The Matrons of Fenwick

The Sea Toy was a three-bedroom cottage with distinguished aromatic wood paneling. The Sea Toy had three small bedrooms, a small bathroom with a shower only and a bar table that separated the kitchen from the living room. The bar table was where people gathered to dine, play cards and tell stories. The slam of a screen door, to this day, evokes a memory of that house. The screened in porch contained two simple metal rocking chairs. The screened in porch was where crab pots, fishing gear and the rafts for floating in the ocean were stored for the week. Damp beach towels hung from a clothesline contently drying in the ocean air.

When we were kids we played out the same ritual of summer every year. During the week of Forth of July and the third week of August we headed to Fenwick Island Delaware. Many years we would repeat the tradition in September in the peak of Atlantic hurricane season. The routine was always the same. In retrospect, I have no idea why the mothers on the trip viewed it as much of a vacation. We had the same cottage reserved every year. The Sea Toy at the intersection of Bunting and Atlantic Avenue. It sat half a block off the ocean and another block in the other direction was the Mason-Dixon line.

Still this was a three-bedroom cottage shared by four parents and seven kids. I have no idea how my parents did it. It was the mothers who ran and coordinated this three-bedroom circus. Yes the hero’s of the week were Aunt Joan, Aunt Kitty and of course my mother. I refer to them as the Matrons of Fenwick. If not for them it would have been chaos out of control. We settled for a peaceful chaos that barely registered with us kids. We looked forward to these vacations pretty much the same as we looked forward to Christmas. As an added bonus we got to hang out with our cousins for a week.

When the big day came to head to the beach, always a Friday night, it was a full-scale production. Out parents hauled a weeks worth of food, drinks, crab nets, fishing gear, rafts and clothing into the station wagon. Yes there were years when we had an actual station wagon with wood on the side. I always wanted to tack a help-wanted poster on the side. Somehow, us kids found a place in the car. Looking back on it, that was a miracle for the ages. Our mom was the logistics and project manager. It was a volunteer gig. Our Dad drove as Roberta Hathaway played on the AM radio. “Where is the love?”.

Weeks before our Mom took us out shopping for brand new clothes to wear on our trip. Looking back with fondness, I found no logic tied to this other than she could kill two stones with one bird (sic). It was a well-disguised back to school shopping trip, which we as brothers equally despised. So there we sat, myself Steve and Rob in the middle of an over packed wood sided wagon station. That is what we called them as kids. We fidgeted uncomfortably in pants that stuck to our thighs even with the car windows rolled down. We usually behaved, as we loved our beach trips. We loved driving through the hills and cows and trees of southern Pennsylvania. The optimism at the beginning of a vacation is invigorating. We all anticipated the big bridge and if we were unlucky we would stop in a diner in Smyrna. The kids always lobbied against this, as it would put us at the beach an hour later than we anticipated. I imagine a similar scene happening in the other beach bound cars in our family. This was because all the cousins arrived at the beach in sparkling new clothing at pretty much the same time.

Gram Hoover and Grandpop Hoover usually arrived before the parade of well-dressed cousins. After unpacking, all the uncles and my grandfather gathered around the central gathering place for another time-honored tradition. They would sit around the table and debate vigorously the merits of the driving route that each had taken to the beach. A case of Schmitt’s beer was usually sacrificed. Each was steadfastly convinced they had taken the most efficient route. The loudest talker usually won the debate.

The Matrons of Fenwick never participated in this discussion. The aunts all would concentrate on getting a meal started, putting sheets on the beds and getting the kids settled in. This is pretty much how this time honored ritual played out year after year.

Us kids were still decked out in our keen new clothes with our pants sticking to our thighs. Soon after arriving, we would plead and beg to go down to the beach. Our mothers were busy with other things and not having seven kids underfoot made things easier. So every year they made the same bargain with us.

“Okay here is the deal, you can go to the beach but do not go in the ocean.” Aunt Kitty would mutter to us all. This is one of the first mistakes in logic our mothers would make. But can you blame them. They had their hands full.

So we would march down to the beach in our brand new clothing to look at the ocean. Usually by now it was just starting to get dark. We would find a few horseshoe crabs, dig up some sand fleas and then find some perfect wood for bonfires later in the week. This kept us occupied for all of about eighteen minutes. Usually our beloved cousin Fran would roll up his shorts and wade out up to his ankles looking for ocean treasures. Either that, or he was one with this ritual of summer. As the air-cooled, the water felt that much warmer. The ritual would simply unfold soon after. After about twenty minutes, we were swimming in the ocean attired in our slick new travelling clothes feeling pretty good.

It would get dark soon and we would have to venture back to the Sea Toy. One thing we understood was curfews. When we arrived back at beach house, the discussion about the best route to the beach house would still be on going. Uncle Tiny seemed to be a little louder, the ocean a little quieter. There was no subtle way to sneak into the Sea Toy with the ever-present slam of the screen door. We were not adept enough to gently close the door.

We knew we were in trouble and suspected the Mothers would meet us. It happened the same way every year. Aunt Joan had the broom and we hated the broom. She would clean us off with a whiskbroom as we heard the usual refrain. “We told you not to go into the ocean in your brand new clothes.” The broom stung as the broom landed on the back of our legs. After we were cleaned up Aunt Gail, our mom, informed us we were to be grounded the next day. As we got older, and repeated this scene so many times we secretly realized the holes in the logic. I think the Matrons of Fenwick realized these holes many years before this.

The gaping hole in the logic is glaringly obvious. We all would wake up the next morning and enjoy a big breakfast on our barstools at the bar that divided the kitchen from the living room. The fathers were probably a little hunggover, the kids were obviously pissed they were grounded and the Mom’s were mulling this around in their head.

“What in God’s name are we going to do with seven kids in this tiny little cottage a block from the ocean?” I really think for once in their lives they thought about themselves. They really wanted to enjoy the ocean as well. If Fenwick Island had a Juvenile Detention Center, this parenting, it may have worked. That is, seven kids locked up for swimming in the ocean in their brand new clothes.

We were ungrounded by 9:30 and allowed to go to the beach. If it would have rained on the second day, this scenario, may have played out a little different. It simply never rained on day two at the beach. We would swim, and float on our rafts all day long until our chests were chafed to point of extreme discomfort. Of course, we wouldn’t wear enough sunscreen so we were burnt to a crisp by the second day.

And this is where the Matrons of Fenwick would give out their proper punishment with little relationship to consequence. The crime offense had taken place the day before.

We had one shower and eleven people needing to take a shower. The last thing they wanted was for the sand from our bodies to clog up that one drain in the shower. This is where we saw the return of the broom. It was administered on our sunburnt, bare legs with much more vigor than the first time. It stung the back of legs like walking through a rosebush. The Matrons of Fenwick had administered punishment to fit the crime and had their day at the beach.

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