At Home in Onset: A Jack and Maggie Story

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.

Older man, older woman, young man in a suit, holding a cigar.
Anibal, Mary and Jack

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.

A young man in a suit holding a cigar

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.

Woman and boy sitting on the steps of a house, toddler girl facing the woman
Mom, my brother and me 1952

 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.”

Not holding back the tide,



My sense of smell is the least effective sense in my body, having been dulled, I suspect, from over 55 years of sneezing, snuffling and blowing, courtesy of allergies, seasonal colds and frequent bouts of bronchitis. I may have singled handedly kept the facial tissue industry in business. There are several scents that I associate with memories throughout my life; most but not all are pleasant associations.

picture of bouquet of flowers

 Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, is the sherry making capital of the world, at least it was in 1975. If you never saw a sign that said that, you would draw that conclusion on your own if you spent any time in Jerez. All you would need to do is to roll down your car windows as you drove through town. In a matter of seconds your nose would be assaulted by the pungent aroma of orange, grapes and alcohol. If you failed to roll down your windows, I have no doubt that the smell would reach you in time. The only chance of escape would be to drive fast and elude la Guardia National.

Four ounces of sherry in a glass maybe an invitation to sip, but inhaling sherry through your respiratory system gives one the sense of being mugged. Living near Jerez ruined me as a sherry drinker. Before moving to Spain, I had enjoyed an occasional glass of sherry and even had a favorite brand. But that ended abruptly; not only did I drive through Jerez, but I made the mistake of attempting to drown my sorrows in sherry later that week. I may have made a mistake, trying to down a drink with a smell that had become worse than medicinal to me, but I had hoped that sentimentality would win out over scents. Maybe 1975 was not a good year for sherry; it was not a good year for me, except of course for the birth of my son, earlier that year.

It is funny that the scents that are associated with memory seem to hold such power over us. For instance, when I was quite young, I developed a fondness for something most people find repulsive; cigar smoke. It is strictly sentimental.  My father smoked El Producto cigars. Now, I am no connoisseur; I probably could not pick out the scent of an El Producto cigar from the stench of a cheap stogie; but, just because all cigars remind me of Dad, I love cigar smoke and pipe smoke too.

No matter how strong, cigar smoke can transport me backwards through time. I remember the crackling sound as he peeled off the cellophane wrapper and wadded it up in a ball. He would look down at me and say, “Do you like music? Here, have a band.” Then he would slip the paper band off the cigar and put it into my hand. I fell for that every time. I stuck it on my finger, as though it were a ring. I admit that may sound more Freudian than I would like, but he was a special part of my life and has been gone a long time. Cigar smoke, for me, is a trigger that has the power to connect experience with memory, the past with present.

Some scents recall memories in clusters, like a bouquet of flowers. Many girls outgrow a fondness for dirt when they leave behind mud pies and sandcastles. But I have a grownup memory of dirt that will stay with me for as long as my mind does. I lived with my in-laws for six months, when I was pregnant with my third child and my soon to be ex-husband was at sea. My son was 17 months old and regarded his playpen as a prison. He developed the strongest arm muscles I have ever seen on a toddler, because he would lean his hands on the edge of the playpen, lift his body up and hold it at an angle like a gymnast resting on the parallel bars and scream non-stop. There was little dissuading him from this course.

The playpen was necessary because my mother-in-law’s idea of childproofing her home during our stay was moving the china closet with her Hummel collection from the living room about six feet away, into the dining room. To give my son a break from the playpen, and roaming free was not an option, his grandfather built him an outdoor play area. He fenced in an area about 10’ by 12’ that included a tree. He put in a gate, and my son had his very own outdoor playpen.

The dogs had the area outside the pen, but the whole yard was fenced in. The dogs spent part of their time running around and the yard, and my son’s portion. They would run back and forth the length of his play area, stopping occasionally so he could pet them and try out his vocabulary on them, “Doggies!” My father-in-law would work around the yard and keep an eye on my son, and his sister and I would sit on the stoop talking and watching him until morning sickness would get the best of me. He could stay there, happy and content for hours, never screaming once.

When it was time to bring him in, he always needed a bath. He was dirty from running his cars and trucks around the pen and the base of the tree, and sitting or crawling around on the grass. I would hold him and press my nose to his shirt. He smelled like dirt, grass and puppy dogs. There were grass stains on his clothes, His cheeks were warm, red and streaked with perspiration and dirt. He was content and so was I.

