Souvenirs et Espoirs: Claudia Beechman









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Today, I am fourteen years old.  It’s July 2, 1964.  I’m in Cape May, where I’ve spent every summer of my life.  My mother appears in the tiny sun filled bedroom singing “Happy Birthday”, giving me fourteen gentle slaps on the rear end, with “one for good luck”. I look up at her radiant heart-shaped face. She’s wearing a blue two-piece bathing suit. .My sisters, Laurie and Jane, are already up and dressed for the beach.  They’re giggling in the other room.  When they see me, they sing their own raucous rendition of “Happy Birthday”, punctuated by Bronx cheers.

We’re staying in our grandparents’ cottage, which sits at the corner of Reading and Maryland Avenues. It’s very small, yet somehow, my grandparents have managed to fill it with lots of antiques. There’s a faded walnut spinet, a black and white Zenith TV atop a yellow  stand and a floral embroidered wing chair. Above the old pine dining table under the jalousie windows, hangs a Renoir print of a beautiful girl sitting by the sea.

One of the sofas is a weird-looking thing.  It’s the only uncomfortable piece of furniture in the cottage. The back cushions are rectangular and stiff. If one of us sits down on the sofa, a cushion always tumbles to the black linoleum floor. There is a white formica surface attached to it. Maybe that’s why our grandparents bought it; it provides a much-needed space for a lamp. This sofa and a rocking love seat do double-duty as beds. We’re so happy to be in Cape May again, we don’t care that there are only two bedrooms for the four of us, one only large enough to hold a single bed.

I change into my bathing suit. It’s a yellow and white checked two-piece, just like Annette Funicello’s in Beach Blanket Bingo. My sister Laurie is eleven and Jane is ten. Rubber flip-flops are the common denominator in our beach attire.  We bolt down our Rice Krispies, grab our towels and head out the back door. Our mother will join us later.

We walk through the yard, past the thick, fragrant tangle of honeysuckle vines that wind through the fence. The house next door has mystified us for years.  The black wrought iron front door is permanently closed, although the same family occupies the house every summer.  I call it “the hacienda” because it reminds me of the houses in Walt Disney’s “Zorro”.

We scurry quickly past the next house. The woman who lives there doesn’t want anyone coming close to her garden. With her big yellow teeth and screeching voice, we have decided that she is a witch.

There are three huge houses at the corner of Reading and Pennsylvania. When I was younger, I used to play with Diane and Debbie in one of the Victorians down the street. The house was full of nooks and crannies, perfect for playing hide-and-seek on rainy days. We walk another block to New Jersey Avenue with its wide flat macadam where I used to ride my bike.  Now, I think it’s uncool to ride a bike, although my mother still does.

We slow down as we pass the Spanish style mansion on New Jersey Avenue a few houses down from Reading Avenue.  Last year, when my grandparents needed the cottage at 204 Reading, we rented a large apartment there. The house belongs to Nina Scull, a Russian artist. It’s a gathering place for artists and there are paintings on every wall. Nina’s living room is next to her kitchen. Behind this door, Nina’s ancient mother seems to be making dumplings twenty-four hours a day. The salty aroma permeates the stair hallway lined with Spanish posters advertising “La Corrida de Torros”.

There isn’t any traffic on Beach Drive, just a few bikes parked against the wall.  Crossing the street, I notice one of the Steger boys raking the sand. It’s the handsome, curly haired Danny. I have a huge crush on him, but he’s already let me know in a nice way that I’m way too young. I feel like shouting, “Hey, Danny, I’m fourteen today!” He’s eighteen and, as my grandfather would say, has bigger fish to fry.

My sisters and I walk to the orange canvas tent bearing a vertical sign with our grandparents’ name in bold, black letters.  Inside, there’s a wooden storage box which also serves as a bench. There are several tents beside ours. There are more tents on the other side of the jetty. The Steger stand, where people rent rafts, umbrellas and chairs, is perched between the beaches, near the jetty. Every day, my sisters and I hand over our quarters for ice-cold Cokes in green glass bottles that are kept in a big red and white Coca-Cola cooler.

We spread out our towels and chairs in front of the tent and head for the ocean. The lifeguards are wearing the same red and white jackets that they’ve always worn.  One of them has a plastic covering over his nose and the other’s is smeared with zinc oxide. Sometimes, I borrow my grandmother’s “Bain de Soleil” sunscreen because I love its citrusy smell, amber color, thick creamy texture and French name. It does nothing to prevent sunburn.

Sunbathing is an important part of every Cape May summer. I’m already tan from hours of reading on the beach, since we’ve been here since June twentieth, soon after school let out.

Right now, I’m reading “The Wayward Bus” by John Steinbeck. I bought it at Hogan’s Bookstore on Washington St. Mr. Hogan is a big friendly man who sometimes helps me with my selections. I love novels and he has everything, paperbacks by Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters and D.H. Lawrence. These books feed my fevered romantic imagination, which seems livelier than ever in Cape May..

