A living reminder In Rehoboth Beach, memorial trees fill an empty space on the street, and in the hearts of loved ones.

August 31, 1998|By Sarah Pekkanen | Sarah Pekkanen,SUN STAFF

Stroll down any street in the heart of Rehoboth Beach and you'll see the trees. Hundreds of them line the sidewalks, tracing paths from the restaurants and hotels to the beach. They look identical, these leafy red sunset maples and zelkovas. But each tree has its own story.

Down by the roots you'll find the clue: A small marble tablet engraved with the name of someone -- someone young or old, tourist or resident, stricken by disease or accident. The trees in Rehoboth don't just provide comfort from the sun. They provide comfort to people who have lost loved ones.

Robert G. Cox,

1927-1997

Margaret Cox picked this spot for her husband's tree, here at 13 Maryland Ave., because they were from Maryland and his birthday was on the 13th of September.

"All you have to do is get healthy," she used to tell him, "and we'll move down to the beach."

They thought his fatigue was caused by diabetes. They didn't know yet about the cancer.

They found out last fall, after they had sold their home in Kent Island, before their new house at the beach, the one he had dreamed about, was finished.

As the weather grew colder and he grew thinner, builders hurried to complete the house in time. They widened doorways to accommodate his wheelchair, and worked overtime to erect the walls and roof. But a week before Christmas, at age 70, he was gone. Only the shell of the house was finished.

"My husband got to see the ocean once," Margaret said. "I was able to get him to the boardwalk once, but he was so weak."

She didn't know many people in Rehoboth, but how could she leave the beach? How could she leave the house her husband had wanted so badly?

She moved here and bought a memorial tree from the city. She planted some of his ashes with it, so he could be with her at the beach.

Michael W. Brossette,

1956-1997

"This is it," Michael told his friend Steve Elkins over the telephone. "I'm going to die this weekend."

Michael was always like that: focused, plain-spoken, in charge of everything. Even, it seemed, the timing of his death. He summoned Steve to his hospital bed because he wanted to wrap up a few things before he succumbed to AIDS. One was the location of his tree.

It is just a block away from Robert Cox's tree, on Baltimore Avenue, in front of the popular gay bar Blue Moon. It's a street filled with the names of men who died young.

Michael moved from Baltimore to Rehoboth in 1993. He had been thinking about leaving his job in hospital administration and opening a restaurant. Then he was diagnosed, and suddenly, the decision took on new significance: What did he want to do with the rest of his life?

He opened a restaurant, and when it flourished, he started another, then a third. "He worked until the last three weeks of his life," Steve said.

Michael's final years were happy ones. He had a new career, and a new home filled with his extensive art collection. He had also found love with a man named Aaron.

Last Christmas, Steve was walking down Baltimore Avenue when something caught his eye. Amid the winter-bare branches of the trees was a gleam of color. On this first holiday without his partner, Aaron had decorated Michael's tree.

Joseph A. Carroll Sr.,

1936-1995

Every Christmas, Joseph Carroll played Santa Claus in Rehoboth's town parade. It was a role he was born for, this big, twinkly-eyed man nicknamed "Jolly Joe." Joe loved everyone, and everyone loved Joe -- even the people who fell victim to his practical jokes.

From his rocking-chair perch on his front porch, Joe would gleefully watch his latest scheme unfold. The unsuspecting tourist who parked in front of Joe's house would return from the beach to find a ticket on the car's windshield. Joe's chair would rock from the force of his laughter as the tourist became angry, then confused when he realized the ticket was fake.

But whenever a tourist was in danger of getting a real ticket, Joe would leap off his porch, quarter in hand to feed the meter.

"He knew everyone on the street," said Joe's son, David. "He would sit on the porch and talk to people he didn't even know." That's why the marble plaque beneath his tree is engraved with this title: "Mayor of Maryland Avenue."

The irony of his death is that Joe, a man known for his big heart, died because his heart failed. Even now, three years after his death, vacationers who haven't been to the beach in a while ask neighbors why the rocking chair on Joe's porch is empty.

James Michael Melvin,

1964-1996

One thing that brings Emily Malone comfort is the location of her son's tree. It is right next to Joe Carroll's tree, at 14 Maryland Ave. Emily knew and liked Joe, and it helps that Jamie's tree is so close to his.

Jamie was the third of her four children, and he always seemed to struggle the most. Nothing came easy for Jamie, not school, or jobs, or relationships. Yet he always reached out to others. He was a sponsor for other members of Alcoholics Anonymous, and any time a friend needed help, Jamie was there.

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