Thursday, March 28, 2013

Gentlemen, Start Your Engines...

I’ve written before about my family’s relationship with the New Jersey shore -- specifically Ocean City.

My parents rented the top floor of a ramshackle shore house, and Mom's sister and brother-in-law, my Aunt and Uncle, took the bottom.

My cousin Mike and I were close anyway, but this opportunity to vacation together brought us even closer. During those shore trips, Mike and I were virtually inseparable, hitting the beach, the boardwalk, the arcades, the pizza shops, and the playgrounds together, on the move from early morning until we dropped in bed at night, tucking sandy feet into clean sheets.

Those trips remain some of my fondest memories of growing up, and when Mr. Peabody’s WayBac machine is finally invented for real, I will return to those halcyon days, defined by the scent of donuts from the Dutch Oven Bakery in the morning, oily suntan lotion in the afternoon, and sticky salt water taffy in the evenings.

The Ocean City Boardwalk was a favorite destination, and it was a guarantee that during our time on the island, we would all pile into our cars and “hit the boards” for a night or two of entertainment. At the very north end was Wonderland Pier, which really wasn’t a pier at all in the traditional sense of jutting out into the ocean itself; it was more a structure built on the beach side that housed a variety of vomitous rides, scattered among tamer kiddie fare.

Reaching Wonderland was an odysseyIt was against my Mother’s religion to pay for parking, so we would scour the streets for a free slot in which to tuck the car. This meant a walk of several miles to reach our goal. Ever so slowly we’d proceed, slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y, passing dozens of tchotchke shops, candy stores, ice cream booths, tee-shirt emporia, and yes, even a thinly veiled headshop along the way.

Once we reached Wonderland, it was another wait in line for tickets, but once purchased, they were quickly doled out and we were free to scatter to the dizzying thrills that lay before us.

As a nod to the past, we would ceremoniously ride the carousel, mainly because it still featured an arm that dispensed rings, including a golden one that bequeathed a free ride to its capturer. Riders were required to deposit the rings in a basket as the carousel rounded down to a halt, but several times I remember pocketing one as a souvenir. Where they have gone since is a mystery, lost in the detritus left behind as boys grow into men.

The crème de la crème for Mike and me was a racecourse that took up almost an entire side of the pier. I believe this was called the “Indy 500,” and in today’s terms, it was a go-kart arrangement in which each rider with the requisite number of tickets was assigned a car. At the start signal, the cars raced around the track, with the kid-drivers taking responsibility for steering and accelerating.

This was an actual race car, not some dopey klunker whose route was determined by a slot-and-pin arrangement common to rides like this designed for the preschool set.

The issue with the Indy 500 is that there was a height requirement. I don’t remember what it was, but I do know it was strictly enforced.

And I know of the adherence to policy because of the number of times Mike and me were sent away disappointed, too short to ride.

This was doubly frustrating: Not only did we eagerly anticipate riding this thing and had to deal with the disappointment of being turned down by some teenager with a yardstick. But as the youngest of all the sibs, we also had to endure the sight of older brothers -- well above the height requirement -- riding in our stead.

Each year, we’d race to the Indy 500.

Each year, we’d not measure up.

Finally… one year… after what must have been a spurt of pubescent growth, we lined up with the correct number of tickets jammed in our fists, stood for our measuring…

And were okayed to ride!

With hearts thrumming in ecstasy, scrambled for an empty car. Ignoring the stench of gasoline, motor oil, and exhaust, Mike found one and thumped down in the seat. I grabbed a model nearby and slid in, clasping the wheel with sweaty palms.

This was it!

We were finally going to race the Indy 500 for ourselves.

After hearing a mumbled safety speech that we wouldn’t have paid attention to even if we could distinguish the words, we were off!

I jammed my foot to the floor, and the car lurched forward with the others.

We went around. And around. And around. And around.

A circle.

And another circle.

And yet one more.

And it was over.

I exited my car and searched the crowd of exiting racers for Mike.

His face said the same thing mine must have.


The lesson learned has stayed with me after all those years, and I bring it to mind when considering a purchase that I “have to have” or a vacation I “can’t wait to take.”

The anticipation of getting something is almost always better than getting it itself.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

XX Marks the Spot

My mother had no daughters.

God saw fit to bless her with only sons; therefore, between we three kings and my Dad, the house was a testosterone temple. The accoutrements of our male-dominated life included baseball mitts, Cub Scout uniforms, stinky sneakers, belching, clip-on ties, The Three Stooges, cuff links, G.I. Joe, perpetually raised toilet seats, Vitalis, and clandestine copies of Playboy magazine.

She managed this lifestyle with her usual dose of Irish humor, joking that for her, living in house was like living in a YMCA.

I never asked her if she minded not having daughters. I’m sure at times the overabundance of XY chromosomes got on her nerves. I’ll bet that she found herself feeling occasionally lonely, as if nobody under her roof exactly matched her thought patterns, emotional reactions, preferences and idiosyncrasies.

Only natural, I suppose.

And every so often, a certain wistfulness at not having a daughter would seem to make itself apparent. Gliding by a department store full of Easter dresses and Mary Janes. Or reading the notice for a parish mother/daughter Communion breakfast. Or seeing neighbor girls dressed as Cinderella on Halloween.

We had a print hung in our living room for years: Renoir’s A Girl with a Watering Can (1876). I do not know where her copy came from, whether she purchased it herself or it was a gift, but it occupied a prime spot.

When asked, Mom would smile and say, “That’s the daughter I never had.”

There was no malice behind her thought. Just a wondering, perhaps, of what life may have been like for her had she had a little girl at home.

