New London Daddy

Every summer until I was four, my mother’s older sister Herma and her Serbian artist husband Borislav invited the whole family to share their bungalow on a beach along the Long Island Sound in New London, CT.

My memory of the house – undoubtedly flawed by time and distance — is of a single-story expanse with multiple windows standing upright, tall in every room. Their diaphanous, draped white curtains fluttered and danced in the omnipresent breezes.  No matter how hot the air might be elsewhere, the briny, vanilla-scented cool of the beach enveloped us when we entered that house.

My father, usually staid, reticent, and subdued, transformed the minute we arrived. As he got out of our car, he shed his grumpy silence and turned giddy.  He seemed to me one of those sea creatures we used to order from the bubble gum cards.  Add water, we were told, and the creatures would animate.  Salt sea air was enough for Daddy. He would bound into the house, ebulliently embrace the assembled relatives, and rush to any corner that afforded him enough privacy to change into his swim trunks.

We children – the first three of eleven cousins-to-be – were always his first invitees. “I’m off to the water,” he’d announce. “Who’s with me?”

Cousin Peter, eight years older than I, remained aloof. He thought himself too mature to be so childishly exuberant. Johnny, eight months my junior, could only go where his mother took him. He adored my dad his Uncle Alfred, but he would stay behind.

I could not wait.  I would strip down to my crisp white drawers, ask my mother to secure my towhead mop into tight braids, and follow him into the gently undulating water. He walked slowly, watching my every move, coaching me to tiptoe carefully over rocks and shells, beckoning me to stop and marvel at the crabs and jellyfish that tickled my shins and scraped my toes.  Once, a crab mistook part of my foot for a tasty morsel and chomped down hard.  I screamed, more afraid than injured, and my father laughed.  “Too bad for that little guy. You’re way too big a prey for him.” 

In the afternoon, Dad would take a blanket down to the edge of the Sound, wrap himself up, put a hat on his head, and coo, “Nothing like the lullaby of the ocean to sing me to sleep,”

Then he would nap for what seemed like hours, while Peter, dressed in his cowboy chaps and holster, would point his toy pistol and chase Johnny and me all about the beach.  Our mothers would watch us, laughing and applauding, as though we were brilliant actors in a spellbinding film.

Nowhere else, at no other time were we all as insouciant as we were then. Uncle Borislav would join us on our beach blanket when he took a break from his easel, and if there were no Yankee game on the radio, Johnny’s father my Italian Uncle Fernando would be there as well. Borislav would do magic tricks, and Fred would tell silly jokes. No one ridiculed my father, cocooned nearby. We were, in those moments, entirely happy.

The best parts of any New London weekend were the early mornings. Daddy would wake me before dawn to walk with him and watch the tide come in.  We would stroll along the waterline, giggling at the horseshoe crabs scuttling away, peering strenuously into the darkness for a glimpse of a ship or a dolphin.  Wading in, we’d let the deepening water lap at our legs. 

Later , when the tide was lowest, he would invite me to a grand adventure.

“Come on,” he’d chortle. “Let’s walk to China.”

“I don’t want to go to China,” I’d laugh. “I wanna see Paris?”

“Sure!  But you have to hold my hand.  It’s a very long walk.”

As we walked further into the Sound, the water level remained unchanged for what seemed like miles. Further still, where I became buoyant, he’d hold me while I half swam among the sailboats lazing in the summer sunshine.

“Maybe we won’t get all the way to Paris today,” Daddy would sigh at last.  “Let’s come back tomorrow.”

Dad’s ordinarily worked tirelessly, as he had a lot to prove. To his in-laws, he sought to prove he was worthy of my smart, well-educated, cultured mother. To his children, he needed to prove that he was impervious. Most, of all, to himself, he had to prove he was worthy of redemption.

Work and prayer were his salvation. He had devoured Calvinism as a boy and was convinced that any outward show of happiness might bar his way to Heaven. Only by the water did he allow himself spontaneous expression of pure pleasure.  

At the beach I savored his fleeting laughter. I milked his joy and made it mine. 

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