Since I mentioned staying in Westbrook, Connecticut, during the summer of 1964 in a previous story – and since I lived in Westbrook from 2006 to 2015 – I offer this story about a more recent encounter prompted by my having read the news items below:
WESTBROOK, CONN — The Westbrook Fire Marshall is trying to determine the cause of an early morning fire at 20 Cherry St. Fire crews got the fire under control in 35 minutes. Most of the damage was done to the second floor. The cause is under investigation. No one was home at the time of the fire. No firefighters were injured while fighting the fire.
In the summers of 1964 and 1965, my family rented a tiny, red cottage on Cherry Street, in Chapman Beach. Since those are the happiest, most memorable summers of my life, the story clicked, made me wonder, then passed in the rush of work and life until …
At the end of a training ride for Bike MS: Cape Cod Getaway, I approached Chapman Beach. Recalling the news item, I turned in to satisfy my curiosity. I passed cottages unchanged and memories undimmed for 50 years. I passed new cottages and new faces, reminding me change is as constant as the un-frayed fabric of our lives. I turned left on Cherry Street.
In the lot on which the cottage in which I spent those wondrous summers once stood was a vacant, newly bulldozed scar, bearing charred remnants of the fire a month earlier. I stopped for a hushed, frozen moment, recalling the old red cottage more vividly than I now saw its fragmentary remains. I wanted to cry … but not there. I wanted to mourn the cottage and the boyhood that were no more … but not then. I heard voices.
I looked to my right. Across the street and on the other side of a hedgerow sat two elderly gentlemen. In lawn chairs, they sat at a glass-top table, shaded by an umbrella, sharing a drink and a conversation much like all the others they’d been sharing for more years than I’ve been alive — Joe, an Italian gentleman, and Pat, an Irishman. I pushed my bike across the street.
Over the hedge, I asked if the Warnes family still owned the old cottage. I asked if the Hirsts still lived next door and if the descendants of Old Man Spencer, the lobsterman, still lived out back aside the creek. I asked if children still netted blue crabs in that creek. They looked at me as if I were an apparition from their own pasts, rather than a nostalgic, middle-aged man, trying to recapture some of his own.
Joe said, “Young man, you know too much. You better come over here and sit down.” I pushed my bike through a break in the hedge, introduced myself, removed my helmet and my gloves, and sat down. Joe asked if I wanted a glass of water. I thanked him and declined. He said, “I’d offer you something else. But it’s too expensive.”
Then he asked, “Did you know Vic Verdolini?” The Verdolinis had owned a cottage on Chapman Beach Road. I replied, “Yes. He was a Meriden native like me. Vic went to school with my Mom and Dad. His restaurant on Hanover Street made my favorite pizza. And I went to school with Vic’s kids, Gary and Lisa.” Joe looked at Pat and said, “This guy might be for real.”
I asked the gentlemen if they knew the Mottrams, who owned the cottage at the end of Cherry Street. They did. I asked them if they knew the Bransfields, who owned the cottage around the block. They did. I asked them if they remembered a beautiful girl named Cathy Marotta from a cottage on Fox Lane. They did. I asked if they remembered the Lawtons, who rented the blue cottage by the beach. They did. I asked if they remembered what the name had been on the front of that cottage. Pat said, “Harvard. And the one right behind it was Little Harvard.” He was right.
Joe said, “You have a pretty good memory.” I assured him it was selective.I recalled every moment — every ray of sun, every fresh smell, and every brush of soft sea air from those long-ago summers. I remembered going to the row of mailboxes on Cherry Street one day in 1965 to get the Meriden newspaper, which was forwarded to us during the summer. I remembered seeing a photograph of Gerry Levy, a Meriden neighbor, a schoolmate of my older sister, and an Army medic in Vietnam. The photo showed him emerging from the jungle with a wounded G.I. over his shoulder. I remember another day the same newspaper carried the story of Gerry’s death. And I remember finding Gerry’s name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington when I visited there in the early ’90s. In contrast, just the week before, I’d forgotten to bring my wallet when taking a client to lunch.
Joe replied, “Ah … you’re still a kid.” I told him I had a little too much gray hair to qualify as a kid. He pointed to his shining scalp and said, “At least you still got yours.”
At that point, Pat chimed in: “I’ll bet I was out of school before you were born.” I said I doubted that. He said, “I wasn’t able to finish college till I got out of the service after the Second World War. I graduated in 1946.” Joe saw my eyes widen and added, “I’m 87. He’s 93.”
All I could say in response was, “God bless both of you.”
With that, Joe looked at Pat: “Well, should we take a walk to the beach?” Pat bounced up and said, “It’s about time.” I took my cue, stood, shook their hands again, and thanked them for a wonderful conversation. Joe pointed at my bike and said, “The next time you come around here on that thing, you better stop and say hello.” I told him I was finally old enough and smart enough not to make promises. But for him, I’d make an exception.
We parted company. Joe and Pat went their way talking and laughing. I went mine with tears in my eyes and goosebumps from a profound sense of connectedness.
Life does, indeed, go on. The threads of mine are unbreakable.