Rockaway Days

By Michele Minott | November 17th, 2020

Childhood beach memories

Sign pointing to the beach summons childhood beach memories

Baby boomer reader Michele Minott summons childhood beach memories near her home in New York

The bright June sun streamed through the windows of my uncle’s Oldsmobile, heralding in my freedom from school, on the first day of our summer vacation.

Uncle Chuck was in the driver’s seat. Dad was by the window, map in hand, with Mom sandwiched in between. All were stationed at their posts in front. In back, Grandma and I were flanked by a variety of boxes and bags filled with everything from kitchen utensils to bathroom toiletries.

All of us were in high spirits, as we set out for our annual pilgrimage to Mrs. Moss’ cottage rentals by the sea – a mere 10-minute walk to the sunny sands of Rockaway Beach.

“Could we have the radio, please?” I asked, knowing the time for directions and maps wouldn’t come until the Brooklyn Bridge. Uncle Chuck pressed the “on” button, fiddling to find the right station. “That one! That one!” I said, shooting up in my seat, straining to catch every golden note sweet as honey, warm as the summer sun, pouring out of the speaker. The voice filled my uncle’s car with a sound I was forever more to associate with summer. I didn’t know who the voice belonged to, but it really didn’t matter. Anyone whose voice could wrap itself around you like a dream had to be the handsomest man on the planet. And in that instant, with all the passionate conviction my 8-year-old heart could hold, I pledged my undying love to Andy Williams.

Summertime childhood beach memories of games, routines, and Coppertone

Vintage suitcases on a beachThose halcyon summer days in Rockaway offered an endless array of possibilities for young children in the late 1950s. We could play simple games – like potsie, iron tag, hit the nickel, jump rope, telephone, dress-up – uninterrupted for hours, until mothers would lean out of open windows, calling our names for lunch. Then, one by one, we would scatter, scrambling to gobble down tuna or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with milk, in eager anticipation of an afternoon at the beach.

My mom would pack up the Coppertone, some fruit, lemonade, a blanket, and towels, while I, peeling down to my bathing suit, red plastic shovel and pail in hand, would race her to the door.

“Slow down. Slow down,” she’d call from behind. By now I was halfway out the door. This was no time to slow down! Some things in life just couldn’t wait.

Once at the beach, the first thing my mother unpacked was the Coppertone. I can still feel the wet chill of America’s number one tanning lotion, as she smeared it all over my squirming, impatient little body. “You’re making this take longer each time you move,” she said, as I finally surrendered.

After a snack, body slick with the sticky white lotion, I made my way to the water’s edge. “Remember, you just ate,” she called after me. “You know the rule! Only to your knees. And stay where I can see you.”

“I know, I know,” I called over my shoulder. So little time. So many rules.

Far too soon, it was time to head back, shower, change, and get ready for dinner. This was my favorite time of day. I would set the table, munching on a carrot stick, awaiting my dad’s return from work.

My mother would be in our cute kitchenette, preparing a pot roast so buttery soft, the caramelized onion gravy begged to be soaked up with noodles or rice, and, for starters, the sweet taste of melon. “You’re a good cooker,” I’d say with a smile, as she placed a carrot stick into my hand.

From time to time, I’d look up at our clock on the wall of the little country kitchen, in eager anticipation. At exactly 4 o’clock I’d announce the time, and, with a nod from my mom, I’d reach up for that ugly little wooden box out of which poured the most beautiful music I’d ever heard. But first the announcer would welcome me to the “Make Believe Ballroom.” Then, as if by magic, our modest little flat turned into the Star Dust Room, the little wooden radio swelling ripe crescendos of Doris Day, Patti Page, and Dean Martin singing “That’s Amore.” Happy as a clam, I’d sing along, waltzing around the dinner table.

Then at 5 o’clock sharp, I’d turn the radio off and stand at my post by the window, awaiting my dad’s arrival. When my dad’s familiar stride and smile came into view, I’d dash out the door, flying down the hall stairs, into his welcoming arms.

“Hello, Monkey!” he’d say, kissing my cheek, as he swung me ’round and ’round, till the room swirled in circles before me. Then up the spiral staircase we’d climb, to enjoy my mom’s sumptuous dinner.

A season full of holidays

Dad with kids at seashore is part of childhood beach memoriesWeekends in Rockaway felt like a holiday. Moms were all about “the rules,” but dads were a very different breed: there to bend the rules, to tickle and tease and make you laugh all through dinner.

To add to the festive holiday mood, with my dad there to lend a hand, Saturdays on the beach were an all-day affair. My mom made the sandwiches, handing Dad the fruit, while he packed our red plaid, zip-top cooler with food and other supplies. A cold breakfast downed with efficiency, bathing suits under our clothes, we’d head out the door, in search of a good spot before they were gone.

We had some serious competition: dogs and kids with beach balls flying, grandmas, grandkids in their mother’s arms, vacationing couples hand in hand, and, of course, dads who had full time jobs, looking forward to the weekends. Everyone vying to get the best spots.

I’d always race for a spot near the water, with my mom close at hand to rein me in.

“Remember,” she’d warn, “in the afternoon when the tide rolls in, we’ll have to pack and head for home, or wind up in the very back where it’s hot and dry. All the other spots will be taken.”

“Okay,” I’d sigh, watching a group of kids building a sandcastle at the water’s edge. My parents found a more “sensible” spot a good deal farther inland.

Then sandwiches, fruit, and cold drinks were downed. Suntan lotion came next, as I gazed at the seashore with longing. When the last bite of food had dissolved in my mouth, fully oiled, I gazed up at my sleeping dad, sprawled out on our green and white chaise lounge. “Wanna go digging for salt water clams? You said we would do it. Remember?”

