The Threads of Life

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 …

A postcard from Chapman Beach, 1942

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.

This building now stands on the site of the old, red cottage.

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.

Yours truly, decked out for Westbrook’s Vista Tour de Shore

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.

Mark O'Brien
Mark O'Brienhttps://obriencg.com/
I’m a business owner. My company — O’Brien Communications Group (OCG) — is a B2B brand-management and marketing-communication firm that helps companies position their brands effectively and persuasively in industries as diverse as: Insurance, Financial Services, Senior Living, Manufacturing, Construction, and Nonprofit. We do our work so well that seven of the companies (brands) we’ve represented have been acquired by other companies. OCG is different because our business model is different. We don’t bill by the hour or the project. We don’t bill by time or materials. We don’t mark anything up. We don’t take media commissions. We pass through every expense incurred on behalf of our clients at net. We scope the work, price the work, put beginning and end dates on our engagements, and charge flat, consistent fees every month for the terms of the engagements. I’m also a writer by calling and an Irish storyteller by nature. In addition to writing posts for my company’s blog, I’m a frequent publisher on LinkedIn and Medium. And I’ve published three books for children, numerous short stories, and other works, all of which are available on Amazon under my full name, Mark Nelson O’Brien.
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JoAnna Bennett
JoAnna Bennett

This is one of my favorite stories of yours Mr. O’Brien. And even though I’ve heard it before, the message may be more important today than ever before. Thank you.

Joel Elveson
Joel Elveson

I loved the story, Mark. You created crystal clear images with your words. Stay well and safe!

Paula Goodman
Paula Goodman

This was wonderfully written Marc.. a very needed break from crisis mode!
The feelings of fond memories hit me a little harder right now and I think of the happy days and how limited they may have been…but so compelling to show me some goodness too that I may have forgotten. Your memory is indeed alive and vivid.. those memories are what pass by and give us fuel for what’s to come. Thank you so much for this. I really appreciate it! Take care. Paula

Larry Tyler
Larry Tyler

Great storytelling Mark. I loved the message and the memories.

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