Maryland was a big tobacco colony. We still grow it. Miles and miles of it, the corn of the Chesapeake. Except we also grow corn. And you stop for corn on the two hour drive to Scientist’s Cliffs in Calvert County where your grandparents live.
The beach. Beach houses. Usually people who use these phrases mean the ocean, and they mean waves, and sand, and a big house with beachy furniture. Growing up, the beach meant jellyfish. And sand, but not very much of it, and it was really more rocks than sand. And a long gravely walk either barefoot and carrying your shoes, or wearing flip flops or jellies.
My grandparents bought the beach house sometime before I was born. I know this because there are pictures of everyone there and my mom is pregnant with my older sister. So by the time I came around, the youngest of fourteen grandchildren, the beach house was one part beach fun and three parts strange old person house. (There was a bathtub in the bedroom, and a half bathroom in the hallway closet. The only full bath upstairs was in the kitchen. Strange.) It smelled, probably faintly in the beginning but strongly as I got older, of some weird combination of dust and mold. There was nothing that wasn’t weird about the beach house. The downstairs had a shower and a half bathroom, separate, and a weird step up to the toilet that gave it a magestic throne like quality. It also had a window into the bedroom, because all bathrooms should have that. The downstairs had been outfitted into a guest suite – a fold out couch and two single beds. Attached, but outside, was a “camper”, which is a suite with a full sized plastic covered mattress and screened in windows which overlooked the carport. It is not a feature I’ve ever seen on another house.
I don’t remember now exactly what it feels like to be stung by a jellyfish. I was not stung by a bee as a child, only as an adult, but I think the pain was similar. Somehow the adults in our lives always acted as if we should just go swimming in the bay and just somehow…magically avoid the jellyfish? I don’t understand how this is possible when they wrap themselves around your legs. As an adult, I have a healthy fear of jellyfish. In that I will not get in any water that has them unless I’m wearing a full skin or wetsuit. If the water was warm enough to swim in, there were jellyfish. Otherwise, it was too damn cold. If it was too cold, you would just look for shark’s teeth, because Scientist’s Cliffs held dozens, hundreds, of fossilized shark’s teeth. I think the biggest one I ever found was about the size of a nickel, most of them were smaller than a dime. All of our beach toys lived in a ramshackle green hut with a broken padlock and an awful lot of spiders. Digging through the spider filled beach hut (which was, by the way, overgrown with poison ivy) for a good bucket and shovel was one of those things that I think parents in the early 90s believed built character.
I am fairly confident that all of our parents would be in jail today for letting us go to the beach alone.
When I was in high school, my grandparents moved from The Beach House, with all of it’s strangeness, to a senior living community which, on the whole, made a lot more sense for an older couple, half of whom was beginning to suffer from pretty severe dementia and both of whom were unable to navigate the rickety steps from the carport, and neither of whom should have been driving the hour and a half from where their doctors were to where the beach house was. So my family and I packed up the Beach House and moved about half of the contents to a storage facility. The other half got thrown away, as it should have.
I met my husband in college. So he has no understanding of this huge part of my person, this place I used to go. He doesn’t understand why, when we go to the beach, the real beach, on the shore of the Atlantic, I can spend hours standing in the jellyfish free water, frolicking in the waves, running around on the sand. We all kept a few items from the Beach House – I have the shamrock suncatcher that hung on the back door, a package of long fireplace matches that I was never allowed to play with that sat on the mantel, and the Irish Parking Only sign that hung in the carport. It is probably the memory I can never truly share with him, and the one I want to the most.