I keep getting messages from or seeing Facebook posts by people who are spending this first week of June on the beach. I am not envious of them, not just because I am perfectly happy here at the center of the universe scaring up stories for The Planet but because practically every seaside vacation I've ever had tends to read like the one below. Anyway, this is a slow news week (so far!) and I thought I'd throw out for the edification of anyone who cares to read it this family beach story I wrote for my niece, Tess, a couple of years back when she had her first child, and was interested in family history.
This is a story I wrote for my niece, Tess. Or, I should say, it is a history. I think etymologically they are the same word, but one we use for a tale we have made up and the other for something that has actually occurred. She who pens these words has made no study of, nor claims any expertise in, Ford family history beyond her personal memory; but is, alas, the only reliable source of unvarnished truth in her generation of that tribe.
Tess, I don’t know how well you remember your great-grandmother, Dot. We always called her that, she was never called anything else, to the point that your father, Jack, once said wonderingly of some other little boy, “He calls his Dot ‘granny.’ ” In point of fact, she was more like a Dot than a granny. She was a snappy little woman, not quite five feet tall and she never weighed 100 pounds. She’d been a beauty in her time and was vain about her legs. She would wear high heels whenever feasible. She didn’t cook for squat but would feed us when we came from the fish place down the road, and she smoked long white cigarettes.
Her husband, Deb, our grandfather, had died early on – he was only 62 or 63 – and some years later she married a man also named Jack. Dot and her Jack had what seemed to me a racy and luxurious sort of retirement together. I remember them talking about going to “the club,” and when I would see them on weekend occasions they were always drinking what they called highballs, meaning some sort of booze over ice, and mixed with Fresca. Once I saw Jack put vodka into his glass of iced tea, which even now strikes me as a perversion.
Dot had a brother named Milroy. I think he was a year or two younger than she was. He was my mother’s uncle, not mine, and he lived in Iowa, and given those two factors I always thought of him as a “distant relation.” He visited often enough, though, that we were all familiar with him and with his wife, Grace. What they were famous for in the family was how she waited on him – he was always sitting there saying, Grace, get me a cup of coffee, Grace, bring me this, or Grace, do that. It made all the other women want to scream GRACE, MAKE HIM DO IT HIMSELF.
Which makes him sound languid but actually I remember him as one of those go-go high-energy little men. What did he look like? I pride myself not just on my militant adherence to the truth but on my razor-sharp memory. I can still recall conversations we had over your crib when your parents brought you home from the hospital. But visually I suck.
What I find is that, after the passage of years, I file people into a limited number of physical types from Central Casting, so that I remember a boyfriend your Aunt Laura had in the early 1980s as pretty much identical to the husband of a young friend I have now, which I expect is insulting to both of them. What I remember Great-Uncle Milroy looking like is Teddy Roosevelt but maybe shorter. Sometimes I even think of him with a monocle though realistically I’m pretty sure he just wore glasses.
I’m carrying on about Uncle Milroy like this because he has the central role in this story. Not that he’s the hero, more like the iceberg in Titanic.
That summer, Uncle Milroy had been out seeing the U.S.A. He had some kind of camper-trailer he towed around and parked for extended periods of time in the yards of his relations. I believe he’d been staying with Mom – your “Gammaw” as you called her then, before you could pronounce it properly – just prior to the beach trip, because I recall asking your Uncle Frank, “Doesn’t he have a house of his own?” And Frank replied, “I don’t think he remembers.” In any case, he and Grace had also been visiting Dot and Jack – who lived in Thompson, Ga., not far from Augusta – and the four of them rented a cabin on Tybee Island and asked us to join them for a long weekend.
By “us,” I mean your Gammaw, my mother, and her children. She and the old man were splitsville by then, him having left her for the preacher’s wife as you know. Mom had been through a bad patch following the divorce, worse than anything that came after, but during this period she had pulled out of it pretty well and was trying to look after herself a bit. Among other things she had bought herself a red convertible, I think a LeBaron.
She wanted to drive that convertible to the beach and she wanted as many of us to go with her as would consent to it. Tybee is of course just off Savannah and that’s where her sister lived, Aunt Kitten and her eight grown children, so that the beach weekend was by way of being a family reunion.
Mom always felt deficient in the family reunion department. All her sister’s vast brood, with, later on, their own spouses and multiple children, would show up at Dot’s dos smiling and bearing food, while Mom’s four ducked out on her from sullen teenhood on. This was so distressing to Mom that years later, when Dot died after an extended limbo of Alzheimer’s and was buried in a 7 a.m. graveside ceremony, poor Mom cried a little and then turned to us beaming, saying: “I can’t tell you how proud I am that all four of my children came to the funeral.”
