Between the Lines / Echoes of the beach in winter
Published 3:29 pm, Tuesday, February 1, 2011
In the 1950s, when I was a boy, there were few families who lived at Pine Creek all year-round. The winter beach was a lonely outpost then, frozen like a lunar landscape, windswept and harshly beautiful. We spent three seasons on Old Town Road in Bridgeport, where we lived and went to school. It was a prosaic world with the magic of tall maple trees to redeem it from the ordinariness of suburbia. I liked the swamps and I loved the woods surrounding our house, but the strongest presence in my life was Pine Creek on Long Island Sound.
When we left the summer cottages in September I missed it terribly, but we went back almost every Saturday to work.
As lively as the beach was in the summer, it was forlorn and forbidding during the coldest months. Our great-grandmother lived there all year-round in the "Sunnyside" cottage in the early 1900s.
The Sunnyside was a partly winterized oyster shack. Of the four cottages, it was the one most like a house, but the winters there were still pretty rough. Nance Wallace came to Fairfield as a domestic and married Amos Hansen, a Swede who lived in the Sunnyside. She survived him by many years, and her only son, Willie, married my grandmother, Mal. And that's how the cottages eventually came down to my red-headed, fair-skinned father, who had little use for the sun and the beach.
I never met Nance Hansen. She died about a decade before I was born. I do have a small collection of some of her letters, though. She wrote to her son during her last winter at the cottage about the severe cold and the feeble heat from the kerosene stove. She moved her bedroom downstairs and pretty much confined herself to the kitchen. After Nance's death my Grandmother Mal lived in the Sunnyside on and off for a while. She soon discovered it was too long a walk to Old Field Road every day for the Bridgeport bus to her corset factory job. To make ends meet, she rented the cottage to a family who sometimes didn't pay the rent and trashed the place when they moved out.
By the time I was old enough to work at the beach with my father none of the cottages were occupied all year-round. Renters wanted no part of the isolation and the cold, uninsulated houses in the winter. They were wonderful summer homes -- full of screened windows and doors that caught every breeze. In the fall, we covered the windows with heavy wooden blinds and locked them up tight until early spring. The cedar shingles were as dry and cracked as the bark of the beach plum shrubs.
My grandmother worried the cottages would go up in flames like a tinderbox if people tried to heat them.
On our weekend working excursions, we always opened the Kenora cottage. The sand was coffee-colored and frozen into ripples along the wooden boardwalks that led to the back porch. Mal would take out her ring of jingling keys for the multiple locks, and after a few trials, would finally find the right one. It was a relief to get out of the biting wind, but it was dark and cold inside the cottage. Great-Aunt Jo lit the gas stove with one of Uncle Bill's wooden stick matches. If the electricity was still shut off, we'd remove one blind to let in some sunlight - just enough to illuminate the kitchen and the dining room. The blue flames danced on the stove from the drafts.
These winter visits were mainly to check on the properties. Squatters broke in occasionally, and thieves might loot tools from the rusty lockers on the back porch. There was nothing really worth taking, but these intrusions would annoy Mal and get her back up. We might move a piece of furniture from one house to another or cart some junk to the dump. The men did light carpentry jobs fixing rotted porch planks or blinds blown off the windows by fierce squalls. After the work was done, we came inside for hearty lunches prepared by the women. My uncles argued politics and my aunts eventually told them all to go to hell. It was a wonderful, Irish-American family bonded by hard work and storytelling.
Before we left, my brothers and I would go out front and stand on the wooden bulkhead to survey the seasonal changes. Storms would shift the sandbars, building up new ones and stripping away others. Squawking seagulls wheeled in the clear cold air against pellucid blue skies. It was an elemental beauty that could take your breath away. Most amazing of all was seeing the salt water creek frozen in huge jagged chunks along the shoreline. These were the same waters we swam in to escape the wilting heat of the August sun.
There were ridges of ice and snow along the sand, and the silence of the empty beach underscored the poetry of the lapping little waves.
The wind was raw and hit you from behind even as it slashed across your face. It was a sharp feeling but you knew you could warm yourself again over the open blue flame of the old gas stove, rubbing your hands together. We carried thoughts of summer with us despite the shiver up our spines. The contrast was enough to fire the synapses of the first sense of poetry I knew as a boy. I loved the exultant life of Pine Creek through all four seasons. Nothing in my life has equaled the sheer joy of existence in those early years with my family.
Back in the day, the winter of 2011 would have been one to remember.
Letters would be written to distant relatives about frequent snowfalls and deep drifts and the houses creaking in the ceaseless wind.
Everything has changed now. But the winter beach can still remind us of the past when people's lives were measured by the weather and it truly became part of fabric of their souls.
Barry Wallace's "Between the Lines" column runs Wednesdays in the Fairfield Citizen.