If you are lucky you have a happy place. If you are the luckiest that place might even be real. For me, my happy place is an upside down house on 87th street in stone harbor. For two weeks every summer my mother, and on the weekend, my father, and my three siblings would live here. I mean really live in every sense of the word. There was no TV, no AC, and no telling who might be sharing our two weeks with us. An alternate life is built in a place like this. A life that is crafted in two week increments over many years. My first trip would have been when we first moved back to the States when I turned three. The last that I remember well was the year I turned 13.
It was the most beautiful home on the block. It boasted naturally aged cedar planks on every external wall. We would often arrive with a beach day remaining. Coming up the street toward the ocean I would look to see if Ronni and Billy were at their grandparent’s house where they spent most of their summers. Their mother was from Philadelphia but had moved to California. Now divorced the kids stayed in jersey so she could work without worry.
As we pull into the driveway to the left of the house, I could hear my mother relax. She would still be caring for us all but in this magical place where we were all our best selves. The front door led to a dark hallway that had a closet on the left with a sliding door. There were always all sorts of treasures to go through in there. Straight ahead were the steps to the upper level. To the right was the laundry room. The dryer, in which, was notorious. It’s thermostat was broken and it ran hot. My poor blankie being the victim when I was very young. My mother had trimmed the burnt edges of Blankie but it always held a singed smell. I attribute my love for the smell of bond fires to that dryer. Next to the laundry room were two bedrooms. All rooms in this house had two twin beds. I remember kissing Billy from across the street in the room closest to the laundry room. I remember being afraid to get off the top bunk of the other room to go to the bathroom having just read a particularly creepy chapter of “Monkey Shines” by King another summer.
Next to the bunk bed room was the half bath. Next to that was the thinnest, most claustrophobic, galley-like room with a shower and passage to the outside. My grandparents built the house. Having six children this shower was probably to save my grandmother’s sanity. The only acceptable way to come in to the house from the beach was to first rinse your feet of all sand at the outside spigot. Then enter the house through this corridor. The opening of which had two doors in the same jam. I’m unsure of the intent of this design only that if you had to go to the bathroom badly as a small child, you were better off peeing at the spigot because you would never wrestle both doors open in time. Invariably the outside door would be locked or rusted with sea air. If you knew you were the only one home you’d have to tip toe quickly through the front door careful not to slip on the linoleum floors, then bolt before getting caught to the galley shower room for a towel or a proper rinse off in said shower.
This house is the first place I was ever allowed to be alone. It was magnificent. After showering I would go back past the steps up, to my room which some summers was the back half of the garage. It was divided by paneled screens. On the other half lived the bikes, crab traps, beach chairs, and toys. After changing into a dry suit I’d go up to forage for food. There was one set of steps that led to a large landing with a door to the outside. Then to the left would be the steps up to the living area. Many a child used the landing as their play area. Cars, dolls, this was the Neverland of our house.
The upstairs space was bright and airy. The living area and dining room were all one big space with a large table for games and puzzles between. Many houses are built this way now, but then there wasn’t such a thing as a “great room”. The kitchen was at the top of the steps with a door way there and another one on the other end that opened to the dinning table. To the right of the stairs was the great room to the left were the two remaining bedrooms. That area was partitioned off by doors that looked like shutters. I think they were more to indicate that someone was behind them sleeping than actually broke any noise.
Alone and having lightly snacked I would venture to the built-in desk in the living area. On it was a small box radio. Dark brown “wood” with a silver front and knobs. If it was Sunday I would tune into Casey Kasem and his American Top 40. By lunchtime they would be near the top 10. Behind the shutter doors was the closet of wonder. This was where EVERYTHING was stored. Back ups for the back up of green bottles of Sea & Ski sun tan lotion. Goo gone, screen repair, beach chair repair, the Sesame St. Little People house, AND the thing I sought, my grandmother’s sewing basket. In it the most perfect microphone, she may have used it to darn socks but I knew it’s true purpose. Finding it, I’d go back, crank the radio and, sing along until the house filled with people eating lunch and I’d be instructed to “turn that down before we all went deaf.”