Being a primarily one-gender house, Mom ensured that our chores were non-gender based; therefore, we were tutored not only how to cut the grass and change oil in the car but also how to run the vacuum, rotate a load of laundry and cook meals. This knowledge was probably bestowed out of sheer necessity when she left full-time mothering to return to work as a Registered Nurse. But I'm sure it also appealed to her sense of fairness. Mom was not a bra-burning feminist, but she did want to ensure that we were raised knowing that women's worth went well beyond the ability to darn a sock or scrub a floor. Her career prevented her the opportunity to make pancakes each morning, so if we wanted them, she was perfectly okay with us darned well making them for ourselves.

To this day, I can still make the bed with the “hospital corners” she taught. And have amazed my own kids by demonstrating skill in sewing buttons and setting a proper table.

Luckily, Mom was well compensated later in her life for her daughterly dearth. First, she gained daughters-in-law that she connected with deeply. Both Eileen (my wife) and Kathy (Paul's wife) were warmly received into her nest and she was blatant in her admiration of their intelligence, wit, open hearts and generous manner.

Mom would have been devastated by Kathy's passing last November, and perhaps it's for the best that she wasn't around to bear the loss. I imagine them now as both in heaven, fully restored to health and whiling away the afternoons chatting, laughing, sharing...

Second, Mom was blessed with three bright granddaughters who she smothered with hugs and kisses, storybooks on her lap, cookie capers in her kitchen, and hours of artwork courtesy of Crayola. Each Christmas, she treated them to the frilly, flouncy style of dresses, finally able to play the role of fashionista that she could not with her own brood.

I understand a little of what I’m conjecturing to be her feelings as a Girl Friday on an island of Robinson Crusoes.

After all, here I am: The only male in a household of females.

Isn’t life ironic?

But at least we’ve tipped the balance a little more toward the middle.

Our dog Parker is our happy little boy!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

On the Line

It’s a common exercise, to sit and dream and fantasize and consider the question: What would I do with a multimillion dollar fortune?

My list probably includes similar things as yours: trust fund for the kids, extensive travel, vacation homes on worldwide beaches, a fleet of fancy cars.

But I always include this wish-list item. If I were ever wealthy enough to purchase an estate home with a staff, I would direct my housekeeper to do two things without question: Change sheets daily. And hang them outside to dry.

This stems from my frugal mother’s tradition. Starting about mid-March, when the wintry weather would break, she would drag our sopping clothes out of the washer, haul them out the back door and hang them on a clothesline. This chore would continue through the spring and summer, well into the fall, when a prewinter chill would prevent it. She’d stop about the time when, owing to frosty temps, our jeans would be returned with legs as stiff as the Tinman’s from The Wizard of Oz.

And yes, I characterized this as an exercise in frugality. Mom saw no reason not to trim the electric bill seven months out of every year by foregoing the use of the dryer. Just another of her lessons in the truism: A penny saved is a penny earned.

But I would resurrect this washday habit not because of the finances; after all, I’m a multimillionaire.

I would bring it back for the unforgettable feeling and scent of sheets dried in sunlight.

There was something absolutely entrancing about the feel of soft cotton that had been hung out on a breezy summer afternoon… it was an unparalleled luxury, the paragon of tactile ecstasy.

I never remember sleeping as well as the first night fresh sheets were put on the bed.

Beyond the silky smoothness was the scent. No dryer sheet on earth can begin to recreate the perfume of summery breezes blown through the weave of fibers. How I long to again bury my nose in a pillowcase and whiff the combined bouquet of honeysuckle, fresh-mown grass, simmering charcoal briquettes from the neighbor’s patio, and rainwater.

It is heavenly.

There was a methodology in hanging laundry, an art that seems to be losing devotees at an increasing rate, at least in my neck of the woods. Bed linens and towels were hung at maximum width, often over two lengths of line to ensure they didn’t drag on the ground. Shirts were hung from their shoulders, that they would dry in a basic “body shape” that negated the need for ironing (but used to leave funny “wings” at each shoulder where the clothespins nipped the fabric). Socks and underwear lined up in rows, as if for military inspection.

The only drawback was the system’s utter dependency on the weather. Summer afternoons, violent thunderstorms would blow up from the south, causing Mom to dash outside and quickly tear the clothing from its gallows. Nested within our family history is the tale of Mom flying out back to rescue her loads, slipping in the mud, and fracturing her ankle. My brother braved the tumultuous storm to rescue her, but rather than helping her inside or calling a neighbor as instructed, told her to lie still, that he’d be right back. He trotted back in the house and emerged again moments later with a plastic Li’l Doctor Medical Bag under his arm, ready to “fix her up.”

So, yes, it was an activity that also ran the risk of injury. A distant risk, but one worth noting. 

But in my mind, it is well worth the chance, and I mourn that it eventually fell out of favor in my parents’ house, when age and mobility trumped cost containment.

And it never caught on in my own home at all.

Why did it die off with us? Why not string up a clothesline of our own?

Good question. The answer is tied up in a number of excuses, including neighborly disfavor of clotheslines in general. But the truest answer is probably an overall pinch for time. Same thing that killed the cooking of homemade tapioca, the use of Dad’s shoe-polishing kit, and hand-washing the car.

But hope springs eternal. I’m not a big lotto player, but when I do purchase the odd ticket, I picture the fruits of my good fortune if I happen to win: I see me turning my convertible BMW into a sweeping driveway, strolling up the stone-lined path to my massive front door, entering my foyer and accepting the greetings of staff, and making my way to my expansive view of my acreage out back.

Including the sight of sheets and pillowcases flapping in the breeze.