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Saturday, November 17, 2012

My Mother's Marbles

by Jono Walker

My mother Joy was a fearless body surfer and taught me to be one too. There wasn’t a wave we would hesitate to swim out to in any weather short of hurricane force winds at any point along the two miles of beach at Biddeford Pool. Stretching out in the clear hollow of a towering breaker and seeing your shadow appear for a split second on the sandy bottom just before everything crashes down in a pandemonium of sound and foam is such a rush. We’d fight through the icy undertows looking for the next great ride until our feet could no longer feel the sand and our lips were blue as crabs. But Joy wasn’t just about daring and speed. She had a contemplative side and was an inveterate explorer of tidal pools with a life-long collection of blue and green sea glass that will never be surpassed in terms of color and opaque purity. No raw edges in her collection. Nothing see-through. Every piece different. Each one perfect.

Her grandfather was an Episcopal Minister who built the church that now stands on the golf course in what was just a sleepy fishing village before President Taft decided to make Biddeford Pool the location of his summer White House. This turned the place into a kind of secluded resort for extremely wealthy people from Ohio…and us. When my mom and her brother and sisters were small and August rolled around they’d all pile into the car in Westport at the crack of dawn for the trip up the old Post Road to Biddeford. Driving to Maine was a grueling ordeal back then. There were traffic lights and an endless succession of small town Main Streets to get through so that by the time they got past the city of Biddeford and were pointed out the Shore Road, the sun would be getting ready to set and they’d be ready to kill one another. But once they made the hairpin turn at Fortune’s Rocks and managed to get the windows rolled down, that first wonderful whiff of sea air would fill the car and wash away all the road grit and any lingering thoughts of fratricide. Off they’d trundle down the Stretch Road with the Pool on their left and the ocean dunes on their right. At the end of the isthmus, just up the hill and around the corner from Crowley’s lobster pound and Goldswaithe’s general store, they’d pile out of the car stamping the numbness from their legs on the painted wooden porch where their grandparents would welcome them to the Rectory, a modest clapboard house wedged between grand summer homes out on Bay View Avenue.

In those days the big three-story hotel maintained a boardwalk that carved a mile-long loop around the point, which was where the Reverend took his morning constitutionals with grandchildren in tow. The first side of the loop took them through canyons of scruffy pines and bayberry bushes offering bright blue glimpses of the little islands dotting the bay of Maine. When the pathway spilled them into an open field, the ocean was spread before them on all three sides, walking now straight towards the spot Mom used to call “The End of the World”. On good days the pounding surf on the ocean side of the point sent up rainbow mists that hazed upon their hair and onto the shoulders of their sweaters. As they began their return to the Rectory, the sun would be just high enough to ripple the air above the slats of the boardwalk. Tracing through the tall grass, breezes from the sea bowed the shafts of Goldenrod and sent Queen Anne’s Lace genuflecting to their feet.

When I was a kid some things began to change, but Maine was still Maine. The hotel was converted into a Catholic retreat (locals dubbed it “The Nunnery”) and the boardwalk around the point was left to rot except for a few splintery sections that remained half buried in the clumps of sea grass along the inside arch of Little Beach. Gardeners working for the people living in the enormous mansions that were eventually built out on the point started dumping grass clippings and kitchen scraps onto mulch piles that were strategically placed where the boardwalk used to be on the far edges of the long sweeping lawns. It was a deliberate attempt to discourage recalcitrant point walkers like us, but that didn’t put an end to our ritual. We just skirted around the steaming piles of debris determined to keep the public right-of-way open until years later when my kids were small and the mulch piles had finally grown too big and the bayberry and the scratchy beach plum bushes around them had become completely impenetrable, forcing us, at last, onto the beach for our morning strolls.

I was around ten and my sister Mary Paul was seven and my older sister Joanie was fifteen when we all took a break from the beach one afternoon and drove out as a family to Fortunes Rocks. We wanted to do some sleuthing around a big abandoned stone mansion that was about to be bulldozed to make way for the dozens of seaside homes you see there today. When we got to the long driveway of the old estate there was a chain with a NO TRESPASSING sign blocking our way. We got out of the car and peered down the drive. Dad wouldn’t go any further, of course, but he knew there’d be no talking Mom out of it so after some weak protestations, he simply threw up his hands and drove himself back to the beach.

That left the four of us free to jump the chain and creep towards the run-down house. Nobody had mowed all summer so the sun-warmed grass directly around the place was up to our knees and tickly. Joy suspected the house was headquarters to a Russian spy ring, and sure enough, when we stepped onto the porch and pressed our faces up against the dusty windows something moved from behind the pieces of furniture covered in bed sheets. Or maybe we heard something, but whatever it was it scared the beach sand right out of our bathing suits and sent us scampering to the safety of the rocks out on the point.

The red seaweed made the going slippery but we managed to get to a place where we were hidden from the sniper hiding behind the curtain in the attic window. Taking cover among the heaves of sun-bleached granite we looked out across the long arc in the shoreline and could just make out the Biddeford Pool beach through the summer haze in the distance. The row of cottages nestled in the dunes along the Stretch looked like little pieces of ribbon tied to the tail of a kite trailing towards the grey, box-shaped Nunnery taking flight over the last thin shimmering line of white sand. Beyond the Nunnery the tree line sloped to the old Coast Guard Station tower where the rocks at the end of Fletcher’s Neck pointed like a ghost blue finger out into the ghost blue sea.

Meanwhile, we had a job to do. The seagulls stirred into flight by our earlier shrieks were settled back on the water riding the gentle swells along with the bright confetti of the lobster buoys, while somewhere just below we knew a Russian sub was silently circling. The sun was hot on our backs as we formulated a plan. It was my little sister Mary Paul who found the piece of sea glass that just might do the trick. Early that morning, when we were walking on the beach we passed a nun. We often saw nuns taking their morning strolls, but there was something a little different about this particular one. Maybe her habit was a bit askew, or maybe she winked at us, but in any event she looked like someone who could be relied upon, and sure enough when Joanie flashed our signal, the earnest sister with the tortoise shell glasses was at her post on the roof of the nunnery far across the water. She signaled back a message with her trusty compact mirror: “Coast Guard Alerted.”

Mom lived the last of her days sitting in a chair in a place called Maplewoods. It was nice there and for a while a remote part of her brain could be summoned upon to belt out Sinatra tunes at the Snowflake Teas, but the old girl–who cheerfully admitted in a rare moment of cognitive clarity that she had lost just about all her marbles–was soon running on nothing but the microdots of distant memories. Her eyes grew good and dulled by a life well spent. One time, even though she couldn’t have told me what she ate ten minutes ago for lunch or name any of her grandchildren in the photos hanging on her wall or even remotely comprehend the fact she now had four great grandchildren, I caught her looking over at her mason jar of sea glass sitting on the windowsill and could see something bright and clear flickering across her eyes. Some faint synapses deep inside her clouded brain were letting in gentle breezes from summers long since passed. She was walking again through tidal pools. Suddenly, an icy wave came sluicing between the rocks and splashed white and foamy around her ankles making them ache for a second before sucking back out to sea over a chattering bed of small glittery stones. Maybe that was what I saw and remembered too.

“No,” she said to Mary Paul who had proudly snatched up the piece of glass left behind by the retreated wave, “the edges on this one aren’t smooth enough yet. Don’t you see? It will work fine for our signal but we’ll need to throw it back.”

Let some other little girl come and find it later, when it’s good and ready…

Jono Walker is a writer and book review blogger who moonlights as an advertising executive and marketing consultant. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife Julia, their big weedy garden, a couple of poorly behaved dogs and his trusty fly rod. Visit his blog at

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