Lifetimes Unfold on Scarborough’s Sands

One summer, I stood on a platform in the Junior Miss department of Jordan Marsh at Rhode Island’s Warwick Mall and watched my favorite stockboy wheel overloaded racks of men’s suits and women’s coats through the aisles. It was 1973, and I was a Marsha Jordan Girl, one of eight high school kids who modeled […]

By Ann Hood

Jun 06 2008

One summer, I stood on a platform in the Junior Miss department of Jordan Marsh at Rhode Island’s Warwick Mall and watched my favorite stockboy wheel overloaded racks of men’s suits and women’s coats through the aisles. It was 1973, and I was a Marsha Jordan Girl, one of eight high school kids who modeled for the store. At Christmas we wore suggestive lingerie and expensive jewelry and spritzed perfume on women’s husbands on Men’s Night in hopes they’d spend lots of money on holiday gifts for their wives. In September, we walked a makeshift runway in back-to-school clothes. And in summer we mannequin-modeled, dressed in hot pants or gypsy skirts, our faces shiny with Bonne Bell blush and lip gloss, as we stood on those platforms with instructions not to move. No matter what.

I stood that summer, frozen in place, and willed my stockboy to deliver a rack of something to Junior Miss. He always did, usually with one or two other stockboys. They’d park their racks, then do their best to make us laugh. Funny faces, silly jokes. My friend Beth, standing still beside me, would roll her eyes. “Why doesn’t he ask you out already?” she’d whisper between clenched teeth when they finally left. It was the same question Beth and I debated every day at Scarborough Beach.

Scarborough is a sprawling state beach where even now blankets lie so close together you can almost feel the heat from strangers’ bodies beside you. Radios compete for attention. Kids running past kick sand on you. The air, of course, smells like salt. But also French fries, clam cakes, coconut suntan lotion.

In 1973, they hadn’t yet built the sleek new concession stands, or fixed the boardwalks, or put in showers and toilets that actually worked. In 1973, Scarborough was a crowded, hot beach. Down the road, East Coast kids emulated Californians by trying to surf our small waves. A bar called Schiller’s filled with barefoot teenagers who went there to dance every weekend night. Take-out chowder and clam shacks lined the far end of the road. And Beth and I took turns driving the hour ride there every day.

We wore matching bikinis — hers hot pink, mine lime green. We spread our blanket, letting our identical long, straight hair — hers dark brown, mine sandy blond — fan out around us. We covered ourselves in Coppertone, undid our straps to avoid tan lines, closed our eyes, and talked. Mostly, we talked about boys. I’d recently broken up with my steady boyfriend, but she still had hers, and she told me their plans: what they’d name their children and what kind of dog they planned to own.

Jordan Marsh — no, the whole state of Rhode Island — seemed to be full of cute boys that summer. The boy who worked at Waldenbooks took me sailing. The boy who worked in Linens took me to the movies, twice. I went dancing in Newport with a boy who was visiting his aunt, who lived next door to my aunt. A friend of my brother’s — a college boy! — took me to a play at Brown University. We discussed these boys, their merits and flaws. We ate Popsicles — hers blue, mine root beer — and pondered my possibilities.

Back then, a boy’s car was as important as almost anything else about him. The GTO, the Vega with the fat white racing stripe, the Opel, the Bug — they all said something about the boys who drove them. We discussed that, too. Was the boy who drove that Vega trustworthy? Was an Opel too stuck-up? We always ended with the stockboy, who drove a Mustang convertible, the perfect car. He must have a girlfriend, we decided with a sigh.

By afternoon, one of us would realize that we needed to leave: We’d have to drive back home and shower and get to Jordan Marsh by six. Reluctantly, we packed our things, shook the sand from our blanket, and walked the hot and sweaty path across the beach, along the splintered wooden boardwalk, across the steamy asphalt parking lot to our car. That was when we paused and sighed and looked back at the beach, not wanting to leave yet. Scarborough Beach was a metaphor for us — chaotic and busy and seductive. The ocean shone in the summer sun, as endless as all the hopes and possibilities our 16-year-old selves possessed. Beth looked at me and said, “He’s going to ask you out. I just know it.”

That very night, or another one just like it, that stockboy did ask me out. We sat in his Mustang with the top down in the Jordan Marsh parking lot and kissed a little and made plans to go dancing at the beach, at Schiller’s. So in a perfect end to that summer, and with perfect symmetry, we went on that date, and he held me close while we danced to a Bread song, and then we walked on the beach and kissed like crazy. That beach! That boy! Those kisses!