 As a single parent, I always abhorred the phrase “Quality time.” I am not sure there is such an animal. It always seemed to me that in order to have quality time there had to be enough time that was not dedicated to other activities such as preparing meals, doing laundry and driving to daycare and work. Perhaps it is not so much the notion of quality time, but the elusiveness of it, that was and is frustrating to me. I can look back on that time with my children and see it divided into three categories: all the things we did apart, (like working and school) cooking and car time. At one point all three children were in different schools and I could almost hear the Lone Ranger’s theme Song (The William Tell Overture) as I drove from one school to the next picking them up from daycare.

When my youngest child was five and the oldest seven, an inspiration grabbed me that I hadn’t really thought out. The youngest one walked into the kitchen while I was adding spices to a meat loaf and I said to her, “Here, honey; smell this” and held the spice jar under her nose. Thus, began a ritual that ultimately led to cooking lessons and cooking together for all three children. They would come to the kitchen when I was cooking, and I would offer them spices to smell. They would wrinkle up their noses like little rabbits and say, “hmmm, Mommy, that smells good!”

They gradually moved from smelling spices to stirring lessons. It is no small challenge to teach a young child the difference between stirring and spilling. Children can make as much mess stirring dry ingredients like flour and sugar as they can with liquid; but they learned. They graduated from stirring by hand to holding the mixer with the same neatness. They moved from mixing a part of a cake to doing the whole thing. I would put the ingredients in the bowl in order and they would do all the mixing.

picture of pecan pie cooling on a rack

Eventually, they moved from cakes to packaged foods like the “Helper” meals and on to real foods. All the while, they got older and I hardly noticed. At this point they were each helping to cook dinner once a week. The triumph for them and for me, came the Thanksgiving they were eight to eleven years old. Their grandparents, my former in-laws came for dinner and brought the turkey, dressing and gravy. The children made everything else, all from scratch.

I directed from the edge of our small kitchen while they made spinach souffle, mashed potatoes, potato rolls, a cheese ball, pumpkin pie and a lemon meringue pie. By this time, I had years of practice letting them do the stirring without taking the spoon from their hands and “showing” them until it was all done. I still talked them through the recipes while they did the measuring and pouring. Truth be told, they didn’t need that much coaching from me, but I didn’t realize it at the time. Except for getting things in and out of the oven, I stood my ground on the edge of the kitchen, feeling like the conductor in an orchestration of foods.

Because I loved baking and seldom used packaged mixes, they learned to bake from scratch. Whether I took apple pie, or carrot cake, or brownies to the office for an occasional celebration, the women I worked with would look at me and say, “Okay, ‘fess up, which child made this?” By this time my son was convinced that we should attempt a family catering business, but I didn’t have the know how or the nerve. The work I did with the children in the kitchen was a way to be together, and a way to grow. I suppose the biggest surprise to me came when I realized the youngest child had learned to read a recipe. My days of being needed were numbered, but now and then when I unscrew the cap on a spice bottle, I remember.

Not holding back the tide,


The Cranberry Bread Ritual

Cranberry bread fresh from the oven

            Onset is a village in the town of Wareham, Massachusetts. Onset/Wareham boast two main industries: Tourism and Cranberries. My whole upbringing was rooted in the tourist industry, but there is a special place in my heart for cranberries. If I had been formed from the earth, the clay used to make me would have been part peat and part beach sand, just like the makeup of a cranberry bog.

            Cranberries grow on short sturdy vines that are planted in bogs. The bogs may be square or oblong plots of ground, depending on how old they are, but the oldest bogs take the shape of the wetlands in which they were built. Low lying marshy places are the best base material for the vines to grow. The swamp is filled in and built up, with a solid layer of soil, covered by a mixture of peat soil and beach sand. The planted area is surrounded on all four sides with a ditch, which is surrounded by a dirt road.