The ocean is fairly calm today, but there are some nice waves, too, big enough for body surfing.  Our mother taught us when we were little. Although my sister Jane is the youngest, she is the most athletic and she fearlessly rides the biggest waves.

I step in slowly and gaze into the glassy green surface of the water. It’s so clear, I can see my feet .

 Here comes a big,white-capped wave! Should I dive under or try to ride it? I quickly thrust my arms forward and catch the wave at the crest. It propels me all the way to the wet sand. But before I land, a blurry panoramic impression of the beach scene appears before my eyes: fringed umbrellas, straw hats, children dribbling sand castles. Beneath me, blue-black mussel shells are embedded in the sand. A string of seaweed slips between my toes. Then I quickly dive under so that my hair will be neatly slicked back. I have naturally curly hair and I know that it will turn frizzy as it dries. When that happens, I always run back into the water, and dive in so that it will look sleek. I’m convinced that if I had straight hair, I would be beautiful.

Ah, here comes “The Flamingo”, the weather-beaten , pink and white tour boat. I’ve loved it since I was a little. I always imagined that the sightseers were waving at me.

A plane flies over with an advertisement trailing behind it. It reads, “Get Zaberized!” which reminds me of the catchy jingle constantly playing on the radio: “Get Zaberized at Zaberer’s tonight”.

 Zaberer’s is a famous restaurant in North Wildwood.  I’ve been to the Lobster House and The Merion Inn. I always order the combination seafood platter. The scallops are my favorite. Once, my Uncle Jay and Aunt Nan took us to a place called Palmer’s near The Lobster House. My uncle actually ordered “roast Tom turkey with all the trimmings”. I was mortified! I couldn’t believe that anyone would actually order turkey at the seashore.

I walk back to my beach chair and pick up my book. Laurie and Jane are in the water.  Jane’s best friend, Virginia has arrived with her family. She has three sisters and four brothers. They stay at one of the big Victorians on New York Ave. Laurie and Jane are excited because Virginia has a slip ‘n’ slide.

My mother has arrived on the beach and she’s having a lively conversation with the Hollands. Both Marie and George Holland wear straw hats. Mrs. Holland’s has a very large brim and she’s wearing hot pink lipstick.  I think they’re cool.

 Maybe my mother’s friend Connie Mills will show up in her gold lame bathing suit, conch shell earrings and high heels, or mules, as my mother calls them. Better yet, maybe Louis Pron will come by and take my picture for Pennywise. 

Pennywise comes out every week of the summer. Its cover features pictures of anyone from the beach or boardwalk who‘s willing to pose, as well as handwritten ads and handwritten copy, including illustrations by its founder, Joe Barker. The issues always have a theme and is full of puns. This week’s theme is football.

“For a steak worth tackling, Henri’s featuring Bobby Harris at the piano “or, from a bird-themed issue, “For a Pheasant Evening Go To The Windsor Cocktail Lounge and Bar, Windsor Hotel”.

I glance at my mother. She’s standing near the tent with her hand shielding her eyes from the sun as she gazes out at the horizon. I know that she’s can’t wait to jump into the ocean. Sometimes, during our evening swims, she cries out, “The sea is my psychiatist!”

Quite a few of the women on the beach are wearing what my mother calls “dressmaker suits”. I think that means they’re made with demure little skirts. With her slim waist and shapely legs, my mother is one of the only women on the beach wearing a two-piece. Her dark hair is cut short revealing tiny gold and turquoise ear studs.  Tonight, she’s letting me borrow them when I go to my hangout, The Green Mill.

It’s lunchtime. I’m ravenous, as usual. My grandparents have arrived from Philadelphia to celebrate my birthday. My grandmother is carrying her long wicker basket. It’s filled with chicken sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper, juicy

 plums and Hershey’s kisses. She is wearing a delicate gold chain around her neck with the Hebrew letter, “Chai” or “life”.

My grandfather sits on a piling smoking a Churchill cigar. He’s grinning at Laurie who is his favorite. Two years ago, Louis took pictures of my grandparents, my cousin and Laurie in front of our tent.  I’m in the same issue standing next to my friend Nancy Bewick. I’m wearing a black one-piece with four white buttons.  The Hollands are in the same issue. There is even a photo of two women with their hair in curlers!  Well, Louis does have to come up with thirty pictures for each issue. But curlers at the beach? Some families are still dressing up to go to the to the boardwalk at night.

I spend the afternoon swimming and talking to my grandparents. My grandfather loves the ocean. My grandmother likes to sit and chat with Mrs. Lamb, the Hollands and the Sobels.There’s another couple who come down every year with their son. They read all day and never speak to anyone. Like some of the other mature women on the beach, Mrs. G. wears a snood, which I think is a fancy word for a hairnet.

At about 4:30, my mother gathers my sisters and their gear. Half an hour later, I carry my chair to the water’s edge. This is my favorite time of day. Most people have left. . I listen to the rhythmic rolling of the waves as I dig my toes into the sand.

