It is my last full day at home, and I have come to the Canal for one last look. I have taken several pictures with my phone, sometimes needing to point, shoot and hope, because the glaring of the sun obliterates any view on my phone screen, and I am no photographer. When I think I have taken as many of these “seeing, yet not seeing” pictures as I should, I tell myself that it is time to go, gas up my car, work my way through my vacation rental gathering and packing anything I won’t need in the morning and prepare for the trip home.
It is time to be efficient and mature and say good-bye to the Canal and leave, but something catches my eye and it freezes my feet to the ground. So, I return to my car to retrieve my notebook and find a place to sit. The wind seems to swirl the water a bit, but there are no waves. I learned that this is caused by the current and not the wind. They swirling circles are eddies, pulling in the opposite direction of the current. None the less, the water passes, moving east to Sandwich at a fair clip. Yet, the movement of the water is smooth and reflective like glass. The sun shines on the water and it shimmers in places. The current moves the water along, as if to say to the water, “move along, there is nothing to see here.”
There are many eddies of different sizes and I wonder if I would stare at them long enough if a fish will push through the water or if I tried to focus on one eddy, how long I could keep it in view. Occasionally a bird, a Canada Goose maybe, will sweep down across the water as though it were coming in for a landing but not quite touching it, looking for food, I imagine. Then, as quickly as it arrived, it takes off again. By now, the eddies that passed by my spot are probably at the Sagamore Bridge on their way out to sea.
I want to take a few more pictures or buy them. I want pictures of the Railroad Bridge in Buzzards Bay and the Bourne Bridge and the Sagamore Bridge that cross the canal, taking countless visitors to Cape Cod. The bridges were both built between 1933-1935 and are some of the most familiar landmarks of my childhood. Seeing them for the first time makes me draw in my breath. I want pictures of my childhood homes too, but there is not enough wall space in my home, so I will have to carefully catalog these sights and store them in my heart.
Perhaps what I long for most of all is a video of this gracefully moving water that I can play it over-and-over again. There are some wonderful pictures posted on Facebook taken by good photographers with expensive equipment and daring shots. Colorful sunrises and sunsets, and nighttime pictures of the Railroad Bridge. I admire them and am grateful that a friend has shared them with me in my newsfeed. But this is the view right here, the blue glass water, the sun shining on the canal making the water shimmer, the blue sky and white clouds, the gentle breeze and the persistent current.
This is the picture that I want. The sound of the traffic on the road behind me cannot tarnish the feel of the breeze and this sight on my being. Sitting here, I think I understand how Robert Frost might have felt when he wrote “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I do not want to go. But home, family and work beckon; so I grow up, gather my things, including a perfect half of a mussel shell and leave behind a tear.
I grew up on Onset, Massachusetts. We did not have a park or a playground in the section of town that I called home, Point Independence. We had something much better: the beach. Onset sticks out into Buzzards Bay, like chubby fingers on a child’s hand, spread out in the Bay so that each finger is surrounded by water on three sides. It is difficult to drive around Onset without catching glimpses of the Bay. My street ends at the water, ending about two feet above the beach sand. In the years since I left home the boat population has soared and what used to be Janes’ Yacht Yard (Now Safe Harbor and Onset Bay Yacht Sales) and the Point Independence Yacht Club have both grown in size. We used the Maple Street drop off as one way to get to the beach, at low tide that is; at high tide the water comes up to the drop off.
There is a lane directly down to the beach from our old house and that was always a better choice to get to the beach, otherwise one would have to walk a couple of blocks on the main street to get to a better access point for the beach. Yet, thanks to the finger effect of the shoreline, there is a lot of tourist friendly beach in Onset. The shore was so curvy, that it gave the impression that it had been laid out by a capricious artist, who carved and chiseled the shore, curving this way and that, at whim. The part of Onset Beach that we claimed, west of the Point Independence Yacht Club, was a low frills kind of beach. There were ropes with flotation devices to denote the swimming area, but no life guards or rafts, that I remember. Those were at the main beach in town that attracted the tourists who didn’t rent houses in Point Independence.
Having grown up near the inlet waters of Buzzards Bay and so close to the Cape Cod Canal, I have always had a fascination-fear relationship with water. Most of the bad storms that came our way were nor’easters, and they can be pretty bad. Plus the fact that we always lived close to the beach probably increased the fear factor. In Point Independence, the beach and thus the Bay were about two hundred yards down the lane. When we lived at the Union Villa, we were just across the street from the beach and the pier. For me at least, that proximity to big water made it that much more fearsome.
If you do not live in New England or the Northeast, you can learn more about Nor’easters from the National Weather Service. But let me share a picture. I arrived home in Onset on October 17th, the day after a Nor’easter had gone through the area. Actually, it lasted a little longer than a day. It was sunny but very windy when I blew into town. The water was only a little choppy, but it seemed like more than a typical high tide, and the water was an angry green. I had to take the picture from my car because the wind was strong enough I could not get my door open more than a few inches.
There were hurricanes that made it up to Massachusetts in the 1950’s (and certainly later too). One memorable Hurricane in the 1950’s one lifted up one of the snack bars in town off its moorings (Kenny’s Salt Water Taffy). There were booklets published with pictures of all the local storm damage. As young as I was, I still shiver when I think about the high water mark of those hurricanes. There was a beach front house that had a large privacy wall. It was the last house on the left on the lane at the beach. Walking past that wall and seeing the high water mark that was several feet above my head, in a place that normally the water didn’t even reach at high tide, gave me shivers for sure, as well as a healthy respect for water.
There was a dirt lane that went from the edge of our property all the way to beach front. It served as a kind of service road I suppose, and was a good path down to the beach. When I remember those storms, mom is still my hero. She had a knack for making it seem like everything was okay, or trying to make a game out of it, even if she was scared. The wind drove the rain sideways as it pelted our windows. We couldn’t help but wonder if the water would make it all the way up to our home. She moved the overstuffed chairs from the living room to the dining room to be closer to the heat and we sat at the table playing parcheesi and rummy and probably even fish. The storm windows were full length windows, with thick wooden frames and they latched over the regular windows somehow, and shook and rattled in the strong gales of the hurricane winds and shook our bones as well.
In June, July and August, the beach was a great place for sounds as well as sights. You could hear the voices from a hundred different conversations going on at once, blended in with the static from transistor radios. The voices of life guards calling through megaphones to kids fooling around on the rafts, were mixed in with the cries of circling seagulls. There were other sounds as well coming from the snack shack. You could hear the sizzle of hotdogs or hamburgers frying on the grill, the boiling sound of the oil, as baskets of French fries and onion rings were dunked into them. Then of course, there was the ca-ching, ca-ching of the cash register being rung up, and the occasional sound of coin wrappers being hit on the side of the register to break them open as the coins fell into their holders. Even today when I see a cashier do that, I think of an egg being cracked open and its contents spilled onto a hot griddle or frying pan.
Beaches are inviting places, even to the locals and when we went out to play during the summer, it was most often to play at the beach. We went to lay on the hot crystalline white sand, to dig in the water logged sand at low tide and try our hand at sand castles, not unlike the tourists.
We went to swim or wade in the water, dodging seaweed and crabs and the gasoline rainbows left by the motor boats and yachts. We even collected sea shells and carried sand pails. As a rule, the locals didn’t own or carry beach umbrellas, we sold them. We didn’t wear tee shirts that said “Cape Cod Massachusetts,” we were there for the duration. Not that we resented the tourists; that was how many families, including mine, earned a living. But in a sense, the tourists were fair-weather friends. When the warmth was gone, the wealth was too. Maybe that’s why we called them “summer people.”
It was in Onset that I first learned about the musical qualities of water. I remember the woosh-swish sound of the water, rising and falling on the beach, as though the bay were breathing. Although I moved away from there almost fifty years ago, it takes very little effort to recall the sound of the water climbing and falling up the gentle slope of our little beach. It is streams and creeks that are most noticeably musical. If you stand besisde a creek long enough, you can begin to discern the sound of notes and tones as the water rushes over various shapes and sizes of stones, rocks, boulders, sticks and fallen trees. The creek seems to sing as it passes by, the larger the rock, the deeper the tone: it is the music of the earth and sea.
My connection with water is undeniably sentimental and very much rooted in my childhood, but it is so much more. It is a connection with life itself that is both sensual and spiritual. I cannot drive by water without wanting to stop and admire it, whether it is a stream, lake or ocean, man made or natural. I want to know every stream I cross; I want to know the width of the stream, and the quality and depth of the water. I steal looks as I pass by, snatches of observations, to peer into the clear water and see the outline of every rock that lines its path. I don’t name the streams or call them mine, but I notice when they are low, when the huge rocks often covered with speeding water are dry and bleached looking. Sometimes the streams overflow their banks with café-au-lait colored water, moving at a clip that would suggest it was being chased by something much bigger, more fearsome than itself.