But back to Tybee. None of us ducked out of that one. Your Uncle Frank came, minus the wife and child (this was during the roughly five minutes in the 1980s he was actually married, but things there had already begun spiraling toward entropy). Your Aunt Laura, also minus spouse (though less ominously), came with baby Jacob. Your father, Jack, did not come, but he sent you – the apple of your gammaw’s eye – with your mother, Lisa. And I came minus Unka Jerry, whom I was to marry that September.
Why were we all so attentive, for once? Was it because we were worried about Mom after her great unhappiness, or was it the lure of a free beach holiday? I’m not altogether sure and anyway shouldn’t speak for the others. But I can say in my own case I might have been uncharacteristically willing to reune because I was bursting with pride at having snared myself a husband – I expect you consider Jerry and me as solid as Rushmore but for a while there it was strictly touch and go – and also at having starved myself down for the nups to the point my wedding gown was a size 8. (I am sorry to tell you I came bursting out of it like Pontchartraine during the reception and have not seen a size 8 since, at least from the inside.) I do remember thinking that a seafood dinner out would be the perfect opportunity to wear my new backless pastel floral-print sundress.
And I remember thinking it would be luxurious. Ha! Mom had told us there was plenty of room. I think she was sincere, and just as surprised as the rest of us that we would all be staying in a two-bedroom cabin.
The two bedrooms went, of course, to Dot and Jack and Milroy and Grace, the oldest generation and, incidentally, the ones footing the bill. As for all of us Fords, we had to sleep together in the living room. I believe Mom got the couch and the rest of us sacked out on the floor. That was seven people counting the two little ones, you a toddler and Jacob a babe in arms.
But the first evening, while we were all still fresh and had had plenty of sleep in our own beds, it was all right. We did go out to dinner at a seafood place and I did wear my backless-pastel-floral-print. We had a choice of two restaurants, for some reason, and the first one didn’t serve seafood any way but fried. We of the younger generation didn’t want to eat there, me in particular because back then fried shrimp made me vomit uncontrollably. I think Laura and Frank didn’t want to eat there because they didn’t want to share the living room floor with me vomiting uncontrollably. But the older generation did want to stay there, Uncle Milroy in particular, and he objected to the place we went to in the end, which served grilled and steamed seafood.
“This ain’t the way we do it in Iowa,” he said.
“Uncle Milroy,” Frank pointed. “I had not realized Iowa was famous for its seafood." He pointed out that Iowa was a landlocked state.
That was 28 years ago and I still enjoy saying, when something has made me go hrumph, “This ain’t the way we do it in Iowa.”
In any event we got our steamed or grilled shrimp and I didn’t vomit uncontrollably that night. I might just as well have, though, for all the sleep anybody got.
Seven people are just too many people to sleep peacefully in a room together, and the floor is not the ideal place to do it; and then of course there was the talking thing and the snoring thing and the crying-baby thing. Finally, there was the dawn-awakening-Tess thing. You awoke at the crack-o and said to your mother, “Can we get up now and go to the beach?” And she said, “No, we have to lie still and be quiet.” And you said, “Why do we have to lie still and be quiet?” And she said, “So everybody else can sleep.” And so on.
But I don’t know if anybody else was really still asleep by that point. I wasn’t. I was lying there listening to this polite little conversation and thinking what an unusual voice you had. Jacob had a high, piping voice when he was a tot but you never did. Some words you couldn’t pronounce properly, of course, but you talked like a very small adult, in a voice as deep as mine or your mother’s.
So. Everybody was still sleepy but the older gen shortly leapt up and into action so we living-room proles had to, too. We had a nice day at the beach. I mean I’m sure we did. I don’t remember much except that maybe there had been a storm out at sea somewhere because the waves were high and unpredictable. I was walking in the surf, carrying you on my shoulders, I don’t think any more than ankle-deep, when this mighty tsunami of a wave came barreling up and engulfed us. You were very brave and didn’t cry and didn’t lose hold of me. But both of us got water in our eyes and up our noses, and after we had finished coughing you said, politely but with a certain froideur: “Next time, I would rather not go undle.”
That is something I still say, too--about swimming and finances mostly: I would rather not go undle.
The Savannah cousins all came that day and reuned, and we were all in and out of the cabin and on and off the beach. In any case, that night we did not go out to a restaurant but had spaghetti the older folks had made – specifically Milroy, I believe, because he was quite proprietary about the pot the next morning, which is the story I’m going to tell you next, the one that has really stuck with me through the years.
After dinner I’m sure we had a good time, playing cards and drinking beer I expect – I don’t remember but that’s what Fords did. And despite the sleep deprivation we were already operating under, once again we didn’t get settled down on our respective patches of floor until quite late.
That’s why it was such a sick surprise when Uncle Milroy got up at 6:00 the next morning and began scraping out the spaghetti sauce pan with a metal spoon.
