Joy at 16: Just a Girl

We lived in a small gray house built on sand. The two-bedroom frame house had one floor, no basement and no attic. Four similar houses and a narrow one-way street separated us from the bay. Twice a day at low tide the smell of our neighborhood was its most distinguished feature. Stinking mud and dead fish marked our territory. The air was kinder at high tide as the rising water bathed away the stench. Misty breezes swept across the bay or rolled in from the ocean on the eastern shore. On this peaceful side of the island there was little traffic or noise, even in summer. Bell buoys rang in the distance, guiding ships along the shore. We could hear the solitary cries of seagulls, an occasional clamor of ducks by the bay, the murmur of small boats passing. These were sounds so familiar we barely noticed them, as we moved through the daily drama of our lives.

West Maple Avenue was just three blocks north of the tracks. The people who lived on this backside of the island were firmly anchored in place. They were descendants of whalers, fisherman and sailors and they still got much of their sustenance from the sea. Crab traps dangled from the bulkhead by the bay. Neighbors who did not have boats fished from docks, from bridges, or from the shore. Many still knew how to dig for clams or harvest oysters. Most families had rowboats, often handmade. Roped to pilings in the shallow bay, these small boats were left stranded in the muck by the receding tide, and were lifted again when the water returned. Knowing the schedule of the tides was essential. To arrive home by boat at low tide meant that mooring close to shore was impossible. No one could walk from boat to beach once the receding water exposed the soft muddy bottom of the bay. No solid ground existed beneath the sucking slime of the island’s muddy shore. If careless, a person could sink slowly into the mire, and disappear without a trace.

All the houses on our street were brown, gray or white. Our own was shingled gray with white shutters. Flower boxes made of gray and white brick lined two sides of our front porch. Our front steps met the sidewalk. A patch of grass grew between the sidewalk and the street. Narrow strips of grass sprouted in the sand in the alleys between our house and our neighbors on each side. Fences covered by blue and white morning glories in summer, by brown vines in winter, bordered our square backyard. A willow tree grew on one side of the yard, a lilac bush on the other. Blue sky, purple and yellow pansies, red geraniums and patches of green leaves splashed the only bit of bright color on our otherwise pale landscape. On this west side we had gray water and mud. We had sun bleached sand, seashells and concrete. On the east side of the island, neon motel signs lined the beach. Flashing lights on arcade signs and amusement rides lined the boardwalk. A sightseeing boat painted bright orange and blue was moored on the east end of the harbor. These colorful exceptions stood in cloying contrast to the quiet tones of earth and sea that surrounded us. Even those garish symbols of commercialism often disappeared under the heavy blanket of fog that so often covered our island.

No one I knew ever left this place. There were no vacations to faraway places, no commuting to work in distant cities, no moving away from home. Generation after generation weathered storms that swept houses off their foundations. Again and again residents rebuilt their damaged homes. Every few years hurricanes or northeasters brought floods that washed in from all directions, burying the island for days at a time. Surging tides pushed sea water into our homes. Inches of mud had to be shoveled out before evacuated residents could return. Our wallpaper had several lines of water marks, the highest two feet above the warped floor boards. Cushions had floated off the chairs and sofa in that worst of all storms. The water destroyed all our family pictures. Our salt stained, mud caked shoes, left in closets or under our beds as we fled the rising tide, had to be sprayed clean with a hose. Once they dried in the sun we tried in vain to return the stiff leather to its natural softness by lathering the shoes with Vaseline. We wore them hard and cracked and falling apart. Like everything else they smelled of mold and mildew. The musty odor never left our homes before another storm came to intensify the damage and the smell.

From a distance of more than forty years I turn my thoughts with trepidation to that old gray house by the sea. For a week I have allowed my mind to wander outside, remembering the island and the neighborhood, but avoiding this house. Today I have decided to be brave. It is dark inside as I enter by the front door. No one is home. The red glow of hot coals radiates through the glass door of the old metal stove in the corner. I think of Goldilocks as I walk slowly forward. What have the people who live here left behind for me to borrow?

A voice from the past reminds me that I am no Goldilocks. I remember my father’s ornery laugh. “I always wanted two children” he would say to whomever might listen. “I wanted a boy first, then a girl. I wanted a little girl with blond curly hair and blue eyes, like Shirley Temple. But first I wanted a son! And look what I got: a girl first, a girl with straight mousy brown hair and brown eyes. Not a curl on her head! I had to wait three more years to finally get my son!” Sooner or later everyone he knew heard this story. His female, brown-haired, brown eyed, first born child heard it often enough to help assure that she would eventually be the one to leave this place. She was barely sixteen when she swung her errant hair over her determined shoulders and strolled quietly away.