Late afternoon I would hop on my bike and ride til dinner. Another chance to be free and alone. Sometimes I’d ride the 10 blocks into town and window shop at the 5 & Ten. Sometimes to the park. Sometimes just around and around. Shear, unadulterated freedom.
Our yard was made of pebbles. Small and shades of white. No matter how much you worked on your summer feet you still ouched and ooched your your way to the laundry line at the back of the house. There were several jobs we as kids we given in the two weeks at the shore. One of which was to sweep the front walk of these pointed devils. There is a picture of Brew at maybe six. It’s taken from the deck above. He, in his pjs, the broom a foot taller than himself, going to task on the stones.
Off the back of the house was another deck. A great place to be in the evenings or during the day if the beach was too windy. Also a place where sandy kids who didn’t mind staying sandy (of which I was NOT one) could climb the outside stairs after traversing the devil stones to await delivery of their lunch. If you were lucky you wouldn’t even have your sandwich plucked from your tiny grip by a circling gull.
The summer I was thirteen is not one filled with peaceful bike rides or dancing and singing to the music on the little radio. It was the summer of whispers and tip toes and poorly kept secrets. It was the only summer that I remember my great grandmother, great aunt, and second cousins being there as well. They stayed in a house a couple of blocks away. I loved them. This was the great aunt for whom I was named. They remain some of my favorite people. This summer they were the recipients of my anger. A sadness that had no way of being excised so to anger it turned. It was the summer that my beautiful, demure, regal grandmother was dying. She was losing her hard fought war against the beast that is pancreatic cancer. In the eighties, a war no one could win. She had been stripped of her grandmommy-ness. She was left with itchy skin, a horribly distended belly, yellow eyes, and a short temper. I knew what no one was saying, that we didn’t have long with her. There was an afternoon that my mother, and I, along with many of the other woman listed above sat with her in her room. The smell of Seabreeze filled the air. Sadly not a ocean breeze but a bright blue salve she used to calm he itchy skin. I sat on the other twin bed as she was circled by these women on her own. A dark pit growing stomach . I somehow knew what no one else was saying, that this was the end.
She left for home the next day. She was scheduled for a doctors appointment to tap the fluid from her distended abdomen. Four quarts. A belly that looked like it was filled with baby was pressed beyond its comfort, because her internal systems were no longer doing their job.
It was a couple of days later. The phone began to ring very early in the morning. I knew why. I let it ring thinking if no one answered it, we wouldn’t ever have to know. We could live in the belief that she was just “away”. I don’t know if my mother was playing the same game but she let it ring too. Until she couldn’t anymore. I woke to find her sitting in the chair in front of the built in desk with the little radio on it. Her feet were tucked under her and she was sobbing. We couldn’t pretend anymore.
I went to my room and got dressed. I threw open the garage door. Pulled out my bike and I rode away. As I peddled the anger grew. If I could see myself I’m sure there was steam wafting off me. The byproduct of the coals of sadness that this summer’s news had kept stoked. I rode until I felt it was safe enough to allow myself back in the presence of other people. I rode until a part of me realized I couldn’t ride away from this. I had not quite soothed myself but had in some small way exhausted the part of my brain that wanted to blame my happy place for taking her. I had ridden my bike far enough to that place of separation.
I made my way back home. Put my bike back in the garage. Slipped past the screen divider and laid on top of my unmade bed. I don’t remember crying then. I felt too stunned. Too exhausted.
Thirty years later. The shore holds these and many more memories. The two weeks a year have added up to more than a slice of a life. This house taught me that there is no place you can run to escape life. There are places that can bring you peace. That can bring you happiness, but life doesn’t stop moving forward no matter how hard you wish it to be so. The sound of the ocean continues to help still the waters of my tumult. I will forever use the view of the sea to help navigate through the tough things life may throw my way. I did it at thirteen and I did it on a different shore at forty-two and a half. 87th street will forever be a place where we lived in the amalgam of family members. It was where I learned that it takes a villiage. That you don’t have to be a parent to guide a child. Where cousins and brothers make the best of friends and playmates. The place of firsts and lasts. 87th street was the place where I grew up in the truest sense of the word. It will forever remain my happiest of places.