Lincoln County News
August 5, 1999

"LifeLines" My journal about living with cancer

by Sandy Labaree

Dear Readers: For the next two weeks, I will be taking a break from my weekly journal while I visit my family in New Jersey. Instead of my regular journal column, I would like to share with you some special childhood memories of summers past.

Summer has always been my favorite time of year. Having been born in NJ during the month of August, I must have been predestined to savor the hot and hazy days of summer. I am not sure why I enjoy living in Maine because we usually do not have summers with extended periods of heat or humidity. In fact, summer is short in Maine and temperatures in the seventies and eighties are generally the rule.

I grew up in New Jersey, renowned for its heat and humidity. Summer heat there seems much more oppressive than heat in Maine because of the humidity. Summer begins in New Jersey in May and can last into October. Ninety degree readings are the norm, and late afternoon thundershowers are a common occurrence. A humid haze always hangs in the air, and seems to condense into perpetual droplets of sweat. As disgusting and as uncomfortable as it may sound, this is my idea of summer.

My favorite recollections of summer are the summers I spent with my grandparents. I was living in Princeton, NJ with my grandparents while my parents were stationed at Ft. Bragg, NC, where my dad was an Army captain and doctor. At age five, I had a very brief stay on the army post. I was so homesick and miserable that my parents sent me back to NJ to live with my grandparents.

I happily moved into my grandparent's large home that housed many generations of my family going back nearly 200 years. It was one big extended family under one roof that included my grandparents and my great-grandparents. My great-grandmother on my grandmother's side passed away when I was two years old. I barely remember her as a small thin woman always dressed in black. Her husband, my great-grandfather, died when I was 11. I have many fond recollections of him walking me to school and taking me to the park to play. Also living with us was my great-grandmother on my grandfather's side. A proud robust Austrian who barely spoke English, she would hug and bestow kisses on me, pinching my cheeks and calling me her little "handswurst", a term of endearment that literally translated means a type of small sausage. She also gave me what was to become my most prized possession, a fur stole named Mitzel.

Mitzel was one of those 1920 style fox fur neckpieces with little legs and tails that were clipped together by a flattened fox head. Since we had no pets, Mitzel served as my pet cat and security blanket all rolled into one. When my great-grandmother gave me this fur piece, I asked her what it was. She told me it was a "mitzel", which meant little cat or kitten in Austrian.

Mitzel went everywhere with me including on our summer trips to the Jersey shore. My grandparents had a cabin on the beach in lower Seaside Park, right next to what is now Island Beach State Park. The one room cabin was made of scrap lumber and had no foundation. Placed on the sand above the high tide mark, my grandparents had "squatters rights". Frequently hurricanes and strong winter storms would sweep the cabin, or parts of it, down the beach. Our family always managed to patch it back together and winch it back up the beach.

The cabin was our family summer home for many generations, from the early 1930's up until the late 1950's when regulations on water, septic systems and squatter's rights led to its demise. In fact, my parents spent their honeymoon at the cabin in the late summer of 1944. Every summer, my great-grandparents and grandparents would pack their beach buggy, an old Model T Ford with tires that were capable of driving on the beach, with food and provisions for a weekend or longer stay. When the old beach buggy finally died, we resorted to using the family car. The cabin had no electricity or running water, only a pump and an outhouse. Our first stop was the store and fish market next door to the cabin. There we would buy huge blocks of ice for our wooden ice box and kerosene for our stove and lanterns. My great-grandfather would ask the Norwegian fishermen who ran the store and market, for a weather report. They predicted weather by clouds, wind and waves, and could forecast a storm with surprising accuracy.

It is amazing how many of our memories are based on smells and odors. Every time I smell kerosene or oil cloth, I think of the cabin. The cabin smelled of kerosene because of the lanterns and our kerosene cook stove. My grandmother covered all the tables with a red and white checked oil cloth which had its own peculiar odor. Naturally, the bedding and curtains absorbed the odor of oil cloth and kerosene, but to me it was the comfortable familiar smell of our summer home. I would beg my grandmother to let me take my afternoon nap in the double bed bunk that was reserved for adults. I would curl up there with Mitzel and breathe in the salt air mixed with the odor of kerosene and oil cloth. Hanging on the wall in the bedroom area was a picture of a windjammer at full sail. I would imagine myself on board the tall sailing ship, the waves rocking me to sleep.

The beach was my favorite hang-out and I spent hours playing in the surf and making sand cakes. Blending just the right consistency of sand and sea water, I would use tall metal sand buckets to form sand cakes. Located above the high tide mark, there were several old sun bleached railroad ties. I would line up dozens of sand cakes along the tops of every tie. The Norwegian fisherman would come by every morning, dragging their long wooden boats out into the surf. They would smile at me and my sand cakes, and say something to me in Norwegian that I couldn't understand. I would watch as the fishermen used their seine nets to bring in nets full of fish of all sizes and varieties. And every evening the fishermen would wave at me as they dragged their long boats back up the beach and hung their nets out to dry.

Being too young and not accomplished enough of a swimmer to tackle the undertow and big waves, I limited most of my swimming to knee or waist level frolicking in the surf. Occasionally, my uncle or another adult would take me out to swim beyond the breakers. Even more thrilling for me were rides in my uncle's huge raft, handmade from a pile of red and black inner tubes tied together.

Much of my daily beach excitement was overhead. The Lakehurst Naval Air Station was located about 20 miles inland. A constant parade of Navy blimps would float by overhead and lower some kind of testing instruments into the ocean waters, several miles off shore. In addition, lots of small planes would fly by with banners and messages trailing in the breeze. These flying billboards advertised everything from Coca Cola to Coppertone to special dances and entertainment at nearby halls or restaurants. Occasionally, skywriters would spell out messages in great loops and circles that lingered for hours like tiny puffs of clouds.

Summers at the cabin ended in the late 50's when the cabin was torn down, a casualty of zoning and housing laws. My mother tells me that parts of it remain today incorporated into a small house in Seaside Park. A window frame here or a molding there are all that are left. I have been tempted to drive there sometime and take a picture of this house, but the cabin is really no longer. It is best preserved in my mind as a wonderful memory of the carefree summer days of my childhood.

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