            An aerial view of a cranberry bog gives the illusion of a picture, even if oddly shaped. The picture would be the cranberry vines surrounded by a mat (the ditch), framed by the road or dike.  Everything about the bog is practical. The ditch is part of the irrigation system that allows drainage after the bogs have been flooded. The roads provide access for the heavy equipment that is needed for harvest. **

           Cranberry bogs are flooded in the winter when the temperature goes down to the twenties, to protect the vines. Frozen bogs are also great ice-skating rinks and that is how I learned much of this in this in the first place.  Although in the distant past harvesting was done by hand and with the use of large cranberry scoops, now the bogs are flooded during harvest time and cranberry scoops are decorations and memories of a time long past.

            In July, the cranberry bushes flower and the bogs are colored with a delicate pink blossom.   I honestly don’t remember noticing cranberry bogs in the summer, probably because by July, we had long since deserted the bogs for the beaches. When the cranberries are ready to be harvested, the bogs seem to be covered in maroon velvet. For a while in the 1960’s we called the color maroon “Cranberry” and I am not sure if that was a fashion trend, or merely a local idiosyncrasy. It is the maroon velvet look of the cranberry bogs that is most prominent in my memory. It was hard to drive around our area and not pass cranberry bogs or beaches. I went to boarding school near Plymouth from 1962-1966 and once you turned off Route 24 in Middleboro to get to Kingston, it was like driving on Cranberry Road. The cranberry bogs were on the left and the Miles Standish Forest on the right.  I hated boarding school, but I loved the ride to school.

            Back in the day, Ocean Spray had a factory and warehouse on Route 28 in Wareham that was active. In the front of the warehouse there was a coffee shop, gift shop and bakery.  I worked there my last two years in high school and discovered so much folk lore surrounding cranberries I was sure it was advertising propaganda. Not only that but everything sold in the bakery was made with cranberries, not just my beloved cranberry bread; but, pies, cookies, fudge, muffins Danish and something wonderful called “cranberry crunch.”  That was nothing compared to the variety of juices and jams that were sold, all made with cranberries, in combination with other fruits. Even the waitresses and other sales staff wore cranberry colored dresses

I got my enthusiasm for cooking from my mother, but she was never one to spend much time baking. It was sampling breads at Ocean Spray that led me to try making my own. The first time I made cranberry bread, I made it with my best friend, when I was 17. We were dating two guys who were good friends and were freshmen in college. Believing the adage that “The way to a man’s heart was through his stomach” we baked up a storm together. We made hermits, chocolate chip cookies and cranberry bread, all in one day.

            Baking anything from scratch can be a slow process and cranberry bread is no exception. First, you must make sure the berries are fresh. When you can drop a cranberry on a counter from a height of 12 inches, it will bounce several times if it is fresh, like a miniature basketball being dribbled by an invisible hand. If it just lands on the counter with a thud, throw it out. Of course, you are not going to attempt to dribble 2 cups of cranberries individually, but if you are in doubt about any single cranberry, try it out.

a bowl of frozen cranberries

            I would encourage you to cut the berries into small pieces, so they don’t just sink to the bottom of the pan. The only reasonable way to do this is with a blender, food processor or other food chopper. Even then it takes time. I have on more than one occasion attempted to cut the cranberries by hand. This is a situation only the late Lucille Ball would have attempted. First, place the lone cranberry between your thumb and forefinger. Then, using a steady hand and a sharp paring knife, attempt to quarter the berry without injuring yourself.

I don’t know anyone who has enough patience to do this through two cups of berries. I tried! I couldn’t even get through one-eighth of the berries chopped before giving up. At this point one wonders why cranberries can’t be diced like onions. But it would take a special invention I haven’t seen yet. You would need a cutting board with sides, to prevent rolling objects from escaping go onto the floor into the waiting mouth of an eager dog, or worse yet, the nose of a toddler. The cutting board would have to be large enough to accommodate a chef’s knife, and you would still need a coating of honey to hold the little berries in place.

The best way however to get the cranberries chopped but not mushed is to run them through a blender, a half cup at a time. By the time the cranberries and the walnuts are chopped you are ready to move on to the next task. In addition to bouncing and chopping the berries, there is the traditional scooping, sifting and blending. Once the flour and sugar are mixed, you add shortening and cut through the mixture with knives or use a pastry blender, as if you were making pie crust.

