Here’s an excerpt:
“My family calls it, simply, the Big House. Each summer for forty-two years I have traveled here from winter homes across the United States. The Big House is where I learned how to swim, play tennis, sail. The Big House is where I first kissed a girl, first got drunk, first experimented with drugs. My most vivid dreams and nightmares are set here. It is where I read the books my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather read as children, and where I wrote my own first book. It is where I decided to get married. It is where my wife and I buried keepsakes to remind us of two miscarried babies, not far from where my grandfather’s ashes are buried. I have come to recognize the peculiar rattle each window makes in its casement, the luffing of each window shade, the texture of each forest path under my bare feet, the sound of each screen door slamming, the nine-second pause between the beam from Cleveland Ledge Light that stripes my wall as I lie in bed at night. Although I have spent only a month or two here each year for four decades, I have always thought of it as home, if home is the one place that will be in your bones forever.”
The writer describes how, as children, he and his brothers would point out, and loudly shout out, landmarks along the way during their summer journey from their winter home to the sprawling 100 year old, four-story, eleven bedroom summer home on Cape Cod. And how his children are now pointing out the very same landmarks on their summer journey to the Big House. And continue the pointing and shouting once they reach the house; in a kind of “Hi House, I’m back” arrive and reacquaint tradition.
And while reading I remembered my own family’s summer journey. The journey WE took every summer.
There certainly weren’t any Big Houses waiting for us, unless we count the rooming house kind of hotel we always stayed in while we were there. The Dennis. Or as we always referred to it, “Miz Dennis’ place.”
Ella Phillips Dennis came to Ocean City in 1890 to regain her health. Two years later she built the Dennis Hotel (I guess she regained her health!). She was also a staunch Presbyterian and has been given credit for founding the First Presbyterian Church of Ocean City.
Miz Dennis became well known for her ability to speak her mind and is said to have made statements to, among others, the local newspaper, concerning the men of Ocean City, MD that “Ocean City is seventy percent built by women, run by women and the men are all henpecked.” (She sounds pretty healthy to me.)
Miz Dennis was one among a group of smart, savy, formidable women known as the Petticoat Regime of 1890-1926. Of the thirty-two hotels and boarding houses listed in a 1926 guide to Ocean City, all but two were owned and managed by women.
More about that here:
Now, I don’t know who actually owned “Miz Dennis’ Place” when we stayed there, but I do think it was still in the Dennis family. I remember the place as well as I remember any place I’ve ever been. I remember the long hallways, and I remember it having odd little nooks and crannies – the types of little hidey nooks children just love. I remember big wrapping porches, and I remember everyone being wonderfully kind.
Obviously, my family didn’t have much in common with Mr. Colt’s family. At least not financially, and not culturally. But, we did share a love of the sea. And the need to emotionally reconnect with a place that holds our hearts.
My traditional reacquaintance with Ocean City goes sorta like this.
Mother and Daddy and I drive from Cambridge. Me in the backseat bouncing, and pointing and squealing, “LOOK! There’s Mr. King’s filling station! Wonder if he’s there?! Can we stop and say Hey?!”
"LOOK! There’s Mr. & Mrs. Ruark’s restaurant! Wonder if they’re there?! Can we stop and say Hey?!”
"LOOK! Isn't that Miss Clara's house?! Wonder if she's there?! Can we stop and say Hey?!"
"LOOK! There Aunt Dot & Uncle Bob’s restaurant! Wonder if they’re there?! Can we stop and say Hey?!"
Needless to say – the two hour drive usually took a bit longer than two hours.
Approaching Ocean City, we cross a bridge, windows down and we can smell the salt. And we feel “different.” We know there’s something in the air. Some shimmering “something.” Something that’s hard to define. You just know it when you experience it. You just have to let yourself feel it. It’s pure and clean and freeing, and I guess if we have to give it a name, it would be joy.
After crossing the bridge, we turn right and go to the parking lot at the very edge of town, past the very beginning of the Boardwalk. As we get out of the car and I start to run, I hear my dad say, “Kaye Alan, don’t run!”
I hear my mom say “You’re going to fall!”
Did I listen?! Why, no – of course not! Fall?! Me?! Pfft!
And with the waves hitting the sandy white beach to my right,
and Marty's Playland along with Trimper's Carousel to my left, my little feet would hit that Boardwalk going a hundred miles an hour.
Down I would go.
And it would hurt! And my knees would be all skinned and I would cry. Loudly.
I’d collect hugs from Mother & Daddy and hear an “I told you so” or two. And then we would have to start the hunt for a band aid. And there was always some kind shop keeper who would have a band aid they would give us. Along with the use of their bottle of iodine. Just seeing that bottle would have me screaming like a maniac. “No No No No. No No No No.”
Mother saying, “This might burn. Blow on it, ok?”
MIGHT burn?! BLOW on it?! WTF????
Before it was over with I’d be blowing (in between the “No No No No’s), Daddy would be blowing, the shop keeper would be blowing (surely in hopes the other customers didn’t think he was responsible for the brutal murder of this pitiful child screaming “No No No No.”), sometimes a couple other kind and nosy customers would join in on the blowing. All blowing on my skinny little bloody knee while it got painted with iodine and plastered over with a huge band aid.
Did this happen more than once?
Which was a topic of conversation amongst the family for years. Guaranteed to bring laughs and guffaws. And the question was always asked, “Well, why didn’t you think to take your own iodine and band aids?!”
But I think Mother & Daddy always left the house thinking, “surely to God, this child is NOT going to fall again this year.”
The child was clumsy. What can I say?
They did, eventually, start remembering to put the iodine and a tin of band aids in the car.
Why that passage at the beginning of this blog reminded me of my clumsiness on the Boardwalk of Ocean City, Maryland might elude some of you.
Then again, maybe not.
There are always memories connected to places we love.
One memory will stir another memory, and so it goes . . .
and it doesn't have to have a thing to do with how big a place is, or how much it costs, or if it's on Cape Cod, the French Riviera, or a small resort town in Maryland.
We all find common ground in our memories of what we love best in our lives.