There is a certain muted tone of the rugged New England coastline, softly melting to the sea. The color is not specific to one object, but more of an overall understated hue, that is subtle, yet inviting. The blur of green grass seamless with the lush trees, fades into cascading gray and black speckled rocks, juxtaposed against the white capped waves of the deep blue Atlantic. The scenic landscape, the fresh scent of damp pine, combined with the pitter patter of rain, softly hitting the interstate, and the intermittent swoosh of our windshield wipers, all blend into a peaceful crescendo of the senses.
Around the bend, stretches of sand, dotted with colorful umbrellas are crowded with youth, awaiting the warm glow of the orange sun that promises to soon reappear. Along the coast sit gray and blue and forest green, wood shingled homes, that signal to me that we are getting close. As the light gray blanket of the sky gives way to the slightest hope of blue, I am transported to a time long ago. I crack open my window, inhaling the warm, sticky salted air, reminiscent of my childhood summers, spent on the Cape.
Memories of life in suburban Pennsylvania flash quickly in my mind, like a flip book in fast forward. I recall the long hot Summer afternoons, riding my shiny new turquoise Schwinn with the white and blue insignia seat, along the hot pavement. I’d count down the hours until we fled to the refuge of the cool, relaxing sea. These were the days of true innocence, before I realized, or knew enough to care.
My Cousin and I
My cousin, who was three years younger, and I, passed most of our time leading up to our departure, planning for our coveted time together. We would spend hours compiling pages of activity and coloring books to play during the long, ten hour car ride, made even longer by the constant bathroom stops of 5 kids under age 12, divided amongst two cars. I would anxiously await our midpoint meal, the Howard Johnsons with the children’s menu that automatically came with crayons. I already knew that I wanted the spaghetti and chocolate chip ice cream, long before climbing into the backseat of my Dad’s dark blue Monte Carlo, dressed in my pajamas and carrying my pillow, just before sunrise.
We had to get an early start in order to beat the weekend traffic through Boston. I loathed the mornings, and though I’d laid awake all night, racing with excitement and anticipation, I still jumped up like my bed was on fire. My cousin and I had been packed for weeks. We painstakingly made our travel lists, adding to them through late night phone calls, long after bedtime. I whispered from the pantry, long spiraled phone cord stretched around the corner and pinched to capacity in the closed door. We listed our games, beach toys, car activities, clothing, and shoes. Excitedly, we compared our new bikinis, tags still dangling. We picked out towels and snacks, and mother’s helpers.
Months before our scheduled travel departure, my Aunt and Mom would start interviewing potential mother’s helpers. My cousin and I, each being the oldest of our families, got the important job of helping to select them. We took this process very seriously, as we would all be “stuck” with these two young women during the most important days of our young lives.
After we each narrowed down our favorite, we would have them babysit for us several Saturday nights leading up to the big trip. It would not only allow us to get to know each other better and feel more comfortable, but to be sure we had made the right choices. As a side note, I have recently reconnected with one of my favorite Mother’s Helpers on facebook, after over twenty plus years. I am sure her memories will be different than mine, as we were a handful, but hopefully she will read this and find a memory to smile at as well.
My cousin and I saved our babysitting money all year long, combined with funds from any other chores we could convince our parents to let us perform, from back scratching to table setting. We knew we would have our infamous “girls only” shopping day, in the quaint town of Chatham, where many of the shop owners had become familiar friends, watching us grow up, year after year.
There was the whimsical little store, where we had to be extra careful to not break any of the petite china animals, whose feet were glued to small squares of stiff paper, containing their handwritten prices. These figurines were a favorite purchase as they were cute, collectible, and affordable. After I selected my little brown dog with floppy ears or green frog that came with a miniature lily pad, and handed Sarah my hard earned two dollars and seventy-five cents, we would next hit the Benjamin Franklin Five and Dime.
The Five and dime was larger than most stores in town and smelled of candles and cedar and dust. It was a pleasantly familiar scent, like the Woolworths back at home, but at the beach. You could seriously buy just about anything here. The aisles were happily clustered jumbles of flags and beach toys and gardening tools. We loved rummaging through the arts and crafts aisle. When our parents left each evening for their “adult time,” we would make projects, enlisting the help of our mother’s helpers.
Arts and Crafts
I loved to paint popsicle sticks and glue them together, making secret boxes to store each day’s beach treasure finds, such as conchs and shark’s teeth. Some nights we would wind glittery, bright colored pipe cleaners, recreating the flower gardens of our minds. We would string shells into necklaces, bracelets, and keychains. We’d make pets, glueing our newly bought google eyes onto rocks and any other inanimate object we could bring to life. We had limitless energy and were often found whispering by flashlight, wide awake into the wee hours, when our parents floated happily back through the door.