As a child I learned to ride in the car with one eye on the road and one eye on the canal or bay and that is the way I drive now. One eye on the road ahead, and one eye out for any body of water that does me the kindness of running parallel to the road on which I am traveling. Often, it is the Susquehanna River. Sometimes it is Sugar Creek, Towanda Creek or the Tioga River. I drive with a sense of longing, wanting to stop, to ponder and drink in the view, though I can’t drink the water. When the river and streams are overflowing, muddy and moving fast, that same fascination-fear pulls at me to stop and gaze. But I drive on as though some weight were holding my foot to the gas pedal. Though I seldom stop, I do not drive on without noticing or longing. In Psalm 42:7, the Psalmist wrote. “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.” Deep calls to deep, and so it is with me.
As I sit at my computer, I think of some of the sayings or expressions that people have penned about home. I wonder if I will appear to be too trivial, if I mention them, like a middle school student who begins an essay with Webster’s definition of, whatever the particular subject is. Perhaps no one cares what Miriam Webster defined something as, because there are so many online sources for definitions and descriptions. For myself, as much as I like and use social media, this blog, for instance, my “sort of smart” Android phone, Google and other search engines and my Kindle, I still prefer the heft and feel of my dictionary.
As a student in both college and seminary, I learned to keep my dictionary close enough that I could reach out my arm and get hold of it. This was an act I frequently found necessary, because if one tries to simply go on context one could get derailed. Maybe I needed a dictionary so often because I am not as smart as I think I might be. But the main reason, is that scholars who write text books seem to feel or be driven to show off their vocabularies, throwing multi-syllable words into every paragraph. I would circle those words in my own books to force myself to admit that I wasn’t quite sure what they meant and would be better off looking them up. Why all the bother about dictionaries and definitions? Because when used, they can open doors and windows to meaning that deepen understanding.
But what of home? When I was growing up, I only had two homes in eighteen years, the one on Maple Street, the home of my childhood, and the Union Villa, the home of my youth. In the years since, I have lived in more than eighteen homes, in five states in fifty years. When some people leave home, they never look back. That wasn’t me. It is just that having left home, with the change of circumstances over the years, going back was, well, difficult. I wasn’t raised in a family that did much in the way of cemetery visits, none that I knew of at any rate. So, the first time I visited my grandmother’s grave was on the day my father was buried. Two years after dad died, mom moved back to Baltimore to be close to her family. As a result, the second time I visited my father’s grave (and my hometown) was twenty four years later, when my mother was buried, next to my dad.
We had less than 40 hours to be in Onset, so it was a quick but sentimental journey and then there was so much to get back to: packing up mom’s apartment and moving everything out, going through pictures and making decisions and then everything got busy. In the months that followed, my youngest daughter graduated from high school, the other two had long flown the nest. We moved from our four bedroom, four story rental to a two bedroom apartment and prepared for my daughter’s move to Florida. A little over two years later, we were packing again and moving to a parsonage, as I had been approved and licensed as a newly appointed United Methodist Student Pastor.
The following eight years, I was an obsessive full-time student, serving three churches (part-time?) and barely lifted my nose from a book except to preach sermons and other pastor-like tasks. Letting anyone know where I was, except the post office, and our immediate family, did not even occur to me. It is not that I never missed home (Onset) or never got home sick (boy did I). I missed my parents, who were gone, I missed the place I loved (Onset) but did not think there were any options for visits.
Years later, we were finally able to plan a vacation home. I was excited, to say the least. We planned a few days at Old Sturbridge Village and the rest of the time at home in Onset. That trip had to be cancelled at the last minute due to a health crisis. By the time my husband was released from the hospital there was precious little vacation time for such a trip. We tried again a few years later, I registered for my Fortieth High School reunion but, once again we had to cancel due to health reasons. During all these years, I really did not have any contact with classmates or my father’s family, so it was all about place, but not people.
After cancelling two trips, I told my husband the next time I wasn’t going to plan, we were just going to go. Spontaneously. Ten years past. As I prepared for retirement in the spring of 2018, a life changing invitation came my way, though I didn’t realize how big an impact it would have. I was invited to do a wedding in Maine, that summer. I readily accepted. Not long after accepting, I realized that the location in Maine was just four hours north of Onset. I was going to do the wedding and I was going home. Because I would be retired at the time of the wedding, I assumed we could take an open ended vacation. However, after the details were set, I accepted an appointment to serve two churches part-time. That changed my open ended vacation to once again, only have 2 days to be in town.
We arrived in Onset on a cold, cloudy, sometimes rainy day. I did not care! I drove around and around, stopping, walking on the beach, taking lots of silly pictures of gulls on the beach, on the Onset pier and pictures of home. When my husband and I talked to a friend after our return she asked about our trip. His response, “Well, let’s see. We saw the house where she grew up, we saw the beach. We saw where her grandmother’s house used to be and the Union Villa, and we walked on the beach. We saw the house where she grew up…” I suppose he was bored. It’s okay; but I could not get enough of drinking in views and memories, sights, scents and sounds. A beach on a cloudy day is better than no beach at all, and clouds and drizzle do not prevent the search and rescue of a few sandy seashells.
I had really thought this trip home would be a once and done. After all, I had no contact with old friends, did not know any of my dad’s family or have contact information for them. This trip was about memory and place, and a slice or two of pizza and at least one seafood dinner. It was a bittersweet trip, because while there were people in town who vaguely remembered the Union Villa when it was a bar, there was no one in town, fifty years later, who could say, “Oh yes, I remember Jack and Maggie.” Bitter. Sweet. But there was this surprising, nudging, nagging thought. Every place we went, every place I set my feet, that thought came as a simple word: “Write!”
And I understood that ‘once and done’ was not going to work. I wanted more; I needed more. So, I began to hope, plan, plot, dream, calculate and wonder if there was a way I could return. I did not expect such a profound pull on my heart, on my whole being to return. I had thought it was all about memory, but I think now it was about something larger. I began to wonder if I had left something behind when I moved away, something more significant than the things one fails to grab and throw into a suitcase before checking out. While I could share simple answers to that soul searching, the truth is that journey continues.
Serendipitously, I found contact information for a high school classmate before leaving town. It turned out that I was two weeks shy of being in town for the Fiftieth Class Reunion. Coming back for the celebration was not an option, but she put me in touch with other classmates and we connected through Facebook. I am grateful for that in more ways than I can say. When I was able to return to Onset for an entire week, to visit, take more pictures of gulls on the beach return again and again to my childhood home, connect with family I didn’t know I had and write, “Write!” I learned some important things. Many other people in the last fifty years have come to rightly claim Onset as their home. Some of them are quite active in supporting their town and helping it be what it is today and they are doing great work. (See http://www.onsetbay.org) I know that in that sense, Onset is only where I am from, it is not where I live. For me, it is home in the past tense. Yet, not.
I know some people who have never wandered far from home, who have at least lived in a discrete small radius from home. This applies to most of my in-laws, except one who left the state for his education and whose work keeps him darting all over the map. But most have stayed close. I know some people who have either bought what they lovingly refer to as the “old homestead,” or who never left it. My brother and I both left early on, both traveled differently but permanently. My children also left the nest behind, each of them in their late teens. My fault, I admit. I raised them on tales of my adventures, leaving home to visit my brother, getting my driver’s license at 19 and getting my first apartment. But I also tried to nurture their dreams and not hold them back with apron strings.
My husband and I have been together longer and lived together longer, than anywhere we have lived in our lives or anyone we have been with, almost thirty-four years. Two years ago, just before my retirement we bought our first home together. Every day I thank God for our home. It is a simple, old house, for a simple old couple and a goofy dog. It too, is home. Thirty four years ago he said to me, “Anywhere I hang my hat is home,” and then later, “Anywhere you are is home.” That is an important, yet humbling reality.
As a pastor, and a pair of parsonage dwellers we lived with a realistic sense that every home was ours to use, part of the benefit package, but not truly ours. Home. But not home, until the Bishop determined otherwise. Three such homes in twenty three years, to hang our hats and be together, not rooted in place, just simply tethered.
Like a turtle that carries its home on its back, so I have carried home with me, in seashells and beach sand, cranberry scoops and Portuguese Pottery. I have carried them from house to house, state to state and some thing more precious than even those. Some thing that does not require bubble wrap, or shipping charges. Some thing that will not fade or crack like an old photograph and some thing that the heart might not be the right combination of delicacy and strength to hold. These are the things I have carried in my soul. And that begs the question: is home where you live, or something much more?
I am just a vintage chick on a journey of discovery, and I am not, NOT holding back the tide.
Don’t get nervous! Although I am a pastor, it’s not the Sunday offering that the title refers to, but the pitfalls of being a collector. Although my most cherished collection is my seashells, I have collected one other thing in recent years; turtles. Not live turtles but carved, ceramic, glass, resin, steel, all kinds of turtles. It started with a simple purchase of a small carved turtle that I named “Spots”. He was the inspiration for a short story that I wrote over the course of a few lunch periods. I kept him on my desk as I wrote, and as I wrote Spots became more and more real to me. And, because of the story, I had lots of opportunities to talk about him.
You know what happens when friends, relatives and others find out that you have something “collectible”? Turtles started showing up. The variety of turtles that I mentioned above doesn’t even begin to describe it. One good friend gave me a turtle lamp for Christmas, the “shell” (carapace) was amber glass and the body was bronze colored metal. It had a “night-light bulb”. Another friend gifted me with a large colorful, fleece turtle pillow, about two feet by three feet.
Turtles would occasionally show up on the pulpit or even in the offering plate. I had turtle jewelry, a turtle backscratcher everything but turtle clothes! ( This is not a request for turtle tee shirts!) Two rules I set for my family and friends were, no live turtles and no artifacts or items that were made from real turtle shells. When my seashell collection was on a respite, I lined the windowsills of my office with my turtles.
Just to be clear, one of those windows was a picture window with two smaller windows on either side, plus a regular sized window on the other wall. So I am talking significant window sill space. Once, a couple came for premarital counseling and the groom said, “look honey, an infestation.” He wasn’t far from the truth. Another friend also gave me a turtle lamp, an exact duplicate to the one I had but what could I say? Thank you, but no thanks? Although Spots was the first turtle in my heart, my second favorite turtles are Sea Turtles so predictably a few sea turtles made their way into my collection.
One day, a parishioner very thoughtfully brought me a “new to me” turtle lamp. They were cleaning out a closet at school and she thought about me when she saw it. This one had a pretty blue glass shell, but other than that was just like the other two turtle lamps. It was so thoughtful, but I knew the time had come to do something about my growing collection of turtles. I was running out of display space and we were getting ready to move. The ladies’ group at church was preparing for their annual rummage sale, so I gathered some donations and discretely placed one of the turtle lamps in the box. Surely someone from the community would buy it, or maybe it would even go home in a box lot kind of situation. Nope, one of my other parishioners, who knew I collected turtles saw it, and bought it for me!
Over the years I have given a way a few turtles but still had a pretty significant collection. In my quest to declutter and downsize, I put my turtles out in our yard sale last spring and was thrilled when a young couple who love turtles bought them all. They listened very patiently as I told them where each of the turtles had come from (one from Mexico, one from Corning Glass, one was the kind of turtle you hang over the edge of a planter or flowerpot.) Some of them were just pretty, but I do not have the space to display them. All my shelf space is needed for books that I haven’t found the courage to let go. So, the yard sale finished, I came in the house, sat at my desk, moved a few papers and low and behold, there was my blue, bobble-head turtle. I think he was hiding!
Now, this presented a dilemma. I had just enough turtles left to warrant starting a new collection, or, not. Of course it is no question that I am keeping Spots. And my husband made the leather turtle with the googly eyes for me. Can’t give him away either. That does beg a question though, when does a collection become a (mindless) accumulation? Or just as pressing, at what point in your life do you begin to let go of copious possessions so someone else does not have to do it after you are gone? Or, how much stuff do you have to have before you decide to declutter?
Sister Mary Jose Hobday (1929-2009) was a Roman Catholic sister and an elder in a Seneca tribe. According to her obituary she traveled about 75,000 miles each year, giving talks, leading retreats and seminars. She visited my seminary one year and while she imparted a lot of spiritual wisdom to us, it was the tangible, practical simplicity of her life that struck me.
At the stage in her life when she came to Rochester, she was not living in a convent but in a small home on a reservation. She kept her possessions to a minimum. She told us that she owned 3 skirts and 5 blouses, and that was her wardrobe. It was interchangeable to be sure, and easy to pack for all her travels. In addition, she said that while she always kept a few mementos in her home, anyone who gave her a gift understood that she would keep it for a while, but would eventually pass it on to someone else. That might be one of the most challenging parts of ending collections. When you know someone collects something, it takes the guess work out of gift giving. But when someone gives you a gift and you pass that gift on, what happens if they visit and don’t see it prominently displayed? I know this isn’t an issue for everyone, but it is for some people. Some of you are cringing right now.
When I was a child I had a fairly large collection of international dolls, most of which were not intended to be played with. I had two very large dolls with “big hair” full skirt dresses that could be spread out like a fan. Every time dad came home from a trip he would bring gifts for each of us and I watched with anticipation as he opened his suitcase or other package to see what he would give me. But at the time that one outgrows such things, or maybe later than usual, I gave all of my dolls away to a younger girl whose family frequented the Union Villa: Barbie dolls, the 18 inch tall teenage dolls that my mom had made clothes for, and all the dolls from India, Italy, Greece, Turkey and other ports that dad had brought to me. It was the right decision, but there have been many times over the years I wish I still had them. As with my turtle collection though, a few things fell through the cracks. I have one dancing lady doll, from Turkey I think and two leather camels and those three simple gifts from my dad, someone else will have to deal with, because you have got to draw the line somewhere.
I was never the kind of mother that painstakingly folded her children’s clothes, matched and rolled their socks and lined them in their chest of drawers once they were old enough to do those things for themselves. In fact, I felt a burst of independence when my children were old enough to begin doing their own laundry. They already knew how to cook and at 12, my youngest was solo cooking family dinners. That meant dinner was ready when we got home from work, and I could get her to special events that much sooner.
So, it surprised me shortly before she turned 13, that the sting of being less than needed assaulted my sense of motherhood. Fear of the unknown, parenting and step-parenting five teenagers, gnawed at my bones. I began to feel an emptiness, a nagging void in my life that I was sure could only be filled by a dog, preferably a beagle.
I began to hint outrageously for a dog. You see, I not only wanted to nurture nature, I figured this dog should be a gift too. I had a birthday coming, it would be the perfect gift. I asked, begged and continued to hint with great enthusiasm. From time to time I would read the pet section of the classified ads out loud, while my husband drove us home from work. My husband would interrupt my reading and say, “Gee , honey, I don’t know maybe next year.” But I was an optimist and remained undaunted.
All through supper the night of my birthday, I’d look up from the table hoping to see a beagle, with a bow on its collar, working its way down the hallway to the dinning room. It never happened. After supper, I drew in my breath as Roger took my plate and replaced it with a coffee mug sized box. I pulled off the wrapping paper and tried to conceal my disappointment as I opened the box. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings just because I was disappointed.
But when I opened the box, I had to choke down anger. Yes, I had been obnoxious in my hinting, but there was a stuffed animal dog in the box; that was cruel! If he was trying to be funny, he sure had missed. I lifted the dog out of the box, about to protest, when my eye caught sight of a piece of paper in the bottom of the box. Training paper I thought wryly, as I lifted it out of the box. But then my eyes saw these words, “This coupon entitles the bearer, Anne Michele Somerville, to the dog of her choice from Animal Rescue, signed Roger Somerville.” Tears rolled down my face. The kids came in the dining room and asked Roger was I was crying, but I couldn’t say a word.
The following Saturday we visited Animal Rescue and I did indeed find a beagle, a three year old named Sammy. He was a sweet and funny dog. We didn’t have any information about his past but he fit in just fine. It took him awhile to get us trained properly. Like many dogs, he was afraid of thunder storms. When the thunder started roaring, Sammy started shaking. He would look for the smallest possible places to squeeze himself into, including places he couldn’t get himself out of, like getting stuck under the china closet. More than once in our apartment, he crawled through the opening under an end table and squeezed himself behind the couch.
He was not afraid of heights though, once when we were gone he let himself into the parlor, pushing through the swinging door, climbed onto the recliner, to the top of the recliner and grabbed the peanut butter cheese crackers from the top of the book shelf and had himself a feast. His bag of peanut butter dog treats was open on the floor by the book case, but they were untouched. When we got home later that day we found the evidence, a few empty wrappers, on the landing of the steps, his favorite perch.
Sammy had what I considered an amazing sensitivity, in this respect. My mother would visit from Baltimore and had to bring her oxygen tank, which was not very portable back in those days. My family had had a dog in the 1950’s, but she was long past being used to being around a dog. She was fighting leukemia and she didn’t let her oxygen tank keep her down. But Sammy, instinctively I think, did not get under her feet as she walked, did not jump up on her, although he let her pet him and thankfully did not chew or step on or do anything to her oxygen tubing. As wonderful as our other dogs have been, I don’t think they would have had Sammy’s sensitivity. In truth, Sammy was pretty laid back and we used to joke that he was a California beagle.
After the youngest graduated from high school and we moved from our house to a two bedroom apartment we decided to get a crate for Sammy. There were no teenagers living at home to look out for him while we were still at work and felt he needed to be more contained during the day. At this point we had had Sammy for five years, which made him about eight years old. In two weeks or less, he was not only used to the crate, he would go in there for a place to relax without being asked.
Sammy also traveled very well. A little over two years after moving into the apartment I was approved and appointed to serve three United Methodist Churches in North Central Pennsylvania. Sammy comfortably road on the front seat or the floor of the front seat of my car for the four hour drive. We moved in, to what turned out to be Sammy’s last home. I wanted a dog to fill an empty and aching spot in my heart and we found just the right dog and hopefully, he got just the right family.
When I say nice things about my husband, he teases me about tarnishing his carefully built reputation, but he was so right to point me in the direction of a rescue site. If you have a home full of love and room in your heart, I hope you will do the same. I am glad that we didn’t get a puppy from a pet store, but got a slightly older dog who needed to be part of a family.
I learned something from Sammy that I am only now beginning to understand. When we got Sam, I foolishly told my husband that I didn’t think dogs understood English. Actually they learn at least the basics of whatever language their family speaks. They can also tell time, well they think they can, especially when it is time to eat, or time for a snack. I wanted a dog to love and care for, but I had no idea that Sammy would begin the tradition of carving out his own space and become not just a pet, but a part of the family. I didn’t know when a pet died that it hurt in many ways as if it had been a family member; because that is exactly what Sammy was, family. He truly was the best gift.
Sammy was the first of four rescue dogs that have carved out space in our hearts and home in thirty-one years. And we have been the better for it!
Not holding back the tide,
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When I say that I grew up in a bar, it is a slight exaggeration; but, not in the way you might think. My parents bought the Union Villa Hotel, Bar and Restaurant in December 1961, just after it closed for the season. In mid-March 1962 we moved to an apartment on the first floor of the hotel above the bar. We lived in that apartment until they sold the business in November of 1969. Dad tended the bar and mom ran the kitchen, making pizza, subs (grinders), spaghetti and meatballs and stuffed quahogs. (Pronounced Co-hogs). If I wanted to spend time with my parents, it had to be in the bar, so yes, I really did grow up in a bar, but it wasn’t just The Union Villa.
Long before they bought the Union Villa, my parents were avid social drinkers and it was one of the main social activities when my dad was arriving home from sea (Celebration), spending time in the community (everyday life) or getting ready to go back to sea (saying goodbye). When I was very young I obviously did not go along on those outings, but stayed with my grandmother, but as I got to be 6 or 7, some of my earliest memories are sitting in a booth in any given barroom, coloring, reading, playing with paper dolls, or for a brief time, trying to learn how to knit, while my parents sat at the bar visiting and drinking. They made the rounds and so did I. I could recite or sing most of the current beer commercials before I was 10.
Most of the bars no longer exist, although I remember where they were. There were three bars in Onset that were part of their regular stops, The Union Villa, The Glen Cove Hotel, which has been renovated and reopened. https://glencoveonsetbeach.com/ and Henderson’s Bar. I liked Henderson’s Bar too because it was right next to Lowell’s Drug Store and I could sometimes get permission to go there and get an ice cream cone to take back with me to Henderson’s. I watched in fascination as Mrs. Lowell turned the cone upside down and dipped it in chocolate jimmies, wondering how the ice cream managed to not fall in or off.
There was Nickerson’s on Route 28 , right next to the White Rabbit Restaurant (I think that is a gas station now) and the China Maid Restaurant and Bar, and a bar in Middleboro, a neighboring town. I think it was the Fireside Inn. I liked that place because they had vending machines in every booth, where it was possible to get a hand full of pistachio nuts for a nickel. The China Maid had table side juke boxes where you could turn the pages and play 3 songs for a quarter. I have more memories of being in the Restaurant at the China Maid than in the bar. Imagine, not all bars welcomed children! Dad was an Elk too, so a trip to the Elks was often, but not always, part of the regular circuit. When we went to the Elks, I had to sit in the lobby and was not allowed in the bar at all. While they didn’t always hit every stop on the circuit, it was seldom one stop and then home.
At some point in the late 1950’s all this bar hopping turned into research and “what if” conversations about buying a bar. They certainly had a lot of experience as customers, and a good supply of experienced bar owners who were willing to share their knowledge. I know they had conversations back and forth about which one of the bars they frequented might be available for purchase, but by 1961 had settled on The Union Villa. I have vague memories of mom spending time with the previous owner to learn how she made the pizzas, learning how to make the dough and sauce. This purchase was a dream for them because this was the business venture that allowed dad to retire from sea and be home all the time.
There were many times when the party came home. When we lived at the house in Point Independence, it was not unusual for dad to invite neighbors to stop in and have a drink, or two or three, and celebrate with him because he was home. After we had moved to the bar, there were some friends and customers who visited our apartment in the winter when the bar was closed. They knew they would get free beer in the off season and during the season that the bar was open, they were regular paying customers.
It may have been more of a semi-retirement, the first three years Jack and Maggie spent the off-season making improvements, getting rid of the old orange and green wooden booths, and putting in newer black and silver tables and booths, getting rid of antiquated equipment. I was especially glad about that. The apartment only had one bedroom so the first year I slept in the living room. I could hear that old beer cooler that was directly under where I slept, it was noisy. There were times I wondered if it was going to explode. They spent the off season working downstairs, making improvements during their first three years of ownership. They extended the bar by a few feet, creating a more private entrance from the bar into the kitchen. They paneled the barroom and pool room; paneling was all the rage in the 1960’s, and finished updates on the kitchen equipment. After that work was complete, dad returned to sea during the off seasons when when the bar was closed.
They were 51 when they bought the bar and it was tiring work on their feet, for long hours; but they were together, and that made all the difference. The night they opened the bar however, my mother ended up in the hospital for emergency surgery. Dad tended bar, there was nothing else he could do. I sat on a bench directly in front of the bar, but on the floor where dad could work and make sure I was alright. And yes, I was scared. I was 11 years old and it was noisy, and my mom wasn’t there. All this took place in April of 6th grade. It did not take very long for my parents to decide that maybe it would be better to send me to Catholic Boarding School, than have me be around the bar all the time. So that September, I went to Sacred Heart School in Kingston, from seventh grade to tenth grade; but I was always home on weekends and the summer, the busiest times in the bar.
The second year we were there, they made a doorway between our bathroom and the hotel room that had served as a linen closet, and that became my bedroom. Although it was the linen closet for the hotel, it was a full bedroom. At least my bed was no longer directly over antiquated equipment but my bedroom in general, was located above the juke box. Do you know what often happened when people were drinking a lot and were unhappy? They fed the juke box with quarters and played the same song over, and over again. Please don’t think less of me when I say, that is how I learned to dislike country music and some singers. I will not tell you the unkind things I thought and said about Johnny Cash when I was 14, but today in 2020, I love the sound of his voice.
I am not saying any of this for shock value or pity, it was just where and how I grew up. I was fortunate to have two parents who loved each other and worked together very well. Admittedly, there were drawbacks; our apartment was directly over the bar, the pool room and the kitchen. When it was time to say goodnight to my parents, they couldn’t just stop work to walk me “home.” I said goodnight to my mom in the kitchen and slipped behind the bar, just long enough to give my dad a kiss on the cheek, then walked upstairs by myself to the first floor of the hotel and let myself into our apartment. Sometimes that felt scary. There was a measure of freedom in that, however; I would sometimes read with a flashlight after my bedtime or stay up late watching television. One of them always came upstairs to check up me, but they didn’t come upstairs together to stay until the bar was closed and everything was cleaned up, which was close to 1:00 a.m. As a result, I watched the Tonight Show a lot when I was 12.
One of the biggest drawbacks for me, was being around so many people who had too much to drink. You cannot reason with a person who is drunk. You can’t always understand slurred words or slurred intentions. All these years later, I still remember what stale beer and cigarettes smelled like. I think that I had a lot more patience and understanding being around so many people that were drinking or had too much to drink when I was 15, than I might now.
In many ways I was limited in how helpful I could be, but I spent a lot of time folding pizza boxes, cutting 40-pound blocks of cheese and running it through the grinder and occasionally helping to make pizza dough. When it wasn’t busy, I could make pizzas. I could empty ash trays and liked helping people find places to sit when it was busy, but because I was under 21, way under 21, I could not touch a beer bottle or empty drink class. It was alright though, my parents had to work, and if I wanted to spend time with them, I had to do it there, downstairs. I never felt forced, however; but making myself useful was the best opportunity to have their company.
There were no family dinners. Mom would cook as good a meal as she could so that we didn’t live on pizza and spaghetti, but cooking a meal was one thing, eating together was impossible, so we ate in shifts, myself included. We did go to a local restaurant for breakfast together every morning before the bar opened. Mom had tried cooking breakfast that we could sit and eat together, but invariably a customer would lean over the booth where we were sitting and say, “Gee, Maggie, that looks good. Can you make one for me?”
It was a different way to grow up, but for better or worse it was home. My parents worked hard, and their work provided a good living. Even more than that, it gave them the best opportunity to be together nine months of the year for those seven years. I am pretty sure they wouldn’t have traded it for the world.
No, it’s not what you might think. Perhaps I should have written”proof of having lived.” Except for two years in a two-bedroom apartment, my husband and I are living in the smallest home we have ever occupied in our thirty-three years of marriage. I love our home, and truth be told I still have a lot of things that I am attached to emotionally. I have a college degree plus two post graduate degrees, which means I have a lot of books. Many of my books are professional in nature; far more non-fiction than fiction. In addition to all the books that are left, I have a kindle with about 100 books on it, give or take and a library card. Okay, two library cards.
Books are still the hardest for me to get rid of, even if they are not emotional attachments. I serve two churches in retirement, so I have held onto all my preaching resources. In addition to writing this blog, I write monologues and other stories for use in Biblical Storytelling, so any academic resource about women’s lives in biblical times is still on my shelves. When I retired and we bought our own home I had to leave behind the wonderful built in, wall to wall, bookcases that were part of every parsonage we occupied. My office in our retirement home is 8’ by 8’ and contains a computer desk, an old oak teacher’s desk and three bookcases that are only a little over 2 feet wide. They do not hold nearly as many books as any parsonage I have ever inhabited. I have given away books to friends and colleagues, I have culled my books and donated some that might be useful to the local library and done so several times. Everything in me abhors the thought of throwing books away.