My dad opened one sleeping eye. “How about in a half hour?” he yawned, glancing at his watch. Seeing my puzzled expression, he went on, “It’s 11:45 now. When the big hand is on the three, and the little hand is directly under the twelve, we’ll go digging for clams.”

Throwing a cautious glance in my mother’s direction, I asked, “What if you’re asleep? Can I wake you?”

“No, you can’t,” my mother said, her tone leaving no room for negotiation.

Giving her arm a gentle pat, my dad smiled, “I’ll make up the sleep tomorrow morning.”

“I’ll be quiet,” I promised, catching the warning in my mom’s eyes. “I’ll wear my sneakers and let my Cheerio’s get soggy, so they don’t crunch.”

Sunday morning rest for adults, quiet rec for kids

There was an unwritten law in Rockaway when it came to rest and relaxation: Sunday mornings were paramount to parents and kids. For parents, especially dads who worked all week and commuted twice daily, Sunday mornings were a time to restore in peace and quiet. Moms left with young children all week valued their rest every bit as much.

We kids were smart enough to figure out, well-rested parents were happier and more likely to grant our wishes throughout the week. Besides, we relished those Sunday mornings, too. Being quiet was a small price to pay for a few hours of independence. We happily tiptoed around, pouring milk over sloppily cut chunks of banana, in bowls filled to the brim with our favorite cold cereal.

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Dressed in newly washed clothes, stacked, ready for ironing, we’d triumphantly slip out the door, in those forbidden flip-flops, our mothers repeatedly warned were meant strictly for beach wear. One by one, we’d meet in the basement dress-up room Mrs. Moss stocked with cards and games for her grandchildren and everyone else’s. Sitting cross-legged, we’d play dominoes, Monopoly, go fish, and pick-up sticks; amusing ourselves for hours, until we heard the familiar voices of our mothers, calling us up for lunch.

Beach dangers and childhood realizations

Wave at the seashoreBut this was Saturday! Sunday was 24 hours away. On Saturdays, families and kids reigned supreme! On Saturdays, all dads got to be kids as moms shook their heads, heaving an indulgent sigh.

Patiently as I could, I waited until the big hand barely rested atop the three, then staring up at my sleeping dad, I rose up on my knees, planting a kiss on his cheek. “Clams?” I whispered into his ear. Wiping the sleep from his eyes, he yawned. “Get your pail and shovel. I’ll meet you at the water’s edge.”

Casting a watchful eye over my shoulder, I waited until his handsome face and familiar stride cut across my line of vision. Then together, on our knees, we dug side-by-side in silent comradery. All at once my dad uncovered one trying to scurry back into the cool, wet sand. I
gazed in wonder as he plunked the sandy little creature onto my outstretched palm, feeling it tickle and scratch as it frantically ran for cover.

When I had half-a-dozen clams in my pail, my dad said, “What do you say we set those guys free and go in for a dunk?”

He didn’t have to ask me twice. At once I nodded, capsizing my pail, watching the little clams burrow to their sandy home. Then placing my hand in his, I followed as he led the way to our favorite ocean game. Together we stood hand in hand near the colorful red and yellow buoys. With the waves breaking around my knees where the water deepened, he turned to me. “Further?” he asked, and I nodded.

Hand in hand, we walked a bit deeper. Now the waves were breaking at my waist, just above his knees. Again he turned to me and asked, “Further?”

Excitement coursed through me, and a touch of fear. But I knew I was safe ’cause I was with my dad. So I nodded.

Now that we were farther in, whenever a wave headed our way, he’d lift me up to his shoulders. As each wave rose to greet us, I’d giggle and shriek with excitement and glee. We’d outsmarted Mother Nature.

Then, just as he’d placed me back down on my feet, out of nowhere a wave rose up like a solid wall of water. I felt for his hand, screaming out for him, as green salty water filled my nostrils and mouth. After what seemed like an eternity, a familiar tug pulled me to my feet. “Why didn’t you pull me up sooner?” I wailed.

“I had to pull myself up first,” he said, wrapping his arm around me.

Thunderstruck, I walked silently at his side. The thought that a mere wave could topple ANY grownup, let alone my dad, had never even occurred to me. How could that be? I
wondered. Weren’t parents put here to protect us kids? Wasn’t that their job in the universe? How could ANY force be greater than them?

Subdued, we walked hand in hand back to my mom, who was waiting with towels to greet us.

“You two look a bit green around the edges,” she said. “No more water for you today,” she added, her glance falling on me.

For once I didn’t quibble. Content to spend the rest of the day sitting in the shadow of my father’s chaise lounge, I silently pondered a question that chilled me far more than the ocean had: Who protected grown-ups when they needed help? The question rattled around in my brain till I rose, wrapping one sunburned arm around my dad, and he smiled, offering me the comics.

Reflections on childhood beach memories from the distance of years

Footprints on the sand with waves lapping up, reflecting childhood beach memoriesLooking back on the episode now, I’ve come to realize the mishap in the ocean was my first encounter with risk.

My two doting parents had served as a buffer against the slings and arrows of life.

While being cocooned had its advantages, I’ve learned over time that a life well lived involves a certain amount of risk. The trick is to strike a livable balance between safety and growth.

I’ve just turned 70, and I am still navigating.

“As a Brooklyn born baby boomer, growing up in the ’50s and ’60s (a time many considered the golden age of television, movies, and shows), I was lucky enough to have parents that cultivated in me a love of the arts,” says Michele Minott. “I had a good ear and spent many happy hours belting out popular songs using our bathroom as a soundstage. An introvert by nature, singing and writing gave me the comfort, clarity, and sense of empowerment I didn’t always find in life. I even got to have the last word!”

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