Even then, I craved the excitement of discovering a new area, different towns and adventures. Each year, we encountered subtle small changes, both from within and externally. As we grew, so did the Cape. This probably occurred slowly over time, but stood out like sore thumbs in our expectant memories. We adjusted to this inevitable change by occasionally slipping an unfamiliar outing or restaurant into the mix.
Summertime in New England
As much as I loved exploring the new, there were some places we just had to return to year after year. The trampolines were a family favorite, deep pits dug at least 8 feet into the sandy earth, covered with a large rubberlike trampoline and somehow held in place by a miraculous network of springs. There was an entire site of these and before our parents could finish paying, we were off and running, to each claim our own rectangular slice of heaven. We jumped, bounced, and flipped, until we were falling down dizzy.
Candy Manor was definitely on the must-do list. Five dollars would buy enough sweets to last the entire summer, and then some. And this didn’t include the obligatory purchase of fudge and salt water taffy that Mom always made, as if to verify that we had really arrived at the shore.
As we entered the surreal old converted house, the wide antique oak floor boards, creaked beneath the scurrying of our small feet. We scattered rapidly, as if the candy might disappear right before our very eyes.
The air was dense with sugar and we haphazardly licked our lips in automatic response. The enormous bins, overflowed with pink and green and blue, stars and squares and squiggles. The life size casks, splayed throughout the store were so stuffed with old fashioned treats that it took our breath away.
I couldn’t wait to run my hand through the huge brown barrel, containing root beer candies of the same name. The rectangular bricks of Mary Janes, perfectly shaped in their waxy yellow wrappers, were piled in a large plexiglass drawer. They smelled of peanut butter and were slightly sticky to the touch on a too hot day.
Two cent gum balls in primary colors met long shoelace strings of red and black licorice. We shamelessly filled our white paper bags to the overflowing brim.
We grabbed at sweet and sour rings, juicy orange slices, pale colored gummy bears, cubes of thick caramel, and chocolate covered peanuts. Slightly taboo, but so much fun, were the sugary cigarettes that came in small colorful boxes. We would breathe in, exhaling fake rings of smoke into the humid air, giggling and sucking the sweet ends. Our sugar highs began, long before paying for our gluttonous sacks.
We hungrily devoured the freedom and innocence, creamy, saccharine, and melting. I licked each finger, lingering on my thumb, that I had only recently traded sucking for my first guitar. I’m not really certain that I actually ate all that much of the candy. It was just the dizzying effect of the limitless options, combined with the fact that I could. Travel has always been this special time when both adults and children alike, could let their guard down. Actions that would have been heavily reprimanded at home, seemed to drift away with a roll of the eyes or a wave of the hand. It was summer after all, and we were traveling. The world was as close to perfect as I could ever imagine, and nothing and no-one could bring me down.
The Best Clam Chowder in New England
Another must-stop was Thompsons Clam Bar, essentially a floating wooden dock, nailed together with large old boards in varying states of disrepair. It was situated on a narrow, yet picturesque boat canal, with a shack like kitchen that served up “The best clam chowder in all of New England.” Or at least that is how I remember it. I think there was even a jingle, “Take Rt. 28 to the Clam Bar Sign, for the Happiest Eating from Noon ‘til Nine! Hey! Where ya goin’? I’m goin’ to Thompson’s Clam Bar because that’s where the Tastiest Clams Are!”
Although I was not a seafood eater, and never tasted said clam chowder, as a soon to be full vegetarian, I loved the idea of dining while floating. I was completely enamored in the excitement of everyone else’s enthusiasm for the thick white chunky soup. The fact that I was eating a grilled cheese and french fries was completely lost on me.
We sat on the dock in oversized woven chairs, watching the little fishing boats motor by. They each had poised rods and most carried their catch of the day. It was warm under the makeshift roof, but the smells of marsh, and salt air, and fish, and fragrant chowder, did not bother me as they normally might. The scents of summer in New England engulfed me, and I inhaled deeply, satisfied.
The seagulls circled overhead, occasionally lucky enough to swoop in on our coveted plates, stealing a fry, as we kids would squeal with delight. We would feign anger, but secretly loved watching the overstuffed birds soar effortlessly around us.
Age of Innocence
We hiked, and sunbathed, and ate our way through summer, thinking we knew everything, and knowing we never wanted this journey to end.
Now, what seems like a lifetime later, as my husband and I drive along, rain splashes from the tires of passing cars, creating an eerie fog of white out that blurs time and space. Memories of those carefree days drift by as quickly as the small towns we are now passing. Like the tides here, the weather shifts rapidly, and I feel myself relax, knowing that by the time we pull in, the day will transform to meet my expectation.
I quietly gaze out the window, taking note of the familiar curve of the beach, the weather stained soft serve windows with their oversized ice cream of the day lists, and the requisite candy store that each town still must have. I smile over at my husband, barely containing my excitement. With each salt filled inhalation, I drift between the then and the now, the child and the woman, the past and the present, always the traveler.
See Jenny In Wanderland article, 5 Unique New England Attractions to Visit