Beach Park

Seasons are a Beach

1977 was an eventful year. Star Wars was in the movie theaters all summer. The big bicentennial celebration of 1976 was finally over. And we had a peanut farmer in the White House. In my house, there was a new baby brother who had taken up residence in our dining room. We had run out of rooms in our three-bedroom house and they housed the fourth child in his crib in our dining room for lack of a better place.

So moving seemed like a natural idea. However, the home was in constant turmoil over unpaid bills and off-budget spending, which made it impossible to consider a bigger house, or even an addition to our little ranch. By the end of the summer of 1977 my mother had reached her max on frustration with her husband and our family split in two.

A one-year trial separation was settled on by the lawyers and I with the two youngest children moved with my mother into a rented house in the Beach Park section of Clinton. My grandmother, on her own since her sister died three years earlier, joined us in Beach Park so it would work financially.

At almost the same time, I started high school at The Hammonasset School in Madison. Thankfully, there was a good amount of scholarship money that we easily qualified for, and it covered most of the tuition for the first year. Unfortunately, there was no bus stop nearby, so I had to get across town to Friendly’s to catch the bus, only a few miles from school. Weather permitting, I rode my bike. Later, I gave up the expense of the bus and took my bike to school, about 6.5 miles.

The house in Beach Park was a seasonal rental offering, but since the house was on the market for sale, we could stay year round. It was an incredible house, right on Beach Park Road, facing the marsh. The house was a Royal Barry Wills design, and they built with authentic Colonial style touches, like a center chimney, real clapboards, a shake roof, and touches of wrought iron. They used wood floors throughout and pine paneling surrounded the large fireplace.

Royal Barry Wills house on Beach Park Road
Beach Park, December 1977

I loved the house. I loved the location. And I loved being the “Man of the house” again at fifteen. I was responsible to the lawn and for building the fire that would help to keep us from going broke on heating oil. I loaded the wood (fresh cut, not seasoned) into the basement and split it, then foraged for kindling on our partially wooded lot. I had a big bedroom upstairs with storage under the eaves. But best of all, in the off-season, I had the run of Beach Park.

In those days the beach areas of Clinton were mostly seasonal. There was an avenue with a sidewalk leading from the end of Beach Park Road to the sound, lined with two-story houses, and most were empty from October until May. I mowed a lawn for an old man who had a mansion on the water down Shore Road a way, and I was free to go to his beach when he wasn’t there. And I had the run of Hammock River Marsh. It was an amazing space to roam, especially in winter weather.

Ah! The weather. The winter of ‘77 & ‘78 was amazing, too. Ice storms, snow, frigid temps, and capped off with a blizzard! And in the middle of that blizzard, with a warm fire on the hearth, where was I? Out running the avenues to the beach. Out on the seawall, soaking up the spray and watching the surf. My poor sister was only four, but I bundled her up and took her out in it, too.

My sister was a tiny dynamo. She was up for about any challenge. And she trusted her big brother implicitly, though I can’t imagine why. I took her walking up the plowed road and then up the space between the houses and the trees. The sidewalk was long buried, and the snowdrifts were like dunes to her. She held my hand and climbed up and over the drifts, always sinking into the snow at some point.

We half trudged toward the beach. If she couldn’t trudge, I dragged her over the snowdrifts. Once at the beach, I showed her the glory of the surf. With the wind whipping the snow into her eyes, she attempted to see the sea. She could definitely hear it. She was still game for more, so I took her along the seawall. I had passed there earlier in the storm, but the wind had changed and the tide was higher, so the sea spray was heavier.

The waves crashing on the rocks sent splashes of salt water into the air. The spray was hitting the seawall hard, so I shielded my sister between myself and the wall so the spray would not hit her directly. We got a little way, but it was clear we would not make it around the bend toward the north. I looked down to see how my little trooper was doing.

My little sister was petite. She had lots of hair from birth, but by then my mother cut it into a shorter, Dorothy Hammil style. Her eyes were large with long lashes. Her nose was tiny and her lips were red and drawn up in the shape of a rose. Very cute features and lots of cute sassy-ness to go with it. When I looked down and peered under her large hood, I could immediately see that the elements were too much for her. Her cheeks were bright red, her eyes were watering, and there was a slushy icicle hanging off the end of her button nose.

After a good laugh and after removing the icicle, I found a staircase that went up the seawall to a gate. The gate was locked or frozen shut, so I lifted her over it and then climbed over myself. We were in the front lawn of a waterfront house, but it was empty, so we walked away from the wind and found our way back to the avenue that would take us close to home.

That storm was a good metaphor for the struggle we had making ends meet in that house. It was a great place to live from any point of view. The structure was beautiful, the interior was snug, and the house was always full of love. We had a kitten, a big garage, and our own bedrooms. And we had “Nanny”, my sister’s name for our maternal grandmother. But we didn’t have money.

So, tell me about the irony of living in a period home in a beach front neighborhood where the neighbors next door had a pool and a tennis court… while we collected food stamps and my mother got a check from a state program while she went to school to become a bartender. I was going to a private school where one kid was dropped off out front in a Bentley.

Meanwhile, I was adding up the prices of non-food items that we put in our cart at the grocery store and tearing little coupons out of books to pay for the carefully selected food. The two could have been hard to reconcile. But I just took it in stride and was thankful for whatever blessings came our way.

My mother’s separation from her husband ended after a year, and he and his son moved in with us in September of ‘78. I moved out of my bedroom and set myself up in a corner of the basement. My grandmother moved out and took an apartment on Main Street in Old Saybrook, down near Maple Avenue. I had worked over the summer for slightly less than minimum wage. It was a special program for 15-year-olds where I worked for the town helping at the Parks & Recreation department.

Over Christmas vacation that year, we moved back to Old Saybrook. I was sad to leave the Royal Barry Wills house, but a lot of the love had gone out of the place, so it was for the best. I was excited to be moving back to my “home town”, though. The place we were renting was right next door to where I had lived seven years earlier.

As I said goodbye to Clinton I had mixed feelings. I never wanted to live there, never got along in the schools, and never was accepted by my peers in town. Still, I’d spent nearly half my life there and had some great haunts and some good times. But it was never home.

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