Once the shortening and flour are mixed, you add the liquids. We tried to speed up the process by mixing two batches at once; but discovered that bread didn’t come out as well. Perhaps it was due to our own impatience in blending the flour and shortening that the taste didn’t seem right. The bread was too heavy and floury. We decided then and there, never again to mess with perfection. Because of that, I never mix more than one loaf at a time, even if I am making two or three loaves.

Cranberries are harvested in the fall and although I can buy them dried and have them any time, I prefer fresh. Several years ago, I picked up a bag of cranberries in the grocery store and was startled and thrilled to see that they were grown and packed in Wareham. I had to have them. I went home with two bags. I suppose that is where my cranberry bread ritual began in earnest.  Every year since then, I have bought at least one bag of fresh cranberries and make cranberry bread.

One loaf stays out until it has been demolished, slice by slice, while the balance goes into the freezer. I enjoy the bread one loaf at a time but when it is gone, it is gone. I don’t attempt to lay up a year’s supply because it wouldn’t be the same if I could have it whenever I wanted it. Cranberry bread is more tart than sweet, and a little bit goes a long way. It is wonderful with cream cheese, but margarine or butter will do.

            My life has changed in ways I never dreamed from the vantage point of my friend’s kitchen when we were 17; even as a semi-retired country pastor my life is full and busy. Still, I will make time for making cranberry bread. It’s the process and the memories that mixing and stirring the bread stirs up in me; and the ritual has become more important miles and years from home. Usually I consider baking a solitary pursuit that requires only time, space, quiet and perhaps a dog to catch whenever may hit the floor. Taking the time to make cranberry bread is one of the things I do just for myself. It’s a sentimental journey without the pricey ticket. It is a tangible connection with memories that are as bittersweet to me as the bread itself. It is part of who I am, where I am from, and once a year, my kitchen smells like home.

** Special thanks to WHS classmate and cranberry farmer Carol L. Pierce for details.

Jack and Maggie


Jack and Maggie had several things in common: They were both born in 1910 to large Catholic families. Neither family situation was ideal or easy if anyone’s is, and although it was not unusual for the times, they were both out of school and working at the end of 8th grade and were young working adults by the time of the Stock Market Crash in 1929.  

Jack and his siblings were all first-generation Americans. His mother was from Lisbon, Portugal, which she lovingly referred to as “The Old Country” and his dad was Cape Verdean, from Porto Brava. His parents met in Fall River, Massachusetts and were married in 1903. His mother gave birth to 12 children in 21 years. His name wasn’t really Jack. It was a nickname his father gave him because he was bouncy like a jack rabbit when he was little, and it stuck. When Jack was 13 years old, in 1923, his father took him to Boston and got him a job as a cabin boy on a merchant ship. It may have been a schooner sailing from Boston to the Cape Verde Islands, he never said. In fact, Jack never told stories at all, not about his childhood or family and there was no discussion of Portuguese culture. There was one whaling story he told over and over when he had had too much to drink, but nothing about home or family. 

Annibal, Mary and Dad

To this day I wonder what my grandfather was thinking doing such a thing, putting a 13- year-old boy to work like that. But as one of my cousins has pointed out, their lives were very hard, there was a lot or suffering and struggling to make ends meet. It is a story I never would have heard from my father and he never would have told, except in a letter to my mother; and yes, that is how I found out. I found my father’s letters to my mother when I was a snoopy 16-year old. I didn’t ask any questions, whether to hide the fact that I had read something that wasn’t my business or some other reason. But I have never gotten over my shock and sadness at the story. 

Maggie’s life was equally hard but in ways that were vastly different from Jack’s. She was one of nine children, but only six of them survived into childhood. In her brief autobiography she noted that her first memory is of her baby sister Bernadine’s casket on the dining room table. Her dad was a handsome man who loved classical music, and running around. He left his wife and six children to fend for themselves. Unlike Jack, she did tell stories of growing up in the early days of the depression. She said they would hide from bill collectors and the gas man or electric man who came to turn off the utilities. As soon as he had left, they found a way to turn it back on or do without. 

She and her younger sisters went to Catholic school, but she was embarrassed, mortified I think, at their inability to pay tuition and her pride would not let her accept the charity so she quit school after 9th grade and started working. She also felt her income was needed to help support her mother and the younger ones who were still at home. By 1929 she was self-supporting and supporting her mother. 

