Time reveals a father’s generosity

Our family at the cottage in Wildwood, N.J. Electronic image from the collection of Irma Lefter

BY MARK C. PEYKO | METRO MONTHLY EDITOR

For two weeks every summer, my family made the journey from northeastern Ohio to the Jersey Shore. Our family vacation was something my brothers and sister anticipated – even expected – each year. My dad managed this annual feat on a teacher’s salary and without complaint or much variance in routine. When young, you don’t truly appreciate the sacrifices that are necessary to pull off such a hat trick, but time and the economics of adulthood have made me further appreciate my father’s discipline and generosity.

My Uncle Ed – actually a great uncle – and cousin Eddie built the cottage in Wildwood, N.J. where my family stayed every summer for almost three decades. Constructed some time in the 1940s, the cottage was located near the inlet area off Rio Grande Avenue. Vacation homes of similar scale and vintage lined the street and raw beach grass filled scattered lots. The cottage faced east, so we could see the fishing boats returning to dock at day’s end and the distant glow of the boardwalk at night.

The cottage was a two-story frame building set back on a sandy lot. A low, open porch ran the width of the cottage and wrapped around the side and part of the back. Since it was a summer building, the cottage had no central heating system, nor did it need one. Dormers on the east and west sides of the building ventilated the entire second floor and brought the cool, ocean air into the sleeping areas. A low-rise, U-shaped enclosure for the central staircase afforded everyone a measure of privacy.

The first floor consisted of a large living room, kitchen and small bathroom. The cottage was a mix of old furniture: Art Deco lamps, mission oak dressers, and even a few console radios from the 1930s. The kitchen had blue, yellow, and gray sheet linoleum in a sort-of Mondrian pattern. Although it seemed equal parts museum and storage shed, the cottage was a fascinating, multi-decade time capsule.

The bathroom was tiny, the hot water tank smaller yet. After a day at the beach, you’d want to be first or second in the shower, but colder water sometimes was just the thing for sunburned skin. After our first day at the beach – and every day afterward – the bathroom floor was gritty with sand.

Uncle Ed lived in Gloucester Heights (outside Camden), worked at RCA, and could fix anything mechanical. He and my great aunt visited at least once while we were at the cottage and stayed the entire day. They always joined us for dinner, but left before dark. Aunt Liz always brought along exotic treats we never had at home, things like Ritz crackers, boxes of Hostess doughnuts, or regional snacks not found in Ohio.

I think my mom really enjoyed seeing her aunt, because she and Aunt Liz never seemed to leave the kitchen table during the visit. My dad genuinely liked them, too. Uncle Ed and Aunt Liz were good-natured and fun to be around. My dad paid them for use of the cottage, even though they never asked for anything.

The cottage was pretty far from the boardwalk and motel district, so my family’s vacation experience may have been different than most on the island. The usual drill was breakfast, beach all day, then pick up some fish or steaks and jelly doughnuts from the Marine Italian Bakery.

There was a distinct compartmentalization of activity due to our distance from the beach and entertainment districts. When we went to the beach, we stayed.  (A rainy day usually meant a trip to Cape May to look at the ruin of the U.S.S. Atlantus in the deep water off Sunset Beach.) There were shopping trips, of course, but the late afternoon meant relaxing at the cottage, reading the Philadelphia Inquirer and waiting for dinner. There’s a peculiar hunger you have after being on the beach all day, so we were always ravenous.

Family vacations meant a temporary reversal of parental roles and I think it was truly a nice respite for my mother. She was freed from the daily grind of feeding and caring for her family and my dad did all the cooking. Consequently, everything tasted different – the steaks, the home fries, even the way my dad chopped the ingredients for the salad.

Other things were different, too. We didn’t have television for two weeks and busied ourselves with making our own fun while waiting for dinner. As children, we would run upstairs when a boat’s horn signaled the Rio Grande drawbridge to open. We’d stand on the edge of the bed and look out a northern window to watch the vessel pass. From the upstairs, we could see fishing and tour boats from two directions. It never seemed to get old.

After dinner, we’d feed our table scraps to the sea gulls then relax before getting ready for the boardwalk. When we returned for the night, it was common for us to eat Italian hoagies and large bowls of ice cream after 11 p.m. The hours of walking the boardwalk made it all balance out, I guess.

I want to thank dad for giving my mom and all his children this experience.

Happy Father’s Day!

© 2010 The Metro Monthly. All rights reserved.

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