The next day, Beth and I were back on our blanket with our melting Popsicles while I told her every detail. We giggled and dug our toes into the warm sand. Then we raced, headfirst, into the waves, and let one, the best one, lift us up and carry us back to the crowded shore.

Rhode Island has beaches with dangerous surf; beaches so protected that parents take their little children there; pristine private beaches; rocky beaches; beaches with dunes and plovers’ nests; for a time there was even a nude beach. But for me, Rhode Island had just one beach: Scarborough.

Every summer morning, my mother and my Auntie Dora packed up one of their oversized Chevy station wagons with coolers of food, beach towels, and us kids and drove to Scarborough. They smoked cigarettes. We pretended we were married to the Beatles. AM radio played “Yummy, yummy, yummy, I’ve got love in my tummy …” and “Come on, baby, light my fire …” and we sang along, loud, our sweaty bodies pressed together. The ride took forever. We grew sluggish. Just when we believed we’d never get there, one of us spotted the ocean in the distance. We rolled down our windows and inhaled the salty air, rejuvenated.

The parking lot was already overflowing, and my mother circled like a shark, wanting the best, the closest space. They had a strategy: My aunt jumped from the car and ran to an empty spot, holding it until we could get there. The people who didn’t think of such a great plan, who simply drove to the space rather than send a squatter, beeped their horns and yelled for her to move. But Auntie Dora held fast. When my mother pulled in and we piled out, carloads of people glared at us. But we didn’t care. We were at the beach!

We ran ahead, past the Coppertone billboard, with the dog pulling down the little girl’s bathing-suit bottom. We kicked off our rubber flip-flops and let the hot sand burn the bottoms of our feet. Our mothers, in their one-piece bathing suits and Jackie O. sunglasses, sat in woven plastic chairs, lit up cigarettes, and told us not to get lost.

But getting lost was the whole point. We lost ourselves in the tumult of the waves, letting them lift our skinny bodies and toss us about. We lost ourselves in castles, building elaborate ones with dripping-wet sand and pieces of broken shells. We walked as far away from our mothers as we could, until they disappeared in the throng of sunbathers, returning only for the cherries and peaches they’d packed, now covered with sand. Finally, tired, we went back into the water, to float. Beneath us, the waves bobbed gently, and we got lost in our own private thoughts.

If it got hot enough, on a summer night, we’d get lucky enough to return to Scarborough at night. Our fathers came home from work and we ate dinner in the overheated air, one window fan blowing it back at us. Too hot to play outside, too hot to watch tele­vision inside, suddenly we were hustled back into the station wagon and headed to the beach for “a dip.”

A dip meant we couldn’t linger. No sand castles. No long walks. We convoyed with other relatives in their station wagons, parked in the now nearly empty parking lot, and ran directly into the ocean. On those hot nights, even our parents came in, our fathers in long, baggy swim trunks with their pasty legs poking out, bellies hanging over the waistbands. Our mothers wrapped us, wet and shivering, in towels. Back in the car, we huddled together, our sandy feet rough on each other’s legs. Back home, the air was still and heavy, but in bed my skin felt cool from the ocean, and when I closed my eyes I could almost hear the waves crashing, could almost feel lifted by them.

When I moved away from Rhode Island, I swam at beaches all over the world. On a Greek island, I went topless for the first time. In Portugal, I kissed a man who barely spoke English. I drank too much red wine on a beach on the island of Majorca and ate grilled sardines on a beach in the south of France. The waters of the Carib­bean, and off the coast of Mexico, and along Rio de Janeiro, are warm and clear and blue-green. On Bermuda the sand is pink; on the island of Hawaii it’s black. As an adult, I was constantly drawn to beaches. They were more beautiful, more deserted, more romantic, than Scarborough. Yet, when I grew tired of humid summers in my adopted home of New York City and decided to rent a house on the beach for a month, it was Scarborough to which I returned.

For seven summers, my family and I took over a split ranch with an oversized deck in a development called Eastward Look, a stone’s throw from Scarborough. By then, my father’s emphysema had worsened, and even though the beach was a short walk across a busy road, he and my mother drove to the beach, usually staying for just an hour or two. My cousins and I, though, stayed all day. We rubbed sunblock onto each other’s shoulders and backs and shared our grownup problems. We weren’t Beatles wives anymore; we were wives of real-life men. And over those summers, our marriages broke up and new lovers appeared. Sometimes we cried on that beach. For fun, we read magazines out loud to each other.