Sometimes I have given books away, only to wish I still had them. After carrying my high school year book with me for fifty years with no contact with any of my classmates, I grit my teeth and threw it out, just before our retirement move. Five months later, in October of 2018, I reconnected with a few former classmates and in October of 2019 sat down to dinner in a restaurant with 10 of them. No yearbook. In another case I had a book on my shelves that was written by a local colleague many years ago. I bought it because he had written it, and it might be useful in a different context but never read it. It too went into a give-away pile. It was a smart move. Yet, ironically shortly after doing so, I was appointed to serve the very church he had written about!
I once knew a woman who lived in a camper and the rule of thumb she and her husband practiced was if something new came into the home something else had to go; blouse for blouse, book for book. Stockpiling anything was not allowed. Now, near the end of my first year of retirement and my first year living in our own home I am working intentionally to make my possessions fit our space and not the other way around. I don’t want to feel boxed in by stuff, or by boxes containing stuff. I don’t want to add more furniture to hold the stuff that won’t fit anywhere else. But combing through my possessions, whether it is clothes, books, knickknacks, gifts or even paper files it is just not easy. And let’s not even get started about family pictures.
When it comes to keeping or eliminating possessions, being an itinerant pastor has been an advantage. We move when and where the Bishop sends us, by agreement. It is so easy to accumulate additional possessions without realizing it, they generally just fit into places, or storage boxes, or closets and we hardly notice, until it is time to pack. So, with each move we have made since we were married, we have, without any argument, held yard sales. In our first big move we sent two loads to a local auction house and held two yard sales. In addition to the sales, we have donated to local thrift stores and gotten rid of anything that was broken beyond repair. The most difficult time we had was during our first pastoral move when after the moving truck had left and we loaded everything we could fit into our two vehicles, we resorted to leaving the things that would not fit on the curb or in the trash. (We still haven’t replaced that Hibachi Grill).
Make no mistake, this is not easy physical or emotional work. Many of us are so prone to hang onto things we might one day use. That beautiful dress I haven’t been able to fit into for 15 years might still be in style when I lose the weight that I have gained. Or, that table you might get around to fixing, the chest you might one day refinish…you get the idea.
Parting with clothes is another obstacle to downsizing. A few years ago, at the beginning of Lent I grabbed on to the popular “give 40 things away” trend and used that for my Ash Wednesday service. We even rolled up black trash bags and tied them with red ribbons to give out along with the imposition of ashes. Because I try to practice what I preach, I attacked my own closet with robust determination. Have you ever had to put your hands together as in prayer, and use those hands to forcibly push coat hangers and their clothes apart so you can pull something out to wear? I did, but I don’t anymore. I kept at it and until I could see the clothes that were in my closet and not have to pry clothes and hangers apart with superhuman strength, just to get dressed.
Now, I am no “clothes horse”, so this is relatively easy, but not totally. On my days off I tend to live in jeans and tees or sweaters, depending on the season. My wardrobe for Sunday worship is likewise simple, black dress slacks, colorful polo shirts with the names of the churches and denominational seal embroidered on the shirt. That might not work in every church setting, but I am a retired pastor serving rural churches. In my current setting, our retirement home, I am resolved to keep only those clothes that will fit into my dresser, my closet and one tote of off-season clothes. In addition, I have a few items that pass for professional dress as needed for funerals, weddings and other official things. Despite all this, I really do like to clothes shop, but I try to be careful that if I bring something new into the closet, something else must go.
The most difficult possessions I have ever parted with had lived in my china closet. I had carefully collected, a simple set of Lenox China, a service for eight. It was the most inexpensive pattern, the silver band on the rim of the plate and I bought them one place setting at a time after my youngest child was born. But we hit some very lean times when our children were teenagers and I came to the difficult conclusion that one cannot eat sentiment. So, they were sold in a yard sale.
Then there was a lovely, heavy cut glass punch bowl that my mother had given me, bought for me. I used it a few times and loved it. But as we prepared to move from our four-bedroom four story rental to a two-bedroom apartment, I grit my teeth and let it go in a sale. It still makes me sad because it was a gift from mom. But in truth, I cannot think of one time in the last twenty-five years when I might have used it. It would have stayed in the bottom of a china closet collecting dust.
When my mother died, we were certainly left with some difficult tasks, funeral details, cleaning out her apartment and disposing of her things but she had done much of the emotional work for herself. In the weeks leading up to her final health crisis, she began going through her china closet and deciding who she wanted to have the things that were there. She went a step beyond carefully packing them and mailing them or preparing them for the mail. She also did one final read of all my father’s letters to her and destroyed them. I had read many of them as a teenager and I admit I was disappointed not to find them. But I appreciate the fact that they were her personal possession and her right to do with them what she wanted.
My husband is a wise man and he is the one responsible for my current train of thought. He began getting rid of cards and other sentimental things. At first, I was hurt, but then I realized the wisdom in doing that. But that wisdom also begets this question: When I finish getting rid of all the things, I should get rid of, will there be any proof that I have lived, that I have passed this way? And If I want to leave some kind of “’proof of life” behind, what should it be? I am not trying to be morbid, and as far as I know, I am not currently actively dying. But these are decisions that I should be making for myself and not leaving to my spouse or children or strangers.
The work of downsizing or decluttering can be so hard. I have had modest success but am sure that I will never be a minimalist. These are a few secrets to the modest success that I have had:
First, a determination to ruthlessly evaluate every possession. Second, a determination to not be surrounded by boxes filled with stuff. Third, a determination to practice what I preach. Fourth, gritting my teeth and just doing what needed to be done. Fifth, I agree with organizational experts who insist that the way to declutter is not shiny, new closet organizational structures. The way to declutter is to ruthlessly eliminate things you no longer need, want or use so that others might be able to use them. Sixth, I have tried to adopt a mindset that says if I have enjoyed something for thirty years (pictures, mementos of all varieties) it is time to let someone else have the pleasure.
So, what about you, dear reader? Do you have suggestions or advice that you would add to this list? There is no danger that I am going to pick everything up that I own or ever touched and throw it into a dumpster. I am carefully combing through books, papers, trinkets, etc. and giving them away, or taking them to the neighborhood thrift shop or trying valiantly to find a home for them. I have a long way to go but I am trying to do the intelligent, emotional work of limiting my possessions and being careful about the choices. But I also don’t want to lose myself in the process. If my son or daughter were to come into my home after I am gone and see the things I have chosen to leave behind, I hope they would say, “That is so mom!”
When I was a little girl, my mother taught me this bedtime prayer, “God bless mommy and daddy, Steve and me and all my relations. Please let daddy have a safe journey…” I do not remember how the prayer ended, or if it simply ended there with an “Ah-men.” We always prayed for dad to have a “safe journey” because he was in the Merchant Marine, and at sea more than at home. And because when storms came, it was not unusual for people to pray for them to go out to sea. I haven’t thought about “…all my relations” for a long time. Both of my parents were from large families. We lived near some of my dad’s family in Massachusetts, but we saw much more of my mother’s side of the family and most of them were in Baltimore. Although I occasionally saw Marcellino cousins, it was my O’Hara aunts, uncles and cousins that I knew best and saw most often.
After both of my parents had passed away and I had moved on and out-of-state, I frequently commented that “I wouldn’t know any of my cousins if I fell over them.” And I also said that while I thought my father was very loving, I thought his family were a bunch of cold fish. I had my reasons. (Sorry cousins!) I should say however, that I spent a lot of time with my grandmother, my dad’s mother, when I was quite young, and I loved her. She was from Lisbon, Portugal, and spoke beautiful broken English with a thick accent. She would talk about ‘the old country’ and because of her, I love the sounds of all languages. And my ears tune in to the sounds of regional accents wherever I may be when I hear them.
Something happened recently to make me think again about “all my relations” and to see them with new eyes. The “Something” was that I had an opportunity to go to Onset and spend a whole week. It was the first time in 45 years that I had more than two days in town for a funeral or a quick visit. I had a few unanswered questions about my father and his family before heading home and when I posed them to my brother, he put me in touch with some relatives I did not know existed. They are, in a sense, new relatives. We have always been related; we just didn’t know it and we didn’t know each other existed. I would have known sooner, had I shown my brother’s interest in our family heritage and culture, or even if I had shown interest in the research that he was doing. One keen example of this is when we went home for our mom’s funeral service, besides walking around our home town separately, he and his family went to the town hall to look at birth records, and I went to the beach to look for shells. But several relatives, including my brother and the grandchildren of some of my dad’s siblings have taken advantage of the offerings of Ancestry.com and other similar organizations and started digging.