Soon, the Steger truck pulls up and Danny and the others load up the rafts. Jerry is sitting on the back of the track. Although we have never exchanged a word, he is my favorite Steger boy. He hangs out at Frank’s Playland on the boardwalk, or at The Green Mill shooting hoops.

The Green Mill is where everybody hangs out. It’s a big, rambling green and white frame building with a basketball court, pool tables and a snack bar. I go there most nights, but tonight, even on my birthday, I can’t wait to get there.

The lifeguards stay until 6, so I decide to take one last swim. I gather my things and leave, taking a different route on my way home. I walk a few blocks down Beach Drive and turn left on Reading Avenue. I look up to my right as I pass a brown mansion with a sign that reads “Thunderbolts” on the door. Sometimes, when my mother, sisters and I go for an evening swim, the silver-haired owner, or “Thunderbolts” as we call him, appears and says hello. My sisters and I think he has a crush on our mother.

When I get home, I grab a towel and head for the outdoor shower. I love the sweet, clean smell of the wet grass, the powerful jet of water against my skin.

 ..My mother is preparing scallops and bluefish. .She’s baked a round layer cake with chocolate icing, decorated with tiny nonpareils, gumdrops and M&M’s.

Meanwhile,I agonize over what to wear. Should I wear my new madras tunic with jeans? Madras is in and I love it. Everyone’s wearing madras shirts, shorts, pants, jackets.  It’s madras madness! I pull my blouse over my head and I’m pleased with it. Madras looks good against my tan.

I do my best with my hair which is asserting its cursed curliness as it dries. I slip on a braided John Romain leather headband and step into my John Romain leather sandals. The look is completed by my mother’s birthday present: a John Romain wicker shoulder bag with leather strap and brass trim. Madras and John Romain are made for each other.

My father gave me a guitar before we left. It’s a really good one—a Goya with nylon strings. I started taking lessons a few months ago in Philadelphia.

I say good-bye, pick up the guitar and head toward The Green Mill. I love looking at the houses that I’ve passed so many times on New Jersey Avenue. Some have green and white awnings. Others are simple bungalows, almost as tiny as my grandparents’ cottage. To my left is the Montreal Motel. It went up after the big storm two years ago. I remember when the Cape Playhouse was there.

I cross Madison Avenue to Stockton, hoping that I’ll spot that cool group of college kids who sometimes sit on the porch roof , laughing and drinking beer. The girls have hair like corn silk and deep tans. Gold bangle and scarab bracelets encircle their wrists. The boys look mature and athletic. Some of them wear penny loafers without socks and some are barefoot. Oh, how I wish I could sit up there!

The Green Mill is another two blocks up at the corner of Stockton and..Howard. It’s a big rambling green and white frame building.  It’s run by three unmarried sisters.  Once, Miss Ursula looked up from her messy desk and asked me about the book I was carrying.

“It’s ‘Les Miserables!’” I said proudly.

“That’s a very dirty book!”, she exclaimed.

 I walk up the sandy path and open the green screen doors.  I’m elated, as three Steger Adonises are there, shooting hoops. One of the pool tables is open.

I love pool. I learned to play right here, starting when I was twelve., week after week, setting up innumerable racks, scratching the felt, smacking the cue ball at the beginning of a game and watching it sink the eight ball. I’m still not great at it, but now I occasionally hear the click-click-click of a decent break and sometimes I sink them as I call them.

 My friend Sandra is there. After we greet each other, we pick up some cues and start playing.  I’ve improved since last year. My eyes are half on the game and half on Charlie, Jerry and Mike on the basketball court. No wonder I can’t sink anything.

After a few games, Sandra and I decide to go to the boardwalk. We park ourselves on a green wooden bench across from Morrow’s Nut House. After a while, I take my guitar out of its case and begin singing.old ballads like “Henry Martin”, “All My Sorrows” and “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.”. All songs from Joan Baez’s first album. Joan Baez is my idol.

 Little by little, people start to gather in front of me.

“Sing another one”, someone says. And then “Another one!” “Encore, encore!”

I thrill to the intimacy of singing for this audience. Men, women, teenagers, boys and girls. It’s magical.

 After I sing the last song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”  people come over to talk to me. They compliment me on my voice and I feel great.

 As I’m putting my guitar back into its case,  a boy who’s been listening for a long time approaches me. Wow, do I have butterflies in my stomach! He tells me that his name is Nick . Though he’s not a Steger boy, he sure is cute! He seems much more real than they are because he’s actually talking to me! He tells me how much he liked my singing and offers to walk me home. I look into his big green eyes and nod my head.

. Nick picks up my guitar and we walk along the seawall that replaced the boardwalk after the Nor’easter of ’62. The moon casts its reflection on the water. Where else could I have a birthday like this but in Cape May?


This page last updated: Jan 31, 2009
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