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,

Michele

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,

Michele

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,

Michele

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 myself as well as for her.

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.

Panorama picture of Onset Beach in the summer with boats in the water and ropes for a swimming line and people on the beach.
Courtesy of Onset Bay Association

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.

Picture of a scallop shell

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.

Copyright 2020 Michele Somerville, The Beach Girl Chronicles and https://msomervillesite.WordPress.com

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,

Michele

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,

Michele