Neither mom or dad was a stranger to hard work or hard times and they both had a strong work ethic. Culturally they were very different from each other, but that was more environment and taste than ethnicity. At one point, dad was a rabble rouser for a union, and became an active member of the Brotherhood of Merchant Marine Officers. A visit to the Union office was a staple of activity whenever he was in port. He also boxed under the name of “Jack Marcy” in his single days. I once saw a picture of him at an outdoor boxing match. 

Maggie on the other hand, belonged to a “sorority” a non-college group of friends that met and had meetings and planned events, like dances and card parties. She and her friends would dress up in their best clothes and pose in front of wealthy homes in Baltimore, and pretend, I imagine, that they lived there. She wrote plays that they performed and probably doubled over laughing reading them, even writing them.  She made her own clothes, including jackets and coats and scrimped and saved for standing room tickets at the opera. 

After they were married, she encouraged him to focus more on his career and take whatever classes or tests he needed to advance.  He moved up from Junior Third Mate to Chief Mate between the time they met in 1941 to sometime after I was born. As Chief Mate, he was the officer next in line to the Captain, but I am not sure exactly when that happened. 

Jack and Maggie, July 1942

I saw a sign in a gift shop many years ago that read, “The best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.” It made me cry because I was going through a divorce and my own hard time, but it certainly described my dad. That he and my mother loved each other was never in doubt. They were in love. He really did not know much about family life, and truth be told, I don’t think he knew what to do with us kids; but he was all about her. I never heard them argue or criticize each other or say a mean thing about the other. He was at sea much of the time, that was how he earned a living and it was a good living. The trips whether to the Mediterranean seaports or the Indian Ocean meant frequent, long and painful separations, so much that when he was home it was a celebration, a party and romance.  And that is the beginning of most of my stories.

Not holding back the tide,


Water, Water Everywhere

Cape Cod is a peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean as though the collective towns and tourist traps were either flexing a muscle or waving an invitation that says “Come play with us!” Depending on where you slice the peninsula in your imagination, people all the way up to Boston will say that they live “on the Cape,” but the locals consider the Cape to be everything east of the Canal, and rightly so, I believe.

Point of view, prejudice and pride are funny things. I had always thought of the Canal as starting just out side of Onset, but not ending there. Wherever it starts or ends, the Cape Cod Canal serves as a shortcut from the Cape Cod Bay to Buzzards Bay and makes the trip from New York to Boston much shorter, and safer, for any ships that are making the trek.

Having grown up on the inlet beaches of Buzzards Bay and so near to the Cape Cod Canal, I have always had not so much a love-hate relationship with water as a fascination-fear relationship with it. Beaches are inviting, even to the locals and when we went out to play during the summer, it was, as often as not, to play at the beach. Not unlike the tourists, 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. We went to swim or wade in the water, dodging seaweed and crabs (from the small white crabs that would take a shortcut across your foot if you were wading, to the horseshoe crabs that lumbered along) and also dodge the occasional gasoline rainbows left by the motor boats and yachts. We even collected seashells and carried sand pails.

But as locals, we also weathered hurricanes and ‘noreasters there, and I still shiver when I think of the high water marks of the hurricanes of 1953 and 1954. I can remember the water beading on the windows of our house, the cool confidence we feigned as we tried to assure ourselves that the water would not make the 200 yard trip up from the beach to our house. Such experiences taught us a strong sense of caution and respect for the water and that is how I approach any body of water today.

Sign on the dock

Buzzards Bay is the name of a town, as well as the body of water, and it is at the town of Buzzards Bay that the Canal actually begins. The Massachusetts Maritime Academy is the first landmark inside the Canal. You can see part of the Railroad Bridge that crosses the Canal in the distance. Happily the Academy has built up considerably in the years since I left home. It is now a full four year college, with both male and female cadets. The old Quonset huts that housed the male students back in the 1950’s are gone and new classrooms and dorms and from what I hear a wonderful library have been built on the site. The dock pictured above left used to be all open, but there is plenty of access to the water for fishing.

