A Long Goodbye
For all of 1982, I remained stationed in Boston. I visited home less and less frequently. Our schedule got more intense for one, but the intensity of life on the Ferry Hill was high, plus I had a girlfriend I was spending more time with.
My maternal grandmother, still living in an apartment on Main Street and still working at Cumberland Farms, was eager for my visits. I also saw my paternal grandmother in Branford from time to time. I can’t tell you where I spent Thanksgiving, but I went home by myself at Christmas and landed in the middle of a days long fight between my mother and her husband.
My maternal grandmother came over on Christmas. She and I tried to keep a low profile and concentrate on my young siblings. My sister was nine, my brother six, and Christmas was important to them. The day was charged with negative emotions from my mother. I was unsure if I should leave, but I went to dinner at my grandmother’s in Branford, where I got lots of questions about the Navy.
The day after Christmas, I needed to go back to my ship. The last push to get the ship out of the yards would start on January 2nd and my girlfriend had duty through Christmas, but had come down with an awful cold.
As I prepared to leave a delivery of red roses came for my mother. Her husband was trying to apologize, but she saw it as him trying to buy her off. She was going to chuck them in the trash, but I put them in my car and repurposed them as a Get Well bouquet for my girlfriend. As I left that day I knew that family was about to break up. And by February, it did.
In March we had sea trials. We had been on 12-hour shifts, six days a week, the last five weeks. After a year in the yards, one third of the crew had never been to sea. I soon learned why they call that a “green” crew. Sea sickness incapacitated about 100 sailors as the seas got rough on our three-day cruise.
Back in the yards, many of us found that someone had broken into our cars while we were out to sea. Between the shakedown and the day for the ship to pull out for good to head back to Virginia, I had to make a mad dash to Old Saybrook with my car. I needed somewhere safe to park it. For two months.
My mother had moved to Knollwood, into a little ranch near the end of a street that went right to the beach. It was a quiet area in early March. My mother was alone with my brother and sister, poor, but happy to be separated, and still full of vitriol. I barely had time for a visit with my grandmother, then I was on a train back to Boston.
True to form, a big March snow storm came up just before we pulled out of Boston. Over a foot of snow was expected, and whiteout conditions met us as we went to sea. Once we passed Race Point, the ocean gave us 30-foot swells, rising on the swell and crashing into the trough. I would much rather have been at home, watching the storm from the safety of the walkway above the beach on the Sound.
The ship did refresher training in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. We were gone over six weeks, including a stop in Ft. Lauderdale on the way back. Once we settled in to our safe little pier in Norfolk, I planned a trip home to get my car. Before I left Boston it had gotten ice in the carb and it was running poorly. So I planned a few days to get that sorted out, then jumped on a plane for Connecticut.
It was late May 1983, and the weather was perfect. I pulled the carburetor off the car and rebuilt it on my mother’s dining room table. Not a good idea, but it was what I had. I got the car running well and took a test drive to my old school. My youngest friends were graduating in a couple of weeks, but I wouldn’t be there because my ship was pulling out for another short cruise to Halifax.
Things were changing among my friends, too. Two kids who had dated throughout high school had split up. They would go to separate colleges and lead different lives, and that strain seemed too much. I was very sad for them. The guy didn’t want to talk about it, but the girl seemed to want to. Other members of our group were trying to get them back together, but I just sat down to listen.
That was the first and last time I had a discussion that was more than a laugh with that girl. It was bittersweet to get to know her at the very last moment. Her parents named her after a late-blooming flower, and she fit her name perfectly. My talk with her about the end of her relationship was a fitting end to my trip home. It was the end of an era. And the end of calling the Shoreline home.
That turned out to be my last trip to stay in Old Saybrook for 36 years. Childhood was over. My mother’s marriage was over. Both my mother and my grandmother moved away from the Shoreline. My mother was not emotionally able to battle with a local police officer and his friends. In the sense that she fled, it was voluntary. The fact that she felt persecuted made it feel compulsory to me. I felt that they pushed us out of our own home town.
She was bitter about it, and I was, too, by proxy. She had been a friend and supporter to at least three women in town who went through difficult marriages, including alcohol issues and abuse. But she did not feel any support when her time of need came around. It took me years to let go of my ill feelings for her ex-husband and the people who shrank back from supporting my mother.
I never visited my old high school after that. It closed for good within ten years. I didn’t visit friends and even my grandfather’s grave. My father’s mother still lived in Branford at Short Beach, and I visited her a few brief times after that.
The last time I visited Short Beach was around New Year’s Eve in 1983. I had just gotten engaged, and I brought my fiancee to meet my grandmother. As family matriarch, I was pleased to have her approval before I announced the engagement to the rest of the family. I knew it would please her to be the first to know. Unfortunately, that was the last time I saw my grandmother. She died around Easter after a brief battle with colon cancer and that severed my last tie with my beloved Shoreline.
I visited the house in Short Beach two more times; once after my wedding to pick up some things I had stored in the attic of the old house. And once several years later when I had a toddler. We visited with my father and his young wife, who had two small children of their own. It was a stormy two days; we felt unwanted, and we were happy to leave.
And that was my last look. I said “so long” over my shoulder as I drove away. I stopped for an afternoon on Memorial day in 1999 to drop off my grandmother’s ashes in Old Saybrook. But I never went back on purpose until August 2018. May 1983 to August 2018. That’s a long time to feel ostracized. And it wasn’t until March 2019, after my former step-father’s memorial, that I finally went there for a stay and made my peace with the place.
The Shoreline never suffered because I and my family left. It hardly noticed. But there has been a hole in me. There has been unfinished business. Like love lost without knowing why. I lived in Maine for twenty years, and I found aspects of it to be a lot like the Shoreline was when I was young. But it was a rougher, more rugged place. Somehow it seemed to have a willful ignorance of history and modernity.
And perhaps that is the charm of the Shoreline. It is a modern place with an ancient (for America) past and a very active, almost zealous historical society (my grandmother called them the Hysterical Society.) Modernity and history. I’d like to think I could blend my modern day with my history. That’s why I still miss the Shoreline, and myself, sometimes.