Some months after I began dating the man who was to become my husband, we spent a weekend at his family beach house. Though it seemed a harmless enough invite at the time, hindsight reveals it to be an early domestic hazing ritual and I an unwitting pledge.
The cottage dubbed “Crackerbox” had been built by his grandfather in 1937, one of five or six houses developed by a forward-looking friend in the enclave known as Indian Beach, just south of Dewey. It’s a long, low, L-shaped structure nestled right up to the dune. An old family photo looking back toward the house from the vantage point of the beach shows a perfectly prepubescent landscape, not a hillock or swell to prefigure the full-bodied dunes of today. “Goodad,” in swim trunks, walks away from the photographer, traversing what is now a paved parking area. Several cool old cars, the kind favored by bootlegging gangsters, are parked outside the house on the sand.
The trip from Washington, DC was said to have taken a whole day back then. It featured a ferry ride across the Bay, a picnic lunch by the side of the road (fried chicken, potato salad, watermelon), and peppermint patties from a certain filling station. I was well acquainted with these details before ever laying eyes on the house.
At the time I entered the tale, Indian Beach was gearing up to celebrate its fifty-year anniversary. Commanding new homes had begun to muscle their way onto the scene all around the Crackerbox. It was among the last holdouts, well-maintained but renovation-free, so modest that from the beach only a wedge of cedar shake roof peeped over the dune.
I was shown the outdoor shower and a hose for washing my feet before entering from the beach. Then I was directed to a matchbook-sized room with two twin beds just off the dining room table. I shared this with my sister-in-law to be. Over my bed, a framed needlepoint of a duck floating on scalloped blue stitching offered advice that might have sounded a warning to anyone with her lights on: ‘The hostess must be like the duck, calm on the surface, but paddling like hell underneath.”
After dinner, the ladies cleaned up while the gents retired to the porch to smoke cigars. Later, I tossed and turned in starched sheets on my creaking, spring-shot bed, chafing against the convention that had my boyfriend bunking in a room down the hall with his brother. The air circulation was poor. If you left the door open, you might catch the faintest of cross breezes, assuming the hall windows were open. But then you would also be subjected to cigar smoke and conversation wafting in from the porch. I fell asleep with a stuffy nose. There was no air conditioning.
The next day the men left after breakfast to play golf. They returned late in the afternoon, in time for a swim and cocktails. Menus were set in stone: Friday night lobster and corn-on-the-cob were followed by Saturday night steak on the grill and twice baked potatoes. Lunch featured sandwiches with cold cuts brought from a favorite deli back home, vine-ripened tomatoes, homemade mayonnaise, and vichyssoise. Who could complain?
On departure day, that first visit, my hostess and future mother-in-law took me aside to instruct me in proper bed-making technique. In the hall linen closet I would find fresh flat and fitted sheets–white, starched, laundered off-site. There were two techniques to master—the hospital corners, which I’d already learned at summer camp, and the blanket cover. The blanket cover was a printed flat sheet that went over the blanket and under the bedspread, a protective layer that was to be tucked in under the top of the blanket, with the white top sheet folded down over that. If you’re confused, well, so was I.
Change has been slow to come to this beach house, still held in the family. To step across the threshold is to step back in time; it has been maintained with regressive rigor by a family fully committed to the way things were. Visitors may notice, propped in a corner near the front door, a mysterious contraption that looks something like a wooden pogo stick with a tambourine mounted to the top. Over dinner, as conversation turns inevitably to the past, they will learn that around this curious artifact, a so-called devil stick, the spirit of revelry sprouted wings.
If black and white photos are to be believed, my husband’s people were not only responsible caretakers and stewards but also partiers. They gathered around the art deco bar at cocktail hour and long into the night, playing gin rummy or poker, high on cocaine-infused prescription nose drops and rum drinks. The men are pictured wearing the stiff brassieres of early two-piece bathing suits. Conga lines formed behind the devil stick. Once, as they snaked their way down the chain of bedrooms linked by shared baths, they came upon Aunt Claire sitting on the john and sailed right by.
Although the house is sited next to the beach, no window, other than one from the now defunct “servant’s quarters” above the garage, affords views to the ocean. The screened porch looks past a mostly buried snow fence upon the now full-term dune with its gently waving grasses and scrub pines. From their uppermost branches, mockingbirds sing a clever medley of songs with all their heart. The rhythmic wash of the ocean close by, the pages of the Sunday New York Times rustling in the breeze, a sweating glass of lemonade, and you can almost tune out the persistent thrum of traffic along Route 1.
While there have been upgrades–storm shutters for the porch, a modestly updated kitchen, two-zoned central air, there is fervid support among family members for each sparking light fixture and lumpy piece of furniture. Even the knotty pine paneling is held sacred in the family gaze. Though, as with all rules, there are exceptions–the child mortally afraid to go to bed at night on account of the naughty pine with its eyes everywhere, and I, Johnny-come-lately, who would slap a coat of white paint on it in a heartbeat.
Sadly, some of the civilized perks have fallen away. The sheets are laundered in-house now, the chore falling to the resident hostess on departure day. Heaven forbid she’s trying to get out early to beat traffic. It simply can’t be finessed. The rule is that all sheets and towels are to be washed before decamping, all beds remade. Faced with seven twins, one queen, one king, beach and bath towels, this hostess is more tigress than duck, growling under her breath for houseguests to leave already so she can get on with the drill.
I’ve noticed that the blanket covers flummox even those visitors well schooled in hospital corners. After they leave, I go around and straighten the beds, the ghost of my mother-in-law hovering over my shoulder. Maybe if someone had spirited me off to the bathroom to share prescription nose drops, it would have played out differently. Instead of going about in rubber gloves with a dishtowel draped over one shoulder, fully pledged to the sorority of beleaguered housewives, maybe I’d take the devil stick for a whirl. Understand that in all these years I’ve never once moved it from its post near the door except to vacuum cobwebs.