This week’s student story was written by Pamela Jones, a talented writer who has attended my class for some time. Pamela was raised during the fifties and early sixties by a Methodist minister father and a cultured, intelligent mother who stressed education and personal achievement. In this delightful story, Pamela re-creates a cherished memory, her family’s annual two-week vacation to the New Jersey shore. Her narrative reaches wider than family events to capture how the developing Civil Rights movement changed their vacation experience over time. Read on and see for yourself.
by Pamela Jones
The moist wind slapped my face and ruffled my bangs. The fishy ocean scent invaded the car as Mom cranked down the passenger window of our beloved 1955 two-toned-green Bel Air Chevrolet.
“Ah, there’s nothing like a cool Cape May breeze!” Mom exclaimed.
Ed, my older brother, nicknamed Brother, replied playfully, “Is that right?”
Junior, my oldest brother, and I giggled at the remark as Mom turned and glared at us through squinted eyes and a tight face. Though exasperated, she revealed a faint trace of delight in her son’s humor.
For more than two hours, our family had rolled along the two lanes of South Jersey’s back roads from Lawnside, our home, to the southernmost tip of the state, to Cape May Peninsula, where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. Of course, the 1954 completion of the Garden State Parkway offered a faster route, but the toll costs were a deterrent considering Mom and Dad’s ministerial and teaching salaries. As Dad drove, he enjoyed Mom feeding him a constant stream of Life Saver Crystal Mints and freshly roasted peanuts purchased from the roadside wagon in Pennsauken. Scrunched in the back seat, my brothers and I were tired and had finally fallen asleep after miles of Mom’s Bible reading, radio listening, joke telling, and repetitious whining of stop it, move over, and who broke wind? Brother hated the smell of those Crystal Mints, and I loved blowing the fragrance in his face just to watch his reaction. To this day, the smell of mints nauseates him.
The blast of fresh sea air signaled our approach to the Cape May Bridge, the only land entrance and exit to this seashore town. Once a year for the last two weeks of August and the Labor Day weekend, our family vacationed in Cape May, for this was the home of our Nana, my mother’s mother, Eleanor.
“Oh look, the drawbridge is up,” shouted Mom.
“It’s a good thing we’re not in a hurry,” remarked Brother.
“I can’t see anything sitting in the middle,” I protested, straining for a better view of the separated road reaching like a gigantic slide into the orange sky.
“Well, why don’t you take some tea and see,” retorted Brother, referring to a slogan from the Lipton Tea radio commercial.
As soon as the bridge lowered, the gaping hole in the road closed and we cruised over the cracked seam in Highway 109. Below we sighted fishing boats searching the harbor for their dock. To the right was the wharf and home of two fish markets and sport and business fishing crafts. On previous vacations, Dad greeted the rising sun decked in his red plaid shirt, khaki pants, and straw hat to fish from the docks. Now, if by chance he caught nothing, he would visit the fish market and purchase fresh white filleted flounder. By the time we were out of bed, Dad had returned and prepared fried or broiled fish, yellow roe often included, creamy grits, and toast for our family breakfast. At least once during our vacation, Dad would splurge and treat himself to deep sea fishing. His catch of mackerel and flounder stocked our upright freezer for the winter.
As we descended the bridge, the curves of Washington Street lay ahead, lined with its beautiful trees dressed in green, providing shade and elegance for the historic two-story Victorian homes. After a mile, we turned into Franklin Street with churches on three corners, and on the fourth corner, the Volunteer Fire Department, which sounded an alarming horn each day at noon and for emergencies. Right in the middle of the block was Cape May High School, which Mom attended in the 1920s. Across the street from the school was Nana’s house, our vacation home. The only other house on the block was the parsonage for the AME church.
Nana maintained her side of this Victorian duplex while her four siblings occupied the other side when it was not a summer rental. Their father purchased several pieces of Cape May real estate after migrating from Virginia to Cape May in the early 1900s. The house had no central heat on either side, but Nana had a potbellied stove in the dining room with a fat stove pipe extending to a grate upstairs. In the kitchen was a huge wood-burning stove for cooking, an ice box requiring a block of ice, and a wringer washing machine. As our home was upgraded with modern appliances, Mom and Dad did the same for Nana’s home.
I’ll never forget Nana’s introduction to the RCA black and white table model television. The Ed Sullivan Show was on one Sunday evening and a gentleman of color was tap dancing with leaps, splits and phenomenal acrobats.
“I see you, son. Oh yes, I see you!” Nana cried.
“Nana, he can’t see you or hear you,” I explained.
“Oh yes, he can,” she insisted.
“No, Nana, he really can’t,” Junior added.
Then Ed Sullivan asked, “Wasn’t he great?”
“Yes, he sure was. You see, he can hear me and see me.”
Nana was an exceptional cook, preparing doughnuts, macaroons, rhubarb, junket, and tapioca when she lived with us during the winter. But during the summer she was a cook at the Girl and Friendly Boarding House. During our vacation, I walked the five blocks with her to work and watched her prepare breakfast for the women residents. Then she allowed me to scramble eggs for my breakfast on the kitchen’s wood-burning stove. Following our special time, I strolled home, hearing the gentle ocean breeze whisper to all of the trees that formed a thick canopy over the streets. It was hard to believe the beach was just a few blocks away. With each stride I hoped our family would get to the beach before 2:00. It never happened. Going to Nana’s was a working vacation for Mom and Dad, because they always had a remodeling project that ended about 3:00.
When we arrived at the beach, there was usually ample parking with reduced rates and choice spots on the sand. Though the beaches were racially segregated, there were benefits. Summer after summer, we knew we would see our friends on our three hundred yards designated as the “colored” beach. Two rows of parallel rocks jutting out into the ocean made perfect borders that we never crossed. There were always two lifeguards of color, usually teachers, who were assured summer jobs. There was always sufficient parking with a gentleman of color hired as the parking attendant. We had a friend who eventually married a young man she met on the beach. Though college students worked at various places in Cape May and Wildwood, they all convened at the same beach at some point during the summer. The signing of the Civil Rights Act by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 prohibited segregation, but our beach remained “colored.” Gradually, others began to expand to our beach, and by the 1970s, all of the exclusive benefits disappeared forever.
Evenings at Nana’s were spent on the citronella-lit porch sitting in the green metal rocking chairs battling mosquitoes invited by the humid summer climate. The city sprayed weekly, and Mom permitted no lights at bedtime. Dad would even sing his mosquito song in his deep baritone voice:
“Squito him fly high, Squito him fly low. Squito better not land on me or Squito will fly no mo’. ”
Despite the efforts, the mosquito that buzzed in my ear during the night managed to target my warm body, leaving my skin peppered and itchy in the morning.
Sunday meant church. Only at Nana’s could we choose outside of our denomination. My brothers and I liked the Baptist church. The choir sang Negro spirituals and gospel songs with such fervor and harmony. I remember visiting all three of the churches of color, but Dad and Mom always worshipped at the beautiful but poorly attended United Methodist church of her childhood.
Cape May was our annual vacation destination. Boardwalks graced the white sandy beaches; sticky salt water taffy and crab imperial reigned; and the Atlantic Ocean ruled, roared and brought rest, relaxation, and recreation to five generations in our family.