SKRAWK SKREEK KREECH SQUAWCH
Everybody’s eyes flew open and there was the same expression of wounded rage in all of them. I think Frank cussed and rolled over. Others moaned. Uncle Milroy would have had to be deaf and blind not to notice the misery he was causing with his teeth-assaulting cacophony, but on he scraped.
To this day, when I cook chicken in the oven in some sticky sort of marinade (and I do that quite a lot; I am famous for my Hot and Sticky Ginger Chicken), and the liquid burns up leaving a crusty residue on the bottom of the roasting pan, and I can’t get it off with a sponge or even steel wool, I set my teeth resolutely and say:
“I shall have to Milroy it.”
And I get out my spoon and Milroy away until the pan is clean again. But I must make it clear here that I always do this in the privacy of my own kitchen, one mile down a dirt road, disturbing no one.
Back to Tybee: In mute agony, your mother and I picked up our pillows and went down to the beach where we lay down on air mattresses, covered ourselves with beach towels and shut our eyes. I don’t remember whether your mother took you or left you with Gammaw. I didn’t care. All I wanted was sleep.
But no more had your mother and I shut our eyes than the earth shook.
Our eyelids reopened in fresh agony. A stocky pole had been driven into the sand between us. On either side of it were two feet, in white socks and black shoes. Above them were two hairy white legs. Our swollen eyes traveled up these and registered: Uncle Milroy. He had followed us from the cabin and was solicitously placing a beach umbrella over us. So it would have been churlish to cuss but nobody was grateful!
(This also evolved into an incidental part of our lore. White socks with black shoes became the Uncle Milroy Look. I broke my leg last year and during the summer months began seriously to rock that look. I had the black tennies left over from the winter, and it seemed pointless to buy more shoes until I could wear two of them.)
Your mother and I presently gave up trying to sleep and went back to the cabin. I think Frank had decamped by then. I don’t remember specifically but he doesn’t figure in my subsequent memories and buggering off is what Frank does. He brings his own car and when the going gets tough he mumbles something about some work he has to do and whoosh, he’s out of there.
At the cabin everybody was being excessively polite but clearly wishing to pull a Frank. I don’t know whose idea it was to go to Hilton Head, but what was evident is that we had to go somewhere where Uncle Milroy was not. So Mom and I, Laura with baby Jake, and Lisa with you, all piled into the red convertible and put the pedal to the medal.
Except that I was at the wheel so it wasn’t as if we were going very fast. I remember your mother’s gentle complaint about my driving. Somebody said something about Hilton Head being an hour away and I said, “How could anybody make it that quickly?” And she replied, “Fifty-five miles per hour?” She would roll her eyes when I stopped at every railroad crossing and I had to explain to her about trains with Klingon cloaking devices. (Actually, I remember that your father is just as nuts about railroad crossings as I am, and the other two sibs probably are too. We witnessed a fatal car/train collision when we were children and the Burnt Child Shuns Fire.)
For the most part, though, it was a pleasant road trip except that everyone was so sleep-deprived. Here is another Tess memory from it. You asked Mom some question. I wish I could remember what it was but I can’t. But it was an intelligent little question and possibly a hard one to answer, because Mom hesitated. So I volunteered everything I knew about the subject, putting it as succinctly as I could for a child of your age.
Which had given your other aunt time to consider the matter, and after I had rendered my two or three minutes of information, she added a couple more paragraphs of supplementary exposition.
You listened gravely to all this, but when Aunt 2 got through with her thesis and asked if that cleared things up, you said, with great dignity, “I was not asking you two. I was asking Gammaw.”
Anyway. We changed drivers a couple of times – everybody wanted to drive the red convertible – and that probably accounted for the fact that we finally got to Hilton Head.
We didn’t like it. It wouldn’t shock you, I’m sure that it’s been a thriving resort during your whole memory of it, but none of us had expected the overpriced tinselly-touristy paid-parking and paid-beach place it had become. We couldn’t afford it and anyway we found it hideous.
And we also found: Uncle Milroy! He came to greet us as soon as we stopped the convertible. He had been tailing us in his own car the whole time, like Jimmy Stewart tailed Kim Novak I think it was in that old movie, for miles and miles and she never noticed, so that you protested, “Doesn’t anybody ever look in their rearview mirror?” Apparently not, because Uncle Milroy must have pulled up behind us every time we stopped at a gas station to ask directions.
And that’s the last memory I have of that weekend. I have the general impression of all of us running with our arms up in the air and screaming like in the culminating scene of some horror movie; only instead of screaming, “The rocks are alive!” or “Help! The Blob!” we’d have been screaming, “Milroy! Milroy! Milroy!”
But I’m sure that precise scene didn’t exactly happen and the actual end of the story is that we all returned to our respective homes and finally got some sleep.
Years later, Mom told me that Aunt Grace had died early and that Uncle Milroy had eventually remarried, this time to a woman he waited on hand and foot. I had stopped being mad at him by then, but I did hope she was mean to him.