Sunday, May 6, 2012

Cape May, The Time Warp and Lilly of the Valley

My Grandparents live in the Victorian beach town of Cape May, NJ. They bought a circa 1900's twin duplex two blocks from the beach "in town" 50+ years ago, but recently moved to an assisted living facility. I spent my summers as a kid driving cross-country in a station wagon with my mom, dad and brother. Every year our vacation was to Cape May, NJ. Every. Year. Most years we drove, but every now and then we'd fly. I was always the "navigator" and would sit up front with my dad and help with the map. He had this mystic ability to read a map and drive at the same time. I thought I got to sit up front because I was more capable of directions than my mom, but it was probably 50% that and 50% separating me and my brother for the 2 or 3 day car ride.

Now I live about 2 hours from Cape May and I visit there from time to time, but I'm not the typical Philadelphian that regularly summers "down the shore". We are spoiled by the fact that my parents live at the REAL beach- in south Florida. So I much rather go there - where the water is warm and blue, than to Jersey where the water is cold and brown. I am also not one for the typical Jersey "shore accommodations". I enjoy pillow top mattresses, central air and off street parking, none of which exist at Grandmom's. My grandparents house is a time warp. It is exactly the same today as it was 34 years ago when I went there for the first time. It's probably the same as when my mom was there as a kid. My grandparents are incredibly simple people, they want for nothing and are genuinely happy for everything. They have a master bedroom on the first floor of the house and an "apartment" upstairs that would be available for renters or family members. As a kid going there for summers, we would fight over who got to stay in the upstairs back bedroom because the bed was against the plaster wall- which you would "hug" at night to stay "cool". The other upside of the back bedroom was the "cross-breeze". When I was younger, the new construction boom began between my grandparents house and the beach which started to block the so-called "cross-breeze". If you ask my grandparents, they will insist the cross breeze still exists.  The downside about the back bedroom was that it is next to the bathroom- which did not have a door, but instead an "accordion" partition. So if you slept in the back, there was always the chance of being waken up by the early risers using the toilet or shower.

The back bedroom had a "closet" which was built from some pieces of plywood screwed into the wall, some coat hooks and a plastic shower curtain. The middle bedroom was blue and probably the most generic. The front bedroom had two twin beds and a good closet for playing hide and seek. Then there was the upstairs family room. It had the pull out sofa, convertible chair-to-bed, sink, stove, microwave, fridge and kitchen table. And in the corner was a bookshelf with old romance novels and playing cards. Downstairs in my grandparents bedroom there is a bathroom sink in their bedroom and a toilet in the hall. The family room had a ceiling fan installed about 15 years ago or so (despite my grandfather's wishes) and we would turn it on when he wasn't home. As soon as he'd walk in the door, he'd turn it off and yell at whoever was closest for leaving it on. My grandparents had "their" recliner chairs that you could sit in when they weren't home, but you better scoot out of them when they wanted to have a seat.

They had a record player and CB radio in the family room, a TV that you could watch WITH them, but they controlled what channel was on- usually Jeopardy!, Wheel of Fortune, the news, The Golden Girls or the History Channel. My grandfather would get out his WWII photo album and show us pictures of when he was stationed in the Philippines, but he didn't talk much about combat. The kitchen had a teeny tiny black and white TV on the counter top, and somehow managed to fit all of us around a table for dinners, or massive crab leg feasts. There were always aunts, uncles and cousins visiting, and the house was always packed with family members. The back of the first floor was "the shed". It was an addition that housed the laundry and had the tiniest bathroom in existence. I think a port-a-potty might be bigger. It was basically 4 walls around a toilet. If you were tall, or an adult, your knees would hit the wall in front of you. You could barely turn around, and in the summer time it was like a sauna. Out OUTSIDE the house was the real shed...and that's where the shower was. So as a kid, we'd split up between using the upstairs shower, and the "shed" shower- which has a unique feature-  a rope that you had to pull down to have the water come out of the shower head. We had some sort of handle that we'd loop the rope around so you could wash your hair with both hands, but otherwise you had to hold the rope the whole time. And it had exposed water pipes, and you always had to be careful not to accidentally touch the hot water line, or risk burning your hand.  And this shed shower- this was the shower that my grandparents used every day...well except in the winter when it was snowy...then they would go upstairs. And they continued to use it until just recently when it became too dangerous for them to access.

So now my grandparents are in an Assisted Living community, and have moved most of their things from the first floor with them to their new home. So their 5 kids and their families have assumed the incredible task of  cleaning, sorting through and "updating" this house so it would be desirable for renters. That includes donating  A LOT of items- some actually go to charity, some just get "donated" to the landfill. My mom and aunt flew up from FL, my other aunts and uncles plus my brother, sister and law joined me, Lilly (and our dog) this past weekend with the task of painting and working on the upstairs. You'd think -paint- easy right? Not so grandfather is one who believes anything is repairable with masking tape. Settlement crack in the wall- masking tape. Broken leg on a piece of furniture- masking tape, peeling wallpaper - masking tape. So all the masking tape had to be peeled and scraped off, then the walls patched, primed and painted. So my mom and aunts spent their time painting. I spent my time hemming new curtains.

We still have a LOT of work to do, the brunt of it falls on my one aunt and uncle, but the rest of us help out as much as we can. I am excited to see a different color paint on the walls, different sheets on the bed, new furniture (or just re-painted) and ceiling fans. I hope my grandparents are okay with all the changes we're doing, they're merely cosmetic, but they are not ones for ANY sort of change so I think it could be a little overwhelming for them.

The highlight of my weekend was finally taking home some of my grandmother's treasured Lilly of the Valley plants. Since the house is mostly vacant the yard and garden are not being kept up as much. I feared the plants being overtaken by weeds or dying from not being watered. My grandmother's "signature scent" has always been Lilly of the Valley. She just loves that scent - soap, talcum powder, you name it. It's almost the "symbol" of our family. If I had to make a coat of arms for us, it would have a Lilly of the Valley on it, with a fishing boat. My mom was born in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, and she was the oldest of 5 kids. My grandfather bought a Lilly of the Valley plant and brought it to my grandmother when she was in the hospital after my mom was born. That plant was put in their garden in Philadelphia and over time, some plants were eventually moved to Cape May.  There were always stems of flowers in white and purple in tiny bud vases on the kitchen table. This is why we decided to name our daughter Lilly, it's a "family name", but something more sentimental than actual. I think everyone in my family has some of these plants except me- I am NOT (I repeat- NOT) a gardener...there's a reason we live in a townhouse with landscapers that come and mow the grass and mulch for us. But I could not bear to lose these flowers, so I dug up 24 little plants and drove them home with me today. This afternoon, while Lilly was at a birthday party I drove to our local little hardware store and told the guy working in the garden center that I needed "dirt for a flower bed that has no flowers". I bought 2 bags of garden soil, came home and dug to my little hearts content this afternoon. Planting flowers, finding worms, (and grubs- which I just found out are NOT good and I need to get something to kill them). And now I have a little garden area with these:


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