At the ends of those days, we walked back to the rented house, eager now for margaritas and sophisticated hors d’oeuvres. Our parents sat back and let us cook for them — grilled pizzas and whole fish. Before it grew too dark, we played long, heated games of bocce, until our parents went to bed, tired, their noses sunburned. It was our turn to stay up now. On the deck, we opened bottles of Chardonnay and talked into the night, just the way we did when we were kids, our sandy bodies tangled together. I got up early and met my father in the kitchen to bake berry pies and homemade biscuits before it got too warm. Then the two of us sat together on the deck and drank our coffee and talked.

After my father died, I stopped renting the house at Scarborough. His birthday was the Fourth of July, and each summer he’d thrown himself a huge party at the beach house. He’d played John Philip Sousa music, bought kegs of beer, and grilled all three meals for dozens of people. To be at the beach in July without him seemed not only difficult but wrong somehow. And so it was a few years before I returned to Scarborough.

Now I was a mother, too, and had moved back to Rhode Island after many years away. With my two small children, Sam and Grace, I repeated the ritual my own mother had performed on summer mornings. I filled my station wagon, picked up my cousin, and headed south to Scarborough. Together, we sat and watched as Sam dashed in and out of the waves. We helped Grace build her own elaborate castles. We walked with them as far as we could, collecting shells and sea glass in their plastic pails.

I’d moved home, and that meant Scarborough on hot summer days. I could easily imagine my children coming here as teenagers, riding waves and whispering secrets to their friends. I believed that one day, as I had, they’d sit here on a starry night and kiss the boy or girl they’d hoped to kiss one whole long summer. Watching my own kids on the very beach where my childhood and adolescence had played out made me feel almost as hopeful as I used to when Beth and I had come here all those years ago.

But in adulthood we know better. Or perhaps we should. By the time we become adults, we’ve had our hearts broken enough times, suffered enough disappointments, learned enough lessons, to know that some dreams don’t come true. That day as I stood watching my children play at Scarborough, I never could have imagined that in a few short years, my daughter, Grace, would be taken from us, suddenly and inexplicably, by a virulent form of strep, leaving me and Sam and my husband, Lorne, in a perpetual winter.

I stopped going to the beach after Grace died. Something about all that bright sunshine, the sounds of children splashing in the water, the endless, relentless surf, was too much for my wounded self. Instead, I gathered my family and fled each summer to far-flung places — Peru and Vietnam and Thai­land. We visited temples and monu­ments and tombs. We ate crickets and guinea pigs and a fruit called durian that’s so smelly it’s not allowed in public buildings. Instead of embracing the familiar, I sought experiences so different they couldn’t possibly worsen my grief.

During that time, we adopted a baby girl from China. Annabelle brought us joy again after so much pain. I found myself laughing more. I felt my broken heart start to mend, its cracks and fissures deep.

And so another summer came. On my desk, I had maps and guidebooks and brochures for Chile and Argentina. But something in me knew it was time to stay home again. “What if we rented a beach house this summer?” I asked Lorne. He agreed that was a fine idea.

But the house we rented — a bungalow, just a worn path through deep-pink roses from the beach — was far from Scarborough, an hour in the opposite direction. I’m a woman who loves the beach. But I’m not ready for that beach, where I grew up and learned so much about love and life and friendship and family. The sand there has too many footprints on it. For now, I seek a different beach, one without impression or memory.

At Scarborough, I can still see the skinny little girl I was, chasing her cousins along the edge of the water. I can see my teenage self, lying beside her best friend, trying to imagine what the night might bring, bursting with hope. And there I am, wanting that boy to lean over and kiss me, getting that kiss and many more, believing surely there have never been kisses like these.

And not too many years later, one marriage behind me, the promise of a new one ahead, I sit with my father and drink coffee, the smell of baking pies filling the air. I can see myself with my own children, two towheads walking hand in hand toward some unseeable future. In these visions, no one dies, the girl always wins the boy’s heart, kisses never end, the sun is always shining, the sand is hot, the beach is full, and summer, glorious summer, never ends.

In July, Ann Hood talks about her latest work: