Monday, June 21, 2004


We're leaving on Thursday morning. The car has to be packed and ready to pull out by 5:30 am or so if we're to make our flight out of Manchester.

I can't wait. Or rather, I can't wait.

I booked the flights several months back, deciding that for once I would make it to the family reunion in June. And I'd bring Sean along for good measure, overwhelm him with obscure relatives I'm connected to by blood if nothing else. I would see Maryland in the summer again, where the green is so green it makes all other greens self-consciously lower their eyes. I would hear the crunching of the gravel driveway under the car's tires, watch a rabbit bound out of the cornfields (or is it soybeans this year?) my grandfather rents to a local farmer, and be home.

And so I will.

I no longer have any desire to live in the place where I grew up. None at all. But going back to visit is like taking a trip back in time, back to when I was a child or perhaps back further still--there's a thriving Amish community there. The grocery store less than a mile from my parents' house has a hitching post out front for the horse-and-buggies; and if you take the back roads to get from here to there, you just might come around a bend to find a dark horse (I've never seen Amish with a light colored one) plodding along with a buggy behind, the familiar bright orange triangle marking the back. The buggy's inhabitants may give a solemn wave, they may not. If you talk to them, you'll find their speech to be a garbled, heavily-accented mixture of English and German. Some of them build picnic tables and sheds, or sell eggs and milk, or run plant nurseries to bring in income. My mother used to buy our eggs and milk from one, sending me to school with a Strawberry Shortcake lunchbox and thermos and a reminder: Shake Milk.

The Amish accent and speech pattern isn't the only odd one about--people in that area have very distinct and peculiar ways of speaking. My family tends more towards the southern side--I'm usually accused of having a "drawl" here in New England. My grandmother is Canadian, though; so even my accent is sprinkled with oddities. But the areas closer to the water, where inhabitants are descendants of the first settlers there hundreds of years ago, have the most interesting accents. Barely understandable at times, these accents are reminiscent of Shakespearean English--if it were combined with a poor southern farmer's way of speaking. They're like nothing else I've ever heard elsewhere, and they never fail to make me smile.

My favorite place to get seafood is Captain Leonard's. It's in a decidedly un-crabhouse-like location, right off the highway and across from a gas station. The service inside is awful at best, and the tables are seated with horrific metal-and-vinyl chairs. But the seafood, oh God, the seafood. I can never decide between a crabcake sandwich or a softshell crab sandwich. (The best solution is to come back later and get the other...) The crabcake is immense, larger than most 1/2 lb burgers you'd get in Boston. It's spicy and sweet, and I slather it with mayo and cocktail sauce and relish every bite. The softshell crab is just as sweet but much crunchier, the crispy-fried crab legs jutting out of the bun like a spider. Both are served on Wonder Bread-style hamburger buns, with a few broken chips and maybe a limp pickle. But they're 5 or 6 bucks, and by the time the sandwich comes you've already had a pound or two of the hot, spicy steamed shrimp, so you lick the Old Bay out from under your fingernails and ignore the chips without complaint. Beer is crappy--Miller Lite or Bud Lite are the best things on tap--but the cost for a draft beer is about $1. I recommend a pitcher --$5.

After dinner, it's always fun to go across the bridge to Solomon's Island. It's not really an island at all, more of a peninsula--but Solomon's Peninsula just doesn't have the same ring to it. When I was younger and singler, that was the place to play in the summer. We'd dress in shorts and miniscule tops, hang out on the deck of Catamaran's (a restaurant by day) or the dance floors of the Rhumb Line (a restaurant by day) and Solomon's Pier (a restaurant by day). The Tiki Bar was always the place to be--opening night of the Tiki brings thousands and thousands of people to Solomon's. I fondly recall waiting in line an hour to get a Mai Tai, then buying 4 and "scalping" three of them for 12 bucks (they cost 5).

It's eerily quiet at night back at my parents' house. Once the dogs are inside, there's little to hear aside from the chirping of crickets and singing of frogs. Going back to visit after having lived in various cities, the quiet is almost deafening, enough to drive one mad. But at the same time, it's oddly peaceful. And when you look up at the sky, you can actually see the stars--not like here where they're merely a suggestion. There, they are many and bright and sprinkled liberally across the sky like rain.

I speak about it as if it's dreadfully pastoral, because that's how I remember it. I remember running across the playground as a plaid-clad parochial school student to sneak into the old abandoned school next door (it's now a college). I remember walking around the town square with Brandy, paying for groceries on her mom's credit account (that store is long gone). I remember the snaking back roads, driving under the lush green cathedrals of tree branches and breaking suddenly into meadows where the sun beat down mercilessly (everyone takes the main roads these days)I remember walking home from school past the rows and rows of daylilies and azaleas my mother planted along the driveway (she has long since given up on such pursuits). But it's not like that any more, not really. Every other week seems to bring a new hotel, a new strip mall, a new ugly square metal building utterly bereft of character swimming in a sea of asphalt. They pop up like chicken pox, bringing pre-packaged crap where before there was a field, a patch of woods, a family-owned business.

In the woods behind my grandparents' house, back where I would crouch as a child in the Civil War trenches, back where you can still see the remains of the 17th-century "grog shop", back where I used to ride a very large and very patient collie; you can hear people building tract mansions--faceless developments springing up in the woods.

When I go home, I can shop at Target if I want. I can eat at Ruby Tuesdays'. I can get gas at numerous locations. I just hope I'll still be able to hear the cicadas. I'll be inconsolable if I can't.

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