My dad was in the Merchant Marine and although he did not attend the Academy it is a site that has a lot of pull for me. Before his ship sailed for the Indian Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea, it would make what was called a coastwise trip, from Boston to New York, Baltimore, Norfolk and Charleston and back to New York, to pick up or unload cargo. One memorable time when I was bout five we went to the dock and were there when his ship was scheduled to pass through the Canal. We stood on the dock, and he was on the deck of his ship, the S.S. Exchequer, dressed in his khaki dress uniform, megaphone in hand and he called out to each of us. I stood there unaware of much else, attempting to play him a song on my toy accordion. It was amazing how fast that ship could go. I never understood speed in terms of knots, but it seemed to my five year old self that the ship went through the canal and past our site too darn fast.

When dad was at sea, every now and then Mom would decide to take my brother and me for a ride to Buzzards Bay to get ice-cream. It didn’t matter if we were ready for bed, we could make this trip in our pajamas. She’d get us each a cone and drive to the dock at the Maritime Academy and look at the Canal. At the time I just thought it was a great treat. I was so young, I didn’t understand how sad or lonely she must have been or the pain she must have felt as she looked out at the empty water.

The revetments on each side of the Canal are lined with large boulders, making the Canal seem partially landscaped as well as landlocked. It is not unusual to see fisherman standing between the boulders with their lines cast out into the Canal. I saw my first star fish on the rocks by the Academy as well as the shimmery purple black mussel shells that clung to the rocks..

There are three bridges that cross the Canal; the first bridge is a vertical lift railroad bridge, less than a mile from the Academy. It is one of five bridges of its kind in the United States. At the top of each tower, the bridge looks like an upside down ice cream cone, only this cone is made of latticed iron, toped with red and green lights in place of cherries. The Canal is under just eight miles long and is about 32 feet deep and is mostly straight; there is a gentle curve as the Canal leads out to the waters of the Cape Cod Bay. It is really quite a sight and while for years the sight of the three bridges seemed so ordinary to me, on a recent trip home I was amazed at how much the sight of them stirred something deep within me. I wanted to sit and drink in the site and do it all over again.

Herring Run Recreation Area Just above the Sagamore Bridge

The other two bridges are twins of each other. The Bourne Bridge crosses the Canal at Bourne on Route 28, one of the two main road on the Cape. The Sagamore Bridge, crosses at Sagamore on Route 6 which is the other main road on the Cape. The road from Buzzards Bay to Sagamore runs parallel to the Canal and there are three overlooks or vistors’ areas where one can pull over and take in the view. As a child I learned to ride in the car with one eye on the road and one eye on the Canal, and that is the way I drive now. One eye on the road and one eye out for any body of water that does me the kindness of running parallel to the road I am on. Often it’s the Susquehanna River, sometimes it is Sugar Creek, or the Tioga River. I drive, always with a sense of longing, wanting to stop, to ponder and drink in the view, though I cannot drink the water. When the River and streams are overflowing, muddy and moving fast, that same childhood 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 don’t drive on without noticing or longing to notice the quality of the water. “Deep calls to Deep” the Psalmist says, (Psalm 42:7) and so it is with me.

The Nylon Salesman and the Lady

It was Christmas Eve day 1941, and Margaret was out on the town with friends. She loved the opera and she would save up the needed money and stand inline for hours, just to get standing room in the opera. She started sewing when she was in fourth grade and made her own clothes. She loved literature and was an avid reader. She also knew how to laugh and had a wonderful sense of humor that she did not generally point at other people and she wrote plays and funny stories. I still have two of them, faded and folded in a notebook.

Mom circa 1944

She and her friends were out “slumming” perhaps and were ready to cross the street when the light changed.  A very good-looking man, “short, dark and handsome” dressed in a suit, was also stuck at the light.   He must have made some comment that she returned, rapid fire. They continued on until the light changed.   He told her he was a nylon salesman and asked her to have a drink with him.  Now, during World War II nylons were at a premium and very hard to find and it may be that it was worth a drink with the prospects of a pair of nylons in the offing.   Her friends tried to dissuade her, but she replied that she would just have one drink with him and “lose him.”

 She never reconnected with her friends that day. They talked all night. Over the course of their conversation, he said, “I can’t lie to you, you’re a nice girl. I am not a nylon salesman.”  He went on to tell her that he was, in fact a Junior Third Mate on a cargo ship that was in port in Baltimore for the week. Sometime, but before the blackout I imagine, she took him home; not ostensibly, to meet her mother. But when her mother met him the next day she said, “Margaret! He could have killed us in our sleep!” To which mom replied, “He didn’t.!”

