Sure many folks live in the same town as their grandparents and a parcel of aunts uncles and cousins, but we weren’t that family for my parents decided to cross both the Brooklyn and George Washington Bridge to raise us up in New Jersey. Sure, we made the journey back over those bridges, back to Flatbush, back to their old neighborhood on Christmas and Easter. But corralling us six wasn’t a spontaneous occurrence. It took the grandeur of a holiday to make it happen.
Summer was a different story, however, for there was a history that went back generations, before even my parents, that anchored us to the north shore of Long Island, inside the gates of Belle Terre. My great-grandfather built his three story Victorian on a bluff overlooking the bay. From his vantage he could see all that came through the breakwaters, including his fleet of working tugs. His ten summered under this roof, and many made sure, once married, to continue the tradition by bringing their children there; and so it was for me summering there too. Sandy roads zigzagged between colossal homes each holding various generations of relatives, and children wandered with much freedom between them all.
The rocky beach was the constant. At any time of day, one could find a relative there to chat it up. My generation arrived into this well-established summer community without missing a beat. In my deepest memory I barely remember seeing an parent the whole of August as I ran about in that sanctuary. My mother was finally within walking distance of both her parents and her best friend and stole away with all the freedom we too enjoyed.
The two, Eileen McAllister and Barbara Rice, met while in elementary school in Brooklyn, and soon became fast friends. Friends who became related when Barbara married my mother’s cousin. Throughout my childhood, I knew she was my godmother, and my Aunt, but Barbara’s role as my mother’s best friend took precedence over any other. Those two would hide away in each others’ bedrooms, speaking their special invented language if we children drifted within earshot, and for the entirety of their years, this special relationship never altered. Children? Between the two they had 14: Barbara had 8, while my modern mother only 6. But the responsibilities we 14 brought into their lives never stopped them from laughing up a storm year after year. In my memory, the only time my mother did close her bedroom door was when Aunt Barbara arrived.
And so we drifted from house to house, until we were summoned. Corrine wasn’t a fan of our August retreat. Not a fan of bugs or beaches or being removed from all her friends back in New Jersey, but she endured with a few rituals of her own.
One such ritual had become a practice, an event that we squealed for: to ride on top the big station wagon back from the strip of rocky Long Island Sound beach that held our August afternoons to the wooden cottage where she swore she saw the ghost of Mr. Crystal rock in the big pine rocker next to the fireplace.
Flying flat on the rooftop I lay pinned between the cool luggage rack metal and my second cousin once removed, who even more importantly than that, was my mother’s best friend’s daughter. From our youth we watched with envy our mother’s retreat behind closed doors, a flurry of secrets being shared, none of which we were privy to but we too bared our darkest corners till long after childhood ended. As Corrine drove the car tree branches whipped and tickled our arms and legs while the early evening air shot cool on our sunburned skin.
The sandy windy roads were narrow and overgrown with lush vines twisted around the dense trees which we somehow memorized from our horizontal perspective and could calculate the precise location on our speeding wagon. Corrine was our ferry our shuttle our only retreat from walking as she piloted my mother’s station wagon back and forth between the wooden houses in this summer community filled with family at every turn. Days were spent making food for the galloping hordes while mothers laughed and fathers disappeared with golf clubs and children wandered along windy narrow tree lined sandy roads only called home by their own growling stomachs.
Sometimes we would wedge my sister between Lizzie and me to keep her from flying off the top of the wagon and into the thick growth that harbored ticks. We ran along those overgrown paths during the day on our way to the rocky beach, but ticks hid at the end of many a pointed finger and we were checked from head to toe before our evening baths. Our Yorkshire terrier, who ran always on our heels, seemed to attract more of those blood sucking bugs than we could keep track of, but our Corrine pulled them off like a skilled surgeon and while it was frightening to see the blown-up blood-filled bodies, it didn’t stop us from lying in the soft leafy beds deep in the dark undergrowth and along the sandy narrow paths we cut with our bare hands and constant wanderings.