In some cases, the cousins who were doing this research have been at it for years, in other cases; some of us have only recently turned our attention to our father’s or grandparents’ family, and have only recently come to the party. Nevertheless, one day a few months ago, eight of us met for the first time in Antonio’s (Portuguese) Restaurant in New Bedford, Massachusetts, https://www.antoniosnewbedford.com/ for a long, leisurely lunch. With spreadsheets, cell phones and pictures, we compared notes, histories, stories that had been passed down, shared myths and worked our way through “myth-information.” We talked about old conflicts that had torn the family apart, inherited diseases, longing for knowledge and healing.
We found love and hope, in the open hearts of our cousins. We walked each other through some of our individual family stories and helped each other pick up loose threads. We made decisions to repair the breach, to not carry old wounds but to heal them and to go bravely into conversations that perhaps our parents and grandparents would have wished we had left “well enough alone.” We laughed, cried and embraced, scoured the cemetery where the grandparents’/great-grandparents are buried and took pictures.
For me personally, the knowledge I seek is more about my father’s siblings and their children and grandchildren, than it is about those who came before. Because those who came before, are people I can learn something about, but the cousins who are descended from my father’s siblings are people I can know. In getting to know them and their stories, I can see something of my father and grandmother and hopefully, learn something about myself along the way.
So now, I need to pick up something of my old bedtime prayer and say, God bless mom and dad, Steve and me, my spouse and our children and grandchildren…and all my relations. I think about my “new” cousins and a smile breaks across my face and a tear glistens in my eye and there is a spring of sorts in my step that wasn’t there before. I am a vintage chic on a journey of discovery and determined to press on.
There is a funny, but perhaps universal thing about children and their parents. We tend to think our parents had no lives until we came along, born or adopted, we think it is all about us. Truthfully, there are some things we do not want to know about our parents and perhaps that is as it should be. I say this because it occurs to me that while I know my dad was from Onset, it never occurred to me that he lived anywhere but onboard ship once he went to sea at thirteen until he and my mom got married. He was thirty-one when they met and married.
It strikes me that it is an unrealistic assumption that he did not return home for visits. Although a cousin recently shared with me that there was a period of a few years when no one in the family was sure where he was. Again, these were things my father never talked about. It does make sense though, that before he was signed on a ship at 13, that his father must have ensured that he had some skills. As one of the older children in a large poor family, he could not have been coddled or spoiled. It also makes sense that in those early years there was an expectation that all or part of his salary went to the family. Sometime in his youth he began boxing and he also learned other skills at home that he would not have learned at sea. For instance, at least two of his brothers were masons and there is considerable proof that he learned masonry from somewhere, whether it was from his brothers or some other source.
Dad sailed for American Export Lines as a Chief Mate in the 1950’s and 1960’s, which later became American Export Isbrandsten Lines. Regular trips to the Mediterranean Sea were about three months long. In between trips to other countries and a coastwise trip, he would sometimes have a week off to be home before sailing. A coastwise trip, was a journey up and down the east coast to drop off imports, or pick up products for export. Trips to the Indian Ocean were much longer, as long as five or six months, so again with some time at home in-between trips and six weeks of vacation a year, he was gone much more than he was at home. I have vague memories of him going to work on my uncle’s turkey farm on those breaks, including a time he had stepped on a nail and had to get a tetanus shot.
While he had traveled all over the world as a sailor, both in the Merchant Marine and the United States Navy, my mother never left Baltimore, until their honeymoon. He took her to Onset to meet his parents and family. They lived in Baltimore, or rather mom did. Dad sailed out of Hoboken, New Jersey and traveled to Baltimore for the first few years they were married. Then, when my brother was not quite two, they moved to Onset and bought a house on an acre of ground in Point Independence, just up the street from the beach, and a few blocks away from my grandparents’ home. Mom had saved up the money that dad sent her, literally “socked it away” in a sock, so they had the money at least for the down-payment if not the whole thing.
They built eight cottages on the outside edge of the property in a horseshoe configuration. Dad laid the foundation for the houses, and he also put in the cesspool himself. He worked with a neighbor and local contractor to build the cottages. They were primarily there for “the summer people” who came to visit the local beaches, but the cottages were winterized and soon there were more Air Force families than summer people living there. Mom did the painting, made slipcovers for the couches and handled most of the business and rentals.
They worked together well, and it gave mom plenty to do when dad was at sea, which was most of the time. They were proud and grateful to have the land and the business. Mom also got active in the local PTA and made friends. There were no Marcellino family gatherings or parties, just occasional individual visits, but no real companionship or encouragement. I think if it were not for her two best friends, one from Onset and one from Wareham, mom would have been lost. She missed her family in Baltimore, and she missed dad at sea.
There was a black iron grate in the ceiling in the hallway that went upstairs, for heat and at night we could hear the sounds of her at the typewriter, typing letters as she wrote letters to dad, or to her family at home. Now, one does not generally hear someone typing a letter on a computer, unless you are sitting near them. But in 1950, there were no electric typewriters, let alone computers, but old standard manual typewriters that made a racket, especially if one was typing with great emotion or in a rush, and one could always hear the ding of the carriage return. Sometimes we would hear the typewriter and sometimes we heard sobs.
The separations weren’t easy for him either. People made a lot of assumptions about the lure and romance of the sea, but by the time he and mom met and married he had been a sailor for almost twenty years. It was a job; it was how he earned his living. He often said after the first two weeks at sea, everyone was all talked out. Except for doing their best in building and investing in the cottages, I doubt he saw any way out. So, they would drink their goodbyes, and mom would say that she “poured’ him onto the bus, train or plane, depending on how he was going to get back to New Jersey before it was time to sail.
Sometime after 1953 she got her driver’s license and then was able to drive him to Hoboken and they could spend his off hours together, before he sailed. I would stay with my grandmother or with family friends. Sometimes though, we would all go to Hoboken and spend family time when he wasn’t on duty and then after his ship sailed, we would travel on to Baltimore to spend some time with mom’s family before heading home to Onset.
My best memory of doing that happened when I was in high school. We were living at the Union Villa at that point, and dad went back to sea in the off season. He was scheduled to be in New Jersey shortly before Christmas. School wasn’t out yet, but it would be shortly. Mom was getting dad’s things ready to pack. A thought popped into my head and I asked, “Why can’t we just take dad to Hoboken and then go on to Baltimore after he sails?” I did not have to ask the question twice; we were packed, and in the car, heading for Hoboken in 45 minutes. That is why in my High School Class Will it states, “Michele Marcellino leaves on another trip to Baltimore.”
When I arrived at my new parish, I learned that one of my parishioners was also a Beach Girl, from New Jersey. When I told her I was going to be going home for a quick two days for the first time in twenty-five years, and asked if I could bring her anything she said, “Salt Water Taffy.” It wasn’t as easy as I had hoped, being in town during the week, during the off season, but I did manage to find some taffy for Betti. Not sure how fresh it was but I wanted to keep the promise. Her health was failing. When she had passed away the following spring, and I was struggling for something original to share at her funeral service, I wrote this. In truth I wrote it for her as well as for myself.
For Betti and for me
When you are a “beach girl” and you live close to the water, and you don’t have to drive for hours to get there, you know the smell of the ocean, and the beach; the sound the waves make, inch by inch, lapping up the sand.
You know the call of the tides, the crispness of sun-dried seaweed left on the beach after low tide, and the sight and sound of the gulls, circling over head or hopping on the beach.
You relish the squishy feel of wet sand between your toes, and maybe you remember when you were little jumping up and down on the wet sand, amazed at the light color that appeared where you jumped, as though it were a sunburst in the sand, pushing the darkness away.
When you are a beach girl you never outgrow the search for sea shells, perfect or not, left abandoned by their former occupants, an amazing collection of calcium carbonate with ridges, colors and textures that range from a pale peach translucent, to an iridescent purple black or even chalky white.
When you’re a “beach girl”, you always know where to get the best salt water taffy. And if you move away, it won’t matter because you always remember the sights and sounds and smells of the beach because you carry them in you heart.
I have been thinking about the tradition of writing, mailing or giving Christmas cards lately. In some ways it seems so 1950’s. I remember my mother keeping a list of names inside the cover of a large Christmas card box, so she could check off each one as she signed it. No Christmas letters for mom, no long notes, and no expensive cards, just a simple box of different scenes. I love receiving cards, especially cards with notes in them, but truth be told it has been years since I have taken the time to send very many. Some years I have simply sent cards to people as I received theirs, or limited my card sending to immediate family. Last year I gave out cards at church as “Epiphany Cards” because I couldn’t get them done until after Christmas. For me, the big factor that determines what “fun” Christmas activities I do, depends on my having the Christmas Eve Services ready to go. And in the years I served as a Student Pastor, my final papers had to be written and turned in before I could plan the Christmas Eve Service.
Back to Christmas cards though, if I were to restart the practice of sending or giving cards to everyone I care about, something else would have to go. I am pretty sure that rising postage costs have limited the number of cards that people mail, but many church folks have found a way around that. They write cards to church members and bring them to church. Some churches have a special card box and one or two members take responsibility for sorting through them and putting cards into stacks that can then be handed to people, or folks have to wander up to the front rows where no one in their right mind sits during worship (excuse the sarcasm). Some folks just hand them out. And then there are those e-cards that people send. And the infamous Christmas letter.
