Retreating To the Beach


June 09, 1996|By JACQUE KELLY

For 15 consecutive summers my family had a beach address at 8 Wilmington. For all but two of those Junes, Julys and Augusts, we were quartered in No. 8's third-floor, summer living quarters known as the Attic.

Specifically, 8 Wilmington was a three-story white frame Victorian house on Wilmington Avenue in Rehoboth Beach, Del. There were a number of apartments in the house and we Kellys lived in one up under the gables. This spot, my mother figured out, was at the opposite end of the summer-rental spectrum from the showy condominiums that were going up along Delaware and Maryland's Atlantic Coast during the early 1970s.

The Attic possessed all the essential attributes of a fine summertime getaway: The toaster always smoked and emitted rude, Morse code-sounding noises. No kitchen cutlery matched. The bedsheets were full of sand. And the place was frequently overstuffed with company. In other words, it was quintessentially beachy.

My parents rented the Attic for a number of reasons. It was large; technically, it slept nine people (but we often squeezed in many more). And certain windows had an ocean view. My mother also liked providing a place where her six children would be sure to gather for all or part of the time from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

It was the usual practice to do our time at Rehoboth as a complete family unit, from grandparents down to infants. We had been gathering at the resort since the late 1950s and first stayed at 8 Wilmington in the summer of 1968.

A change came in the summer of 1970. My Grandmother Lily Rose, the undisputed matriarch of the clan, was slowly dying. One last trip to the beach would have been out of the question. So Mom stayed home as her mother's nurse and wished everyone else a good time. She had more important work to do.

The first weeks of June arrived. We had a paid-up summer place but lacked stylish means of transportation to get there. My sister Mimi reminded me recently that for the summer of 1970, she and our younger sister Josie took an MTA bus to Fayette Street, entered the Trailways bus station and boarded a malodorous coach. They changed to a second bus at a grimy lunchroom along Route 50 in Queenstown, and made it to Rehoboth in something less than four hours.

It was early in the season. The two sisters were the first ones in the apartment. They delightedly called back to Baltimore and informed my mother they were not coming home anytime soon.

My mother was open-minded, but got to thinking about her daughters' resolve to stay the summer. Mimi was 15 and Josie was 11. My father never arrived at the beach before the middle of August, so he wasn't available to keep watch. Mom's solution? She summoned Great Aunt Cora, who immediately filled in as chaperon.

Cora, then 76, also arrived on a Trailways bus. She carried her oversized Ecuadorean beach hat, some good silk dresses (homemade, of course) for her nightly boardwalk stroll, and several cartons of Chesterfield cigarettes.

Summer jobs were a snap. In fact, all my sisters had to do to get one was walk next door to the adjoining property, a seen-better-days but nevertheless wonderful hotel called the Royalton. It had an old-fashioned, formal dining room with pine floors, and its menus seemed to have been drawn up in the 1930s, prices included. We could never figure out how the Royalton stayed out of bankruptcy.

Mimi, Josie and another sister, Ann, signed up as waitresses, doubtless breaking the working-age laws. Cora would sit outside on the long flight of steps that rose to the Attic level and monitor her nieces across the way at the Royalton.

My brother Eddie arrived a week later and joined the staff of the old Hotel Henlopen, a much tonier place than the Royalton. The Big H had a dance orchestra, and the male guests had to dress in suit coats while in the dining room. Now that was impressive.

Eddie worked in housekeeping and got good tips for his work. Occasionally, he ran the cranky old elevator. On Sunday nights most of the regular help took off and he was placed in charge of the hotel coffee shop and its soda fountain. Watch out! The sundaes he produced were as big as a sand dune.

Come the weekends, the Attic filled up with family and friends, but the "No Vacancy" sign never, never went on.

In early August, my grandmother died quietly at her Guilford Avenue home. After attending her burial in West Baltimore's New Cathedral Cemetery, my siblings returned to their hotel posts. And my parents got to use the place they had paid for.

I was then in college, with a summer job that kept me in Baltimore weekdays. But come Friday afternoons, I prayed for rides to the ocean from friends with cars. But more often than not, I had to swallow my pride and head for that Fayette Street bus-station ticket counter.

Pub Date: 6/09/96

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