Keepsakes of the heart A bittersweet memoir A trip to the Shore stirs waves of stinging memories for a child of the '50s

December 06, 1992|By Arlene Ehrlich

I can't think of this as a homecoming. I spent my childhood here in Worcester County, on the lower Eastern Shore, but I never felt at home in this place. A city-born child of city-bred parents, I had been badly transplanted into rural soil. I was a Jewish child in a Christian land, all alone in alien corn.

Still, for 33 years, this place has been a small, lingering pain in my heart, like the memory of a friend I have outgrown. Today, traveling down roads I last saw in 1959, I begin to confront my memory. Perhaps it is the tang of salt in the breeze, or the taste of iron in the water, or just the glimpse of marsh grass rising from a flat field that brings back the spirit of a time and place I had half forgotten.

EARLIEST IMPRESSIONS

The first time I saw the Eastern Shore, it was from the back seat of my parents' 1949 Pontiac. I was 3 years old -- too young to realize that the Chesapeake Bay was not the ocean, or that the creaking ferry was not the Queen Mary. In the top-deck dining room, I got my first taste of hominy grits. I made a face and spit them out.

In those years before the Bay Bridge, the daylong journey from Washington to the Eastern Shore was a journey into a different world -- an isolated, Southern world that I would never fully digest.

It hardly mattered, for we expected to stay only briefly. My father, a poultry wholesaler, intended to open a processing plant in Stockton. After a year or two at most, we would leave its management to others and return home. I would be back in Washington in time to start kindergarten. We stayed nine years, returning to Washington in time for me to start junior high.

By the time we reached Route 13, dusk had begun to fall. At night, country highways seemed darker and lonelier then. No fast-food restaurants or neon signs lighted the road. Only hitchhikers lined the road -- sailors, mostly, returning from leave to the nearby Chincoteague (Va.) Navy base. We gave a lift to two of them, the first of hundreds we would pick up, without fear or hesitation, until the base closed in the late 1950s. Sometimes my father, road-weary, let them drive while he napped in the front seat.

We were bound for Pocomoke City, where my father had rented a house. With its population approaching 4,000, Pocomoke City was the largest town in Worcester County. The other settlements barely qualified as villages; all else was an unbroken stretch of tobacco fields, cornfields and poultry farms. Most of them were accessible only across spine-cracking dirt roads that became quagmires in rainy weather.

Our house, a wood-framed Victorian, faced the Pocomoke River on Front Street. As a child, I barely noticed the river. Later today I will stare at its sluggish bottle-green water and its banks choked with a delirium of vines and cypress roots. I wonder why I never saw its Gothic beauty.

I never thought of the house on Front Street as an uncomfortable place, although my mother tells me that is exactly what it was. With its wraparound porch, its generous walnut banisters, and its bounty of what modern architects would scorn as "wasted space," it delighted my imagination.

Built in the days when people considered indoor plumbing an eccentricity, the house had one bathroom upstairs. It was an antiquated afterthought that some 1920s-era owner had added by converting a spare bedroom. The half-bath downstairs that my father had promised stood 30 feet beyond the rosebushes in the back yard. Using it was unthinkable; cleaning it was impossible; and smelling it on a warm summer day was unbearable.

In town, such outhouses were occasionally seen but seldom used. In rural precincts, however, they were common. For the first few months of every school year, first-grade teachers in town had to cope with constantly overflowing toilets -- the result of abuse by farm children who had never seen indoor plumbing. Transfixed by the miracle, the children flushed repeatedly until the toilets broke down from exhaustion.

Much the same was true of those other modern wonders, running water and electric lights. In the early 1950s many Eastern Shore farms depended on well water hauled from a backyard pump and light from kerosene lamps. By the time they entered school, most farm children had seen the technology, but not all had been privileged to operate it. As late as 1955, visiting schoolmates were still driving my mother crazy with their fascination for flicking our light switches on and off.

HAVES AND HAVE-NOTS

This morning, I decide not to linger in Pocomoke City. Time enough for that tomorrow.

Now I want to retrace my family's original route between 1950 and 1954, from Pocomoke City to the open countryside and back into Pocomoke City again. Now I want to head down the back roads that tourists and beach-bound visitors never see.

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