Time is, or should be, a determining factor for many of the pursuits we choose to pack into the month of December. I don’t know anyone who can take time off of work to shop, wrap, bake, party, travel, visit, and decorate and all of that without factoring in seasonal concerts, plays, special services and cleaning the house to get ready for company. Even though my children were grown and on their own before I became a pastor, I still feel that time crunch. I write from the perspective of one who loves all of those things, the “trappings of Christmas.” But I have learned to be choosy, even if some of the things I choose take a lot of time. For instance in the years that I have not been in school (can you say life long learner?) I have spent some significant time playing with gingerbread. I don’t make complicated houses, I am not that talented. But I have taken great delight in making large amounts of gingerbread dough and hosting gingerbread house workshops at church, especially for the youth.
So, here is a question I want to raise: what about you? Do you still send or give Christmas cards? Why or why not? And, what do you think about the tradition of the Christmas letter? Perhaps an even more important question I have to ask myself, and so I ask you, have we lost something in abandoning this tradition of writing notes, signing and sending Christmas cards? There is so much pressure on us today to hurry, to fast food, to self check out and online buying with as little human contact as possible, all in the name of efficiency, or expedience. What if buying, signing and sending (or giving) Christmas cards to people you care about and appreciate is a simple act of rebellion against the impersonal bent that characterizes life in December 2019? Does it have to be this way? What do you think?
Life at the Union Villa, when we lived there, was like a cross between “Joe the Bartender” from the Jackie Gleason Show* and Cheers.** My dad was definitely “Joe the Bartender,” well, “Jack the Bartender.” “Joe the Bartender” was a regular skit on the Jackie Gleason show. As each scene opened, the doors of the bar would part, to reveal Joe wiping off the bar and singing “My Gal Sal” although it was barely recognizable. He would pour a drink for Mr. Dunahee, whom the audience never saw, and start a conversation. Eventually Joe would invite a local named “Crazy Gugenheim” to join in the conversation. “Crazy” was played by Frank Fontaine.
How was life at the Union Villa like Joe the Bartender? Joe was a big guy, wearing a white dress shirt, wiping down the bar singing off key and holding forth with the customers. That was dad. Although he would not drink during the busy season of Memorial Day through Labor Day, in the off season he would have a few drinks with the fellas at the end of the bar. When he had had enough to drink, or rather too much, he would sing “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” while wiping down the bar. That was dad and I had no doubt then, or now that he was singing it for my mother!
The similarities with Cheers was mostly in the downstairs, although it was just three steps down, not a whole flight, and in the special group of regulars that hung at the end of the bar. They nick-named themselves “The Dirty Corner.” I have no intention of being crude here, just describing the atmosphere and my family. Dad would hang in the corner with them when it wasn’t too busy. There were some customers who came in for a beer or two on their way home from work, but these guys stayed, for hours it seemed. They were always nice to me and careful around me and in many ways, some of the guys seemed like extended family, especially Dick and Hoppy, and others to some extent. They were not only regulars at the bar, but they were regulars in dropping in for a few free drinks at the apartment, when the bar was closed for the winter. I never felt that I wasn’t safe around them and there was a lot of good-natured teasing. When they decided they had exercised enough restraint and wanted to let lose, there would be a chorus of “Good Night, Michele!” Letting me know it was time for me to move along.
A word about language and liquor: If you have been following along on my blog you know that my Dad, Jack, was a sailor. He talked like a sailor and there were probably more cuss words than non-cuss words in his general conversation. Although I have no doubt that he knew the word, I have long been grateful that the “F-Bomb” was not one that I heard from him. When I hear such language, I wish that I could hand out small pocket versions, not of Gideon Bibles, but of dictionaries or Thesaurus’ or some other type of resource for the clean-language deprived.
When it came to alcohol, my social world as a child was filled with it, the only difference between living at The Union Villa and life before we moved there, was the numbers of people who were imbibing. I think I became immune in some way, and I always understood that this was my parents’ business and livelihood.
There were many perks to life at the Union Villa. I should say that biggest perk was that my dad was home and not at sea. It was especially a bonus for my parents. They worked hard and had a good strong work ethic. In the early part of the season, and after Labor Day, they did everything themselves, which meant that dad was the only bartender and mom was the only person in the kitchen. Once a day mom would tend bar, so dad could go upstairs to shower and change. She did most of the cooking, but dad made the spaghetti sauce and the meatballs.
Mom made the pizza sauce, the pizza dough and made the pizzas as well as sandwiches (Meatball Subs, and Italian subs, and occasionally she made stuffed Quohogs.) The first year, she sliced peppers and onions and made a design on each pizza. After that she got wise and chopped everything up and kept things moving. I wish I had her recipe for the pizza dough, just for sentimental reasons, but it made 36 pizzas and I have never made more than two at a time.
In theory, all our meals could have been pizza or spaghetti and I have not outgrown my love of pizza. Mom made sure to cook real meals for us, so that we ate well, even though we couldn’t sit at the table and eat together. In the busy season, from Memorial Day until Labor Day, there was extra help, an additional bartender, one waitress and one extra person in the kitchen. I helped where I could and I wanted to, I never felt required to do it. On occasion, I made pizza dough and could roll and make a pizza, if it wasn’t rush time. I mostly folded pizza boxes, but not at the rapid pace I have seen on recent television commercials.
On a busy night in the summer, they might make as many as 100 pizzas or a little more. I know that is nothing today, but it was a barroom that sold food, not a restaurant that sold liquor.
My father could be outrageous. When a friend visited, dad would ask him, in front of the whole bar, “Young man, what are your intentions toward my daughter?” There were only 2boys I knew who could stand up to that kind of treatment and still come back, my best friend, and the boy I eventually married, who was my best friend’s college roommate. Once a boy came to see me and ordered a pizza. Dad said, “I’ll give you the pizza free if you go get a haircut.” (1965). Not surprisingly, he did not come back.
For my own part, I could be a bit of a brat. Sometimes when I had a quarter to put in the juke box, I would play, Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road Jack” though I never meant it. When dad was drinking during the off season, I would sometimes take a magic marker and mark the line on the Jim Beam bottle (his preferred drink) before I went to bed. And when I went behind the bar to kiss him goodnight, I would ring the ship’s bell. I knew that would only be annoying if he had a hangover, but I did it to be, well, a brat.
Some of the more selfish perks to life at the Union Villa were that I could have pizza with my friends whenever I wanted. I could also have all the soda that I wanted, but that wasn’t as wonderful as it might seem. In the 1960’s soda bottles came with bottle caps that required a bottle opener. There were rubber stoppers with metal handles that would be inserted after the bottle was open. But I was pretty sure then, and still feel now, that dad gave me the soda from the bottom of the bottle that was going flat.
I have never been much of a picture taker and most of the pictures I have that my mom had taken were from the 1950’s. I have only two pictures of my mom and dad behind the bar and they are so old and beat up they would not show very well. They are Polaroid pictures that I keep in a plexiglass frame and seldom remove them lest they totally fall apart. One of them is a long shot down the bar, showing many of the regular customers and dad at the other end. The other one is mom and dad in a closeup, with dad in a pressed white shirt and mom wearing a skirt and sweater with a frilly apron. Mom wore uniforms in the kitchen, but always pretty colors. Not sure she owned any casual clothes and I never saw her in slacks until she was in her 70’s and those were pantsuits that she had made for herself. So, many pictures of mom and dad, especially at the Villa, are in my heart. All I can do is show you snapshots through stories.
It was an interesting way to grow up, not particularly good or bad. I had many blessings and some trials. Some days I marvel at the fact that growing up in that atmosphere I did not become an alcoholic, which in some sense, seems to be a family disease. I was relatively sheltered in the midst of all that alcohol and other things. I remember the smell of stale cigarettes and beer. I remember the noise of the bar, the sounds of the band and the player piano, Dad with a wad of chewed up cigar, not too discretely tucked in his cheek, dad ducking his head in the window to the kitchen to holler in a pizza order, “Two plain pizzas for red-shirt.” I remember the sting of cigarette smoke in my eyes on busy Saturday nights. I have carried these memories and stories with me for years, carefully storing them as if in a secret compartment and only hinting at them with the simple statement, “I grew up in a bar.”
Most of all, I remember life at the Union Villa with mom and dad, Jack and Maggie, during the most formative years of my life, as if it were yesterday.
One day I visited a colleauge who was preparing to retire and move out of state. She very graciously invited me, and others to look through her office and help ourselves to any props or items we might find useful. There was a beautiful but simple, multicolored long dress and a pink and grey water jug and a ruby red glass bottle with a glass stopper. I took them and thanked her. I hung up the dress in my office and set the water jug next to it and thought, “I could be………………anyone. I could be, the Woman at the Well.” And so I was.
A young boy gave me the gift of a green stuffed frog, after I had done a family study with him and his family around the story of Moses and the Plagues and the Prince of Egypt. That young boy is a young man now, perhaps close to 30 and while I have let other such things go, the Frog still sits on top of the second row of books in a bookcase. After all, one never knows when one might need a frog!