My dad about 12 years before they met.

It was a typical wartime romance. They were 31 though and not 19. It wasn’t so much “boy meets girl” as it was “man meets woman and proposes.” By the end of the week she accepted. He was back in uniform and ready to sail. When they said good-bye, they parted not knowing if they would really see each other again or not. She said yes with the simple reservation that if they didn’t feel the same way about each other when and if he returned, they would once more go their separate ways this time for good.

 They wrote to each other often in the ensuing months. He wasn’t due to return to Baltimore until early July.  They set a date for July 11, 1942. The wedding was simple. She wore a stunning suit that she had made herself. They were married in the sacristy of the Catholic Church and her brother, Fr. O’Hara officiated.  She was his “Maggie” and he was her “Jackie” and they could not have been more different from each other than they were. She was classy and well read. He had a gold tooth, a tattoo and chewed tobacco, yet somehow they were well matched.  Despite their differences, there were other things that held them fast together.  But that is another story. I promise not to tell you about when I was born, but the Beach Girl Chronicles don’t make as much sense without this one.

Not holding back the tide,


The Year My Neighbor Stole My Christmas Tree

I had been a single parent for 10 years when I met my second husband. When I had moved into my own apartment ten years earlier, I had signed the lease when I was “great with child” with my third child. I waddled into the rental office and to this day I am convinced they had me sign the lease quickly, so they could get me out of the office before I went into labor. When I moved into the apartment, the baby was three weeks old, her big sister had just turned three years old and her brother was just a bit over one and a half. This was the only apartment complex that would rent me a two bedroom apartment with three children. All the other places I checked insisted that I had to have one bedroom for each child and there was no way I could afford that. I had a high school diploma, but no work experience and no technical training or education of any kind, and at that stage of things, very little confidence. I did have a determination to survive and to take care of my children.

Over the next six years, I did get some training in office skills and some secretarial work. That was how I figured out that secretarial work was not my strong suit. I was able to continue working part time while I got an Associate Degree in nutrition. After graduating from the local Community College, we moved to Baltimore, Maryland to be closer to my mom. I got a job in a nursing home as a part-time dietary supervisor and we got a town house apartment in a relatively poor part of the county. Much to my surprise, despite the poverty and depressing nature of the housing near us, we were the only single parent family in our section of the town houses.

I did have some good supportive friendships and my mom’s support and encouragement were unfailing. She would show up at my doorstep with a bag of groceries and insist it was all on sale and would say, “I couldn’t go wrong.” I worked at keeping good relationships with my former in-laws for the children’s sake. I never wanted them to be able to accuse me of keeping them from their grandchildren, especially since I had moved us an hour away and to a different state, so that I could be closer to my mom.

My next door neighbor became my baby sitter and my mom kept the kids one day a week, on Wednesdays, to help keep childcare costs down. At this point my children were 9, 7 1/2 and 6. When it came time for our first Christmas tree, we had a short, artificial tree, that was a little worse for the wear. I set it on a trunk in the living room and was ready to decorate it myself when they kids went to bed, but my son laid an amazing guilt trip on me. He said he had seen a cartoon on G. I. Joe about Christmas and one of the soldiers talked about how disappointing it was not to be allowed to help decorate the Christmas tree when he was a child. Guilt. Trip. I caved.

After the lights were on and the tree was decorated, they wanted to show the tree off to their baby sitter, so we invited her to come over to see it. She was politely enthusiastic, especially when the children told her they had helped to decorate it. There were no gifts under the tree, but that didn’t worry me. I knew my in-laws to be very generous and my children would not feel the sting of poverty. In fact my former mother-in-law was prone to over-kill in that department so I knew the fact that there were no gifts under our tree didn’t mean there would be no gifts. My job was to provide food and pay rent.

The following Wednesday I picked up the children from my mother’s, after a particularly tiring and frustrating day at the nursing home. I opened the door to our house and stared into the black hole that was our living room. Even in the darkness I could see that our tree was missing. Who in the world would steal a Christmas tree, especially one so scrawny, with no presents to steal? I could hear the children’s voices behind me, “Hey! Where’s our tree?” They saw it too, or rather they didn’t see it too. But something in the corner caught my eye, a red glow that we all seemed to see at once.

