I think I must have been about eight years old the first time I felt the Atlantic Ocean at the Cape call to me. I remember that particular trip so well: the first whiff of the briny air, the turn up a sandy dirt road, and my mother saying, “Listen you can hear the ocean now.” The sound of the pounding surf that got louder and louder as we bumped down the mile or so road that led to the summer cottage that would be our home for the next two or three weeks.
As fast as the car stopped in the sandy drive we tumbled out and ran up to the edge of the sand dune that separated our cottage and the beach.
It was a blue summer day with just a few wispy white clouds floating in the sky. There stretched out before us was the vast ever moving ocean, the surf pounding the wet sand that sparkled like gold in the sun. With the sea breeze blowing in my face I inhaled the salty air that felt like cream, and took in what I saw before me. I remember my mom saying, “The tide is in.” There was something about it … I was too young to define the feeling but I felt something stir deep inside of me, even at that tender age. I hugged myself and let out a yell to the beach, the sky and the ocean, “I want to stay here forever.” From behind my mom wrapped her arms around me and laughed.
The memories of those summer vacations blend into one. The morning sun rising out of the ocean, rolling out of bed and out onto the beach. I think that is when I stopped eating breakfast to avoid that horrible hour wait before I could run into the water. Sandwiches with sand mixed in like mayonnaise, the outside shower to wash more sand off before we went into the cottage, games in the soft glow of an old lamp on the screened in porch that lasted well into the evening with the sound of the surf as background music.
As the years went by I didn’t mind the inevitable stormy day that is going to happen on a vacation at Cape Cod. I loved that special kind of day when the ocean looked angry and huge waves were rolling in one after another, pounding the sand as I walked straight into the wind feeling it whip my hair back away from my face, the salt stinging my cheeks, inhaling the pungent sea air. It was a time when my Sunday school lessons came to life as I felt the incredible majesty of God’s creation.
I loved the nights we went into town for dinner … lobster that we cracked and used our fingers to dig out the good stuff or fried clams with the belly’s in them. I loved when we walked the streets of town after dinner and went in and out of little shops licking our ice creams cones as we wandered.
That is where my dream was born as I grew up, in those little shops.
I didn’t want to be a teacher or a nurse, I loved to write, but since most of my school papers where filled with red slash marks and my penmanship was awful, I didn’t see much hope there. But I did love those little shops.
I began to dream of owning my own. I always was an independent little thing; I drove my mom crazy, but instinctively knew I fit in with the spirit of the area that even as a teenager I couldn’t miss, maybe because I was already one of them. The thought of my own shop, where I could walk the beach in the morning with my coffee and then put the key in my own door took hold of me. I liked the idea of creating a pretty, fun place that would make people happy when they stepped in. I spent a lot of time planning my store. I knew just how I wanted it to be. I even wanted a corner for the men, having noticed how many waited patiently or impatiently outside while their women were inside enjoying themselves.
And then I fell in love.
Like many women’s dreams, my dream was put on hold for my husband’s dream, and somehow a gift shop on Cape Cod didn’t quite compare with my husband’s career. The plan was that after he retired we would make our home on the Cape and I could have my shop. My husband was very understanding about my love affair with the Cape. He used to say, “I have to get you out there once a year or you go crazy. You draw your strength from that place.” He tried taking me to the Pacific Coast one year and didn’t understand that the sun has to come up over the ocean not go down into it!
Life sometimes has its own plans for us and the direction of my life was west not east. My daughters are daughters of the west, having grown up in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and trips out east became less and less frequent until, after a while, they were nonexistent. Instead, vacations were spent in the mountains and dude ranches. The mountains were beautiful but they never touched me emotionally, and I noticed over the years that people who became permanent mountain people were more often than not retreating from life in one form or another, seeking isolation, while people who migrated to places like the Cape were embracing life and their own ingenuity. For me the memories of the Cape were a kaleidoscope of color.
