Wednesday, August 19, 2009



As I struggled with three hefty boxes at the post office in mid January, a fellow customer caught my eye and jested, “Hope that’s not a late Christmas for someone.”

“I’m just early for next year,” I replied, and immediately felt smug and clever, despite it being a bald-faced lie. What I was holding were the earthly remains of a thirty-five-year love affair with a beach house.

After much agonizing, my sister and I had put up for sale the cozy ocean-side house we inherited from our parents. Owning it had become a burden, and six of our seven (combined) offspring did not live close enough either to use or help maintain it. After two years on the market, we accepted an offer with a short closing date. Not only were we given just ten days to vacate thirty-five-years of seasonal habitation, but those ten days happened within the octave of Christmas. My sister and I, both middle-aged matrons, sacrificed our traditional holiday activities (and the stress accompanying them) to weed out and pack up the house. Dragging along our good-natured husbands, we rented a U-haul and began to clean and sort.

What do a box of fortune sticks, a hand-held fog horn, a bullet-proof glass brick, and a floral-chintz apron from the 1950s have in common? All were items requested by our grown-up kids, favorite things they remembered from their summers at the ocean. As soon as the house sale was finalized, I had called my four kids to break the news. They’d all been hoping, not so secretly, that the beach house would never sell, even though everyone knew it was too lovely not to catch someone’s eye eventually. To ease the sting of the cabin’s dissolution, I asked each of them, “If you could have three things from the house, what would they be?” My sister asked the same question of her three grown children.

So there we were a couple of days after Christmas, my sister and I, cleaning and pulling things from closets and shelves—making decisions about what to dispose of, move, or leave for the new owners, as well as what to pack up for our kids. While our husbands scrubbed down storage sheds and made innumerable trips to the dump, we sorted through accumulated stuff to determine what would be salvaged.

Interestingly, there was little conflict among our kids about who got what, with the exception of a pair of wooden salt and pepper shakers painted to look like chefs, their pouring holes on the top of white hats. “Salty,” written in cursive, was inscribed under one dopey face and “Peppy” under the other. One kid from each of our families listed Salty and Peppy as their favorite thing, citing their fondness for the chirping sound that each emitted as it was shaken over the receiving food.

“Salty and Peppy were the essence of what we loved about the beach,” explained my Minneapolis-based son to me on the phone.

“Corny, comfortable, and fun,” said his cousin in San Francisco, who ended up drawing the long straw via surrogate, his mother and my sister.

Our offspring—who as little kids had blown bubbles in front of the house and watched them blow “all the way to Japan” when the wind prevailed from the east, staggered through sand on short chubby legs, got sunburned and bitten by sand flees, and developed itchy rashes from wading in salt-water—now were grown up.

Our children—who as grade-school kids had dreamed big dreams as they flew kites from the dunes, shared secrets in front of the crackling fireplace-fire, discovered carcasses of seals and held their noses while exploring with fascination the decaying flesh, and fought over Clue and Parcheesi and Rummy Royal—were living their own independent lives.

Our kids—who as teenagers sneaked beer and cigarettes to campfires, saw and comprehended the Milky Way for the first time, and set off fireworks purchased from the local reservation with their own money (as well as a few illegal bottle rockets)— would need to find ways to make summer-time memories for their own families.

Those “kids” were now merely the addressees of packages containing what the postal insurance forms described as “Miscellaneous household items.” Items inside the packages were as diverse and individual as the people who’d requested them, the grandchildren of the owners who, by the time the cabin was sold, lived in seven separate cities and several states. Everyone was touched differently by those summers judging from what was shipped to them: a circa 1950 Waring Blender, a sturdy stainless teakettle, rusty fishing tackle, coffee mugs in collectible fire-orange colored Fiestaware, two dainty handmade bowls from Denmark, a frayed but warm hunting jacket worn by the grandfather and all his progeny over fifty years. Each box contained the three requested items and whatever favorite knick knacks the mother could cram into the box—a set of dessert plates, a sea-themed trivet, a hand-blown glass ashtray.

We also shipped beloved furniture to the kids who had room for it, too—an heirloom army trunk from the Spanish-American War, a graceful Danish-modern chair, a drop-leaf coffee table. My sister and I also wanted things—tableware, deluxe kitchen utensils, stoneware, coasters, cookbooks—and the U-haul truck we’d rented had room for a few pieces of beloved furniture we were determined to keep for ourselves. Somehow we would make room for them in our already crowded homes—like assimilating forlorn children into a foster family.

How do you pack up memories and ship them to someone? For starters, try cramming a box with beach-house collectibles. These images will tumble out when it's opened: a bell buoy’s flash on the horizon line, the roar of the wind during a sou’ester, the lunge of the waves, the scent of moist and salty air, even a little bit of sand.

Maybe I wasn’t kidding when I told the stranger at the post office I was shipping next year’s Christmas gifts. I had packed up gifts to last a lifetime and for every occasion—the memories of happy times.

Copyright ©2009 Sara J. Glerum

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I can clearly see your beach house as if I was in it yesterday. This is a wonderful essay about such a happy place full of special memories. Wasn't there an old radio in the living room- perhaps a wooden 1930's Zenith model? It was more decorative than functional as I think that radio reception at Cohassett was terrible.
What fun we all had at the beach.