Yard sales can be great places to find props. One time when I was driving past a yard sale, and stopped because I saw an interesting stuffed sheep with a black face and a floral bow. I rescued him from the place of dishonor, sitting among discarded items for all to see. In talking with his previous owner, I learned that he had been made by someone, whose last name was Murray. So I bought him and brought him home to my office and named him Murray. Murray was quite companionable in my office and caused no trouble at all. Occasionally he visited church with me. For a relatively little guy, he is somewhat heavy, and I wonder if he doesn’t have some wire in his legs.
Later that year, at Christmas, we were staging a play that called for someone to throw stuffed sheep, but I did not want to subject him to that. After launching a search for gently used sheep and coming up empty, I made a small purchase and bought two lovely small sheep from Amazon and since it was Christmas time, I named them Frankie and Goldie (although, for the life of me I keep wanting to call them Frankie and Johnny). So, I had Frankie, Goldie and Murray (Myrrrrrhy). Frankie and Goldie became flying sheep. They were quite acrobatic. Murray watched approvingly from the sidelines.
Then, last year at Lent, Murray, Frankie, and Goldie got to guest star in a presentation of the Shepherd who left the 99 sheep in search of the one lost sheep. Other sheep have been added to the flock since then, including one with a rather wooden personality. All it can seem to do is sit there. Lambchop came to join the crew but met with an untimely end. It seems that Lambchop was a dog toy in disguise with a wonderful squeaker and was given to the dog! Just unspeakable, the drool, being sat on or waved about the room between the dog’s teeth, left to finish its days on a stinky dog bed.
Christmas time saw two new residents at Shepherdess Shelley’s Home for Wayward Sheep. Orphaned they were, left on her doorstep in a pretty Christmas bag, their previous owner trusting the Shepherdess to do the right thing and take them in. The mamma sheep was named Baaaath-sheep-ba and her little one was named Leg-a. Now about this time, I began to think all these gifts of sheep might be the slightest bit prophetic and began wondering if I shouldn’t try to accumulate some additional stuffed sheep. After all there are many stories in the bible about Shepherds and Jesus as the Good Shepherd and of course, the 23rd Psalm. If the Lord is our Shepherd, that must make us some kind of sheep. Plus, there are Messy Church* groups that use crocheted sheep and stuffed sheep to promote their activities, so there are lots of wonderful applications and opportunities. All this at a time when this pastor is trying to downsize, but I continued to contemplate putting out a call for more sheep.
I had lunch my friend who had given the previous sheep, except of course for Murray, Frankie and Goldie. After lunch, my friend reminded me to take back a canvas bag I had sent over with books in it. I grabbed the bag by the handles and low and behold there was a fluffy momma sheep and a little baby sheep stuffed into the bag. Their names are Emmmmm-i-ly and Alllllll-is. Without further delay I put out a call on Facebook for some gently used stuffed sheep. That raised a few eyebrows and question marks, let me tell you. My sheep sharing friend’s response was “Be careful what you wish for!”Continue reading “A Pastor and Her Props”
We have had four rescue dogs in 31 years, but never more than one at a time. When Sammy died, we were heartbroken and knew that we needed the time to grieve. That will make a lot of sense to pet owners and perhaps no sense at all to people who don’t have or want pets. We knew when Sammy died, that we would likely get another dog but we gave ourselves time. Sammy was such a sweet dog, our “California” Beagle, as laid back as they came. We lost him the middle of November and just moving into what folks laughingly call, a pastor’s busy season of Advent and Christmas. Also, I was in my second year in college as a full time student, serving three churches. Not only was I getting ready for final exams and writing final papers, Buck Season was looming. So, no new additions to the family in that mix of activity.
We got through Christmas and Buck season and the next semester at school began and we continued to contemplate Sammy’s absence. We, rather my husband, dog sat for a friend and we enjoyed having “four on the floor” scampering through the house. Although he will probably deny it, my husband started working on a dog collar. I am not sure what became of it, but that is what he said he was doing and once again, I started looking through the classified adds for another beagle. I can’t explain “Why beagles?” I just think they are cute. Now and then we would make a phone call but strike out.
I suppose you could say that my husband and I are a corny, sentimental couple, but every year we celebrate the anniversary of the day we met (it was a blind date) and the day we got married. Usually both anniversaries are good for dinner out, but on that certain day in 1998, instead of going out to dinner we went to the local SPCA. I was determined to come home with a beagle, but they didn’t have any; although they had a dog that looked a lot like a beagle on stilts. That was Roxanne. We never did narrow down her breed and they had her listed as a mix. She looked a lot like a Walker or Coon Hound but definitely tri-color, she had a brindle coat on her back, but everywhere else she was copper, tan and white. She had the body of a Greyhound and boy could she run. She could stretch out in front of the couch and span the entire thing!
She was in one of the pens outside and it was hard to get her attention or have any significant one on one time with her because she was totally obsessed with the Dalmatian in the pen next to hers, and pretty much ignored us. As obsessed as she was with her neighbor, I was that much determined to go home with something that looked like a beagle. She was an energetic puppy, with a sad bittersweet story. She and another sibling were found on a rock in the middle of the Susquehanna River. Someone had apparently thrown them off of a bridge. A couple going by in a boat rescued them. Roxanne had a broken femur and was not hurt as badly as her sibling.
The couple took the two dogs to a vet, paid for their surgeries and medical care, and brought them home and took care of them. But the time came, when they could not keep up with both dogs, so they kept the one who had been injured the worst and took Roxanne to the local SPCA. The shelter workers told us that she had stopped eating, had been there a long time, and was on the short list to be euthanized. She almost lost her young life twice. They didn’t tell us that until we had signed all the papers but there was no way we weren’t going to take her home then.
Roxanne was a sweet, funny dog who made her own way in our hearts She left her mark too: on the television remote for instance. Because we were living in a parsonage, I am grateful that she didn’t chew the house, she left the trim work and molding alone and cut her teeth on our stuff. Mostly mine, I think. For instance, I am not a big shoe person, I generally only have one pair of dress shoes and a pair of hikers and sneakers. One weekend I got done with classes and came home thinking I could settle down to work on my sermon. But that weekend, necessary sermon prep involved going to the store to buy a new pair of dress shoes for church on Sunday.
She liked pens and pencils, I guess we weren’t smart enough to get her chew toys early on so she made her own. There is this silly game my spouse and I play; we pick up something the dog has done or point to it and ask the question, “Did you do this?” knowing full well it was the dog. It did take me a while to catch on and not leave things laying around. Roxanne apparently liked jewelry, or anything she could make go crunch. I had a thin turquoise cross on a silver chain. The cross had a swirl of silver metal on the side of it, like a backwards “S” and I liked it because it reminded me of the United Methodist symbol of the Cross and Flame. Roxanne liked it too!
I may be a slow starter, but I eventually learned to not leave things lying around to tempt the puppy. But, I was sure my hikers were too tough for her, so I left them under the coffee table never dreaming that she would eat them. Yup, almost down to the soles. It is a wonder she did not have digestive issues. Maybe it was all that fiber! You can imagine we were both relieved when she outgrew the puppy chewing stage.
One of our friends had a Scottie dog and Rox was not a fan. Casey, the Scottie, wanted to play but Rox was not having any of it. Once, Casey was chasing Roxanne around and she crawled under the coffee table to get away, as if Casey couldn’t see her! When Rox had had enough, she would come into my office and crawl under my desk by my feet to get away.
My husband had managed to crate train Sammy, within two weeks and he was an old dog by the time we moved to the apartment. So, we reasoned, crate training a puppy should be easy. Never assume! There must have been a lot of crying, whimpering or panting involved, based on the amount of drool in the bottom of the crate, and she also broke her bottom teeth, trying to chew her way out of the crate. That wasn’t Roxanne being a puppy, that was her being terrified. The Vet’s verdict was “Separation Anxiety” so, bye-bye crate. As a result, Rox pretty much always had the run of the house when we had to leave her to go somewhere. The doorway into the kitchen was too wide for a gate; closing the closet type door at the top of the steps going down to the basement didn’t work either.
When we went on trips she went to the kennel. We have been very fortunate through the years, in every community we lived, we had good kennels with compassionate owners. There was one time we probably should have arranged for Rox to stay at the kennel that we did not. My husband was scheduled for a medical test that we thought would be relatively routine. It turned out that we were at the hospital for almost twelve hours.
When we got home, I went up stairs to the bedroom and saw the sheets disturbed. I thought perhaps my husband had started to change the sheets and changed his mind. But no, that wasn’t it. When I looked closer I saw that Roxanne had expressed her displeasure by getting the sheets somehow untucked and leaving behind signs of her annoyance that we would be gone so long. I was grateful in that moment that what she left behind was solid and not liquid!
Roxanne loved attention and really enjoyed visitors. She was pretty sure that any visitors who came to the door, came to pay her homage. We had the good fortune to have her with us for a little over 14 years and she was just a few months shy of her 15th birthday when she died. Once again, we wept and grieved. And I was not, do you hear me, not getting another dog. If we ever got another dog, it would be when I retired. And I meant it! But, I was unprepared for the huge void her death left in our home and in our hearts. Still, we gave ourselves time to grieve.