But after my youngest daughter’s sophomore year in college I needed to refuel my tank and I talked them into a trip to Nantucket. My husband had passed away many years before when the girls were still quite young. I had remarried and the new husband was from Minnesota and like all Minnesotans’ wanted to return, so now we were divorced but Minnesota was home.
We got off the plane in Boston and caught the Hyannis bus outside the terminal which was definitely below the dignity of my daughters. I tried to explain to them it was silly to rent a car and then leave it parked in Hyannis for a week. We wouldn’t need one on the island. They couldn’t imagine! We stood in line for our tickets at the Steamship Line with sand and luggage all around us. They didn’t dare complain but asked me in a disdainful way, “What is it about this place you love so much?” The body language was staggering.
Things eased as we enjoyed the ferry ride out to the island. It was a clear day with a stiff breeze. The sun sparkled on the water like diamonds. We overheard a fellow Easterner refer to her tennis shoes as sneakers. Throughout their lives the girls from the west had always questioned and made fun of me for calling tennis shoes sneakers. On the ferry they got it and began to see their mother through new eyes, and we had a good laugh over it. I saw a look on my youngest daughter’s face as she was looking out at the moving sea, breathing in the ocean air, the wind was blowing in her face…I wondered, is she was catching it?
Then once again both of their jaws dropped when we got off the ferry and they found that we would drag our own luggage up the cobblestone streets to the Roberts House where we were staying.
We checked in, caught the shuttle out to Madaket, sat on the beach, watched the waves and soaked up the sea air and I could feel life flow back into me. We then headed back to town where we wandered around, in and out of shops for an hour or so before we ended up down near the wharf again for dinner while we watched the next group of people get off the ferry, find their luggage, and head off to their destination. During our conversation my older daughter, always my champion, said, “Oh, Mom, now we understand why you always dreamed of your own shop out here. You should have taken daddy’s insurance money and opened one. You were right, what you were dreaming of never would have worked in Colorado.”
“We had a long road in front of us. If daddy had lived and we retired out here that would have been one thing, but at the time…it just wouldn’t have been the right thing. In the end the joy of watching you two grow into two wonderful ,happy young women has brought me more happiness than I could imagine, much more than a gift shop…but that little dream of mine has gotten me through some pretty rough times. I remember one night about six months after daddy died, crying all night long. I was still awake as the sun came up, I looked out at the mountains, and they were beautiful, all the pinks and purples against the morning Colorado sky, but they weren’t the ocean and I wished so hard that they were. I needed it. Suddenly, and I remember this so well, I was on the beach on a gray day, the surf was high and the wind was whipping my hair and the salt was stinging my face. A sense of peace came over me and I felt as your grandmother used to say, ‘God is in His heaven and all is right with the world.’ Somehow at that moment I knew we would be okay. I went up stairs, splashed water on my face and woke you kids up. Everyone needs a place and a dream to hold on to. For you kids it probably will be the mountains in Colorado. They are what you have grown up with and have known.”
But my youngest surprised me, she leaned back in her chair with a grin on her face, “No, Mom, I am going to live here some day.” In just a few short hours it had called to her.
I squeezed her hand and laughed a very knowing laugh. I believe the place chooses us, we don’t choose it, and once it chooses us it never lets go. It is with us in the good times and the hard times, and those of us who are chosen are the lucky ones.
The next few years took us out to the island again many times, but then weddings, babies, and husbands’ careers conspired once again to keep us away. But just as in my home, my daughter’s is filled with the colors, furnishings, and mementos of the island — pictures on the walls, seashells in the bathroom, and pictures of the honeymoon that she talked her new South Dakota husband into. All a little out of place in Rochester, Minnesota but like her mother and her grandmother before her, she keeps a place tucked in the corner of her mind.
Judy McCabe was born in Burlington, Vermont, and spent many of her childhood summers on Cape Cod. She is a real estate agent and essayist and she recently published a book of her stories entitled Thoughts of Home . Though she still lives in Minnetonka, Minnesota, she thinks of her homeland often.