet from our door. We never wore shoes, I doubt any of us owned bathing suits. We just jumped in the frigid water in our shorts and shirts and eventually dried off, more or less. We made it look like so much fun! Tourists would see us in and out of the water like sea lion pups and assume they could do the same thing. Ha! You could hear them scream on the other end of the island when their pampered little feet hit the cold water. So we had the water all to ourselves. “A bunch a wild Indians!” they said. Well, yeah, that works. Musta been the braids. Ya think?
Well, the reality is, we were not safe, at least from the danger of the rocks. My “boyfriend” of the summer, David Barren, age 12, was killed diving off the rocks… and hitting his head on one. What is amazing is that none of us ever got hurt as we had no adult supervision once we left the yard. Who could have found us?
We wandered here and there, out on the rocks on the point that was separated from the island at high tide. We dug thru the seaweed to find crabs and starfish. We dried starfish and sand dollars on the birdbath in the backyard stinking up the entire neighborhood. The only time there was water in the birdbath was when it rained.
My cousins and I personally kept our end of the island free from bottles we found where the teenagers had partied the night before. We got 3 - 5¢ per bottle depending on its size. 5¢ in those days bought you a fudgesicle which was more than twice the size of fudgesicles today and ten times as delicious. Once in a while we would stumble on a mother lode of bottles and have a serious snacking day! We were easily pleased.
We walked everywhere we went, almost never on a paved road. We took short cuts thru just about everybody’s yard, as did everyone else. No one seemed to think much about it. There was a playground down near the ferry landing. The path to the playground, the “downtown” area, went thru a field full of wild strawberries. We picked that field clean! They were delicious on our cereal each morning.
There was a big hall back behind the bowling alley (duckpins) where they showed movies on Saturday afternoons. One Saturday we discovered the huge bushes all around the building were filled with the biggest blackberries! Of course, I later discovered they were not all that big, but I hadn’t seen any that big before. So our breakfast got a change from strawberries to blackberries.
We also made money collecting and selling periwinkles, mussels and rock crabs to the tourists. That’s periwinkles the snail, not the plant. Don’tcha love the name Periwinkle? I was going to name Rascal that before we found out he was a Rascal. (I did it again, didn’t it? sigh.) We thought it was the dumbest thing and utterly gross to eat periwinkles or mussels. I still don’t like to eat crab. We will not mention lobster. I am ashamed to admit lobster still makes me drool.
We did lots of things we should not have done and would have surely felt the ping pong paddle if found out. A few years ago I told Aunt Kathryn about exploring the old WWII bunkers and caves on the other side of the island. Her eyes got big. She said, “You didn’t! Why you stinkers! You could have fallen in one of those pits and we never would have found you!” and she went on like that for a moment or two until she realized it was now 40 some years later and we all survived.
I cannot think about the island without thinking about the foghorns at night. How I loved the sound of that foghorn. That is one of my favorite sounds in the world. And we were close enough to the water that we could hear the waves breaking when there was a storm somewhere, though we were not on the seaside of the island. Another favorite sound!
By summer’s end we were brown as we could be with feet as tough as the rocks we ran and climbed over. We climbed over rocks covered with barnacles, edges sharp as razors, and never got a scratch. Our calluses had calluses. My uncle Leigh used to strike matches on the soles of our feet. Tourists just stared at us as if we were little mountain goats happily jumping from one rock to another like no human would ever be able to do. How we ran over those rocky beaches and did not do serious damage to ourselves, I will never know. Tourist kids used to try to keep up with us but it was no contest. They soon gave up and stumbled back to sit on the rocks with their parents whimpering about their now sore feet.
Check the water temps and conditions at http://www.ndbc.noaa.gov/station_page.php?station=44031. As I write this, they have a warning up for boaters to cut their speed because of the many whales swimming thru today. Is that cool or what?????
I often dream of going back to the island… just to have one more night sleeping with the ocean breezes blowing thru the windows bringing the sound of the fog horn, the lapping of the waves on the rocks. Periodically I look at the house rentals on the island. My sister and I often talked about renting a house up there for a month and inviting our cousins to come and spend some time. As I post this, my Aunt Kathryn is on her way back to Maine with one of her children. I am so filled with envy I can hardly see straight. I know I must go back even though everyone tells me how crowded it is, how built up it is, I would not like it anymore, etc, etc, etc. Yeah, I know all that. But it is a pilgrimage type thing, an honoring a moment of time when I was carefree and a kid, my last summer of childhood.