In the corner of our living room was a beautiful tree. It touched the ceiling and filled the corner. It was the tallest, fullest most beautiful Christmas tree I had ever seen. And it was real, and decorated, with lots of shimmering lights. They had used our decorations and added some. There was hand lettered note on an 8×11 piece of paper precariously placed on the branches that said “Merry Christmas” and the floor was littered, loaded with wrapped presents for the children. I could not figure out how one person had done all that. The knock came quickly. Bobbi had been waiting for us to come home so she could share in our enthusiasm and the oohs and ahs of the children. She had reached out to her large family and shared the story of what she deemed our paltry Christmas and got every one involved.

She did not have to do this, but she certainly had the heart to do it. What she gave our family that year was something much more than the tree and presents. She acted with great kindness, generosity and compassion. She was in a sense, a Christmas Evangelist. She told her whole family the news and got them involved in giving great tidings of joy. She offered us hope in a time of genuine sorrow. Although we lost touch, I have never forgotten her kindness. She was our Christmas Angel.

Not holding back the tide,


The Beach Girl Poem

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.

Picture of a scallop shell from Onset Beach, September 2018

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.

a.m.s. 5/20/19

Christmas Cards

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?

Not holding back the tide,


The Beach Girl Chronicles

My name is Michele Marcellino Somerville. I would not normally introduce myself in that way, but my maiden name is an important part of my stories.  I grew up in Onset, Massachusetts, but left home in 1969 for a brief sojourn to Washington State. I returned home in November of 1969 and left for good in August of 1970.  Now, I am a retired clergy person, an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church, living in north central Pennsylvania. In my retirement, I can finally take what is more than a “sentimental journey.”

 Onset is a village that is part of the town of Wareham. Our chief industries in the 1960’s were cranberries and tourism. My parents were local business owners.  During the years I lived at home our house was just “up the road” from the beach and the Point Independence Yacht Club.  In March of 1962 my parents sealed the deal on the Union Villa Hotel, Bar, and Restaurant, and we moved to an apartment on the first floor of the hotel; the barroom and restaurant were downstairs. Home was a lot like “Cheers” and when I say I grew up in a barroom, I am not exaggerating.  The hotel was across the street from the beach and pier that hosted tourist boats and fishing boats, and in my opinion, the best tourist and local beach in our area. What it lacked in surf, it made up for in charm and history.

Although I left home in 1970, home never left me. I carried with me memories and traditions and a few souvenirs that have come to mean a lot more to me in recent years, than they did at first. Cranberry scoops are a story all their own and I hope you will stick with me to learn about scoops and bogs and other traditions. Who knows, there may even be recipe or two.

Seashells are another treasure. Whenever I know someone is going to the beach, any beach, that is the gift I ask for. I carry a scallop shell in my car to remind me of my baptism, but truth be told, also of my roots. I currently have two mason jars filled with seashells on the top of one of the bookcases in my office.  I love seashells, their delicate construction and simple beauty haunt me.  Although I am not sure if it is legal to have it, I have a small pill bottle with beach sand from Onset beach.

I have recently cleaned out many mementos from my life to radically reduce clutter, but still hold onto the light blue Portuguese pottery, just a few pieces that I cannot bring myself to sell or give away.  Another important thing that I have kept from my hometown is the stories themselves that I invite you to read. I didn’t realize how much I had carried home with me until my college English professor at Mansfield University asked some key questions that caused “home” to spill out of my pen and onto paper in both “free write” assignments and the more serious kind. When I was clearing out old papers from college and seminary, I knew that I wasn’t ready to let go of them either.  And in one recent trip, as I walked and drove around my hometown, taking pictures and drinking in the atmosphere one pressing word spoke to my heart, “write.” So here I am. At this juncture, I am unable to hold back the tide.  Many of the stories I hope to share will be about Onset and growing up a “beach girl” and growing up in a barroom; but they won’t be limited to that. I hope to share thoughts on friendships, family, insights from books I am reading or have read, leaning into retirement and some shaggy dog stories to boot. We have adopted 4 rescue dogs in the last 30 years of our marriage and each one has a story. I am a pastor still, so there will be some reflections about faith and spirituality.  I am excited to be taking this adventure and hope you will join me on this journey.  

Not holding back the tide,