A Childhood Remembered
When I was a child, the tiptop of the Sagamore Bridge loomed like a giant Ferris wheel on the last mile of Route 3—a bridge between the school year and sweet summer that never failed to send my stomach into orbit. Crossing the canal was the passage to freedom. Behind us were the duties and predictability of stately, staid suburbia. Ahead was a land of sand and scrub pines, poised precariously and perfectly at the edge of possibility.
A writer revisits the carefree Cape Cod of her youth.
Summer days at my grandmother’s house on Osterville’s Eel River, stretched long and languorously before me. Waking up without a schedule, ready to beach, boat, clam, or bike on a whim seemed—and still seems—the ultimate of luxuries. We own our own home now in nearby Centerville, but sometimes I get bogged down being a grown-up.
Recently, I decided to retrace my childhood steps in an effort to reclaim the sheer joy of a Cape Cod day lived in the moment. The Cape did not let me down.
It seemed only right to start the day at our old house. The owners, away at the time, cheerily granted me permission to roam and reminisce. I arrived by bike, the mode of transportation that for all those childhood summers defined independence.
Although the shores of our neighborhood’s saltwater inlet are today spotted with mansions, our home has miraculously escaped being razed or unrecognizably altered. The attached garage my father and grandfather converted into a two-bedroom addition for our growing family in the late 1950s is again a garage but the footprint remains the same. It’s not hard to picture the summer bedroom that housed four siblings in two sets of bunk beds whispering and giggling long past our bedtime into the summer night. How many whippoorwill and firefly-filled evenings did we chase each other across this lawn with flashlights? How many secret club meetings did we conduct in the garage built by my father and grandfather?
The quaint gazebo atop the steep stairs to the dock still stands. We called it the Summer House—our gateway to beach and boats, and the launch pad for our dad’s ritual Friday night dash. He would greet us, then delight us with his dive into the river to wash away the work week. Descending the stairs, I picture my brother, John, playing for hours in a rowboat tethered to the dock, Molly dog paddling by the shore, and Mandy, trembling as the rest of us cheered the fireworks exploding over the harbor.
The dune that sheltered my sisters and me as we desperately tanned on blustery high school days has disappeared, along with most of our beach. Erosion has taken its toll, making the steep drop from the lawn more shear, exposing the roots of trees that may soon topple. After paying homage to the two trees that once held my favorite reading hammock, I take my leave of the old place and bike to the destination of countless mornings as a kid, the tennis backboard.
I know every bend and slope in the road. Riding against the ocean wind, the crunch of sand under my tires, I know to keep pedaling the downhills. Coasting will not earn me enough speed to thwart the breezes of Sea View Avenue.
I’d forgotten how satisfying the thwack of a ball hit on a green wall could be. Confidence boosted by the addition of chicken wire to trap errant lobs and the fact that the dreaded ball-eating briar patch behind the backboard appears to have been cleared, I whack the heck out of the ball at least 100 times.
Next stop: Osterville Village, where a week wasn’t complete without a bike basket’s worth of books from the library. The spanking new building dwarfs the old in every respect. I won’t be able to boast reading every book in the children’s section. Unfortunately, it’s closed but I promise myself to reread a summer classic before the day is over.
The roofline of Main Street remains familiar—that long, low strip of whitewashed stores adorned with window boxes and an American flag. The drugstore and movie theatre have sadly gone missing but the newsstand—now the Osterville Café—is still here. I spin a counter stool, buy Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and rifle through a magazine for old time’s sake, half expecting to be barked at by an owner long gone, whose patience my best friend and I tested daily. On leaving, I let the screen door slam behind me. I peek next door, grateful that Bob Ryerson, barber to everyone in town since the 1960s, is still holding forth on politics and all things Osterville.
With the sun high in the sky, I bike to my brother John’s house. He is a kindred Cape Cod spirit. After a childhood of being forcibly removed from beach and boats every Labor Day, John settled here with his family year-round and now greets Labor Day with smug glee. He is more than on board with my return to a youthful summer’s day.
When I arrive, he has already loaded a canoe on his trailer. He knows that a day on the Cape would not be complete without a trip to Sampson’s Island and Dead Neck—our family’s near daily destination for swims and picnics for decades. We’ll cross the channel on the Cotuit side, the shortest distance on a day when wind and waves demand stiff paddling.
The swirl of the incoming tide pushes us backwards as we dig into the water, heads down against the whipping wind until the bump of bow on land. It’s hard to describe what this island means to us. Surrounded by sand, sky, and ocean, my brother leaps and runs down the beach. For a moment, he is 10 and I am 17. The decades disappear here. We hike the island, examining its latest changes in shape, molded by storms, tides, currents, and wind. Conversation is easy and elemental, sparked by what’s in front of us.
My brother explains why there is so little driftwood these days—the shipping of lumber being diminished—and where the best sea glass can be found. I pop a necklace of conch seedlings, amazed to be able to show him anything about the sea he does not already know.
Paddling home, bracing against the wind, I am reminded of other trips home from the island huddled in the bow of a sputtering outboard in wet bathing suits next to my shivering sisters, my dad at the helm. The final verse of a poem he wrote to four generations of our family who have loved this island rings in my heart:
I scan along the ages on our shore
And wonder at this treasure held secure.
Our island’s anchored in the stream of days
At the coordinates of place and love
The mainland is calm and warm, oblivious of our island adventure buffeted by the elements. We are as happy to be back as we are happy to have gone. On this timeless day when I have given myself permission to go with the rhythm of the Cape and do whatever strikes my fancy, I beg my brother to drive me to Four Seas in Centerville for ice cream. His bright yellow VW Bug convertible is the same model we grew up with and, with the top down, is the quintessential car for the task. We soar over the Bumps River Bridge with its salt marshes on our left, and the strip of Long Beach, the Centerville River, and exhilarating views of Nantucket Sound to our right.
Nothing tastes better than Four Seas’ uniquely pink mint chip ice cream eaten with childlike, guilt-free gusto in the late afternoon. I am in heaven. Afterward, we wander through the 1856 Country Store where I judiciously select penny candy as John expounds on the virtue of fireballs, pondering who could have invented such a perfect food. I buy my annual rope bracelet. I won’t cut if off until fall in honor of my mother who insisted we remove the “grimy things” before the start of each school year.
We end the afternoon in search of beach plum bushes on Long Beach Road, near where I now live, and where we helped Mom gather beach plums for jelly at the end of every summer. We can’t be sure where they are or even if we’ve already found them. Mom would have known.
In the waning light, I curl up with a book that enchanted me in the old Osterville hammock—the mysterious, slightly dark, un-Disneyed Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers. By the time I finish, night has fallen on the cottage and with it the responsibility of dinner for a hungry family. The ending calls me back to adult life: “All good things come to an end, sometime,” says Mary Poppins as she floats skyward and out of sight.
Ah, but Mary Poppins never landed on Cape Cod, did she?
Sara Hoagland Hunter writes from Centerville. Her most recent children’s book, The Lighthouse Santa, set at Great Point Light, Nantucket, is based on the Christmas flights of Edward Rowe Snow. Sara can be reached at sarahunterproductions.com.
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