I will admit that I had never heard of the idyllic shore front hamlet of Old Lyme, Connecticut before my grandmother and her husband Leo began spending time up here at Leo’s summer cottage. And although the majority of you most likely have not heard of Old Lyme either, let me assure you that it is by no means a ‘nothing town.’ To begin with, it is this very community that the deadly, tick-borne Lyme disease is named after. I know, impressive indeed. Actually, that’s all I can think of at this time, but a lack of specific distinctions has certainly not stopped me from enjoying my yearly visits here.
And Old Lyme is where I am right now.
Moments after arriving at the cottage yesterday afternoon, I sat in the enclosed balcony staring out at the abundance of trees, the brightly colored bird feeders, neighbors chatting away in the street and at signs posted in front of the homes that state such things as “Me and My Old Crab Live Here”. My grandmother immediately offered me an assortment of food fresh out of the oven. Unfortunately though, when it comes to my grandmother, this does not include tasty blueberry pies or warm apple crumble. Her oven is actually not used as a baking device, but instead as an extra pantry to store all sorts of packaged snack items. Food fresh out of the oven over here involves bags of chips and pretzels with questionable expiration dates.
In the evening, as we drove to a restaurant for dinner, I was also treated to a tour of their quaint four-street neighborhood. Leo drove and my grandmother provided the detailed narration, a commentary more informative than the eight hour tour of Rome I took last year. This commentary, however, did not explain the history of the area or the architectural changes since the early 1900s, but instead focused strictly on the fascinating topic of local gossip.
Without taking even a single breath during her spiel, my grandmother brought me up-to-date on all the happenings: “There’s Ellen and her dog, that ugly mutt, it craps everywhere and she never picks it up. Someone must be visiting the Grossman’s because their lights are on but it is Thursday night and Doris and Fred always go to the local theater on Thursday nights. Look at Francis over there, she’s a ghastly woman, at least she should do something with her hair…wait, she’s waving, everyone wave to Francis and smile, oh god what a beauty that woman is. It’s Frankie and Martha, Hi Frankie, the kids are in town I see, this is my grandson. His wife never says a word, NEVER, I don’t think they have a very happy marriage, she never smiles either, it’s like talking to a giraffe. That young couple over there just had a baby, they are very sweet people, but the baby has six toes on each foot, that thing will be swimming to Long Island soon. That man has Alzheimer’s and is falling apart along with his house, and there is Rupert, Hey Rupert, this is my grandson, Hey Rupert!, he doesn’t even hear me, deaf as can be and blind in one eye, everyone’s a mess over here. Earl, your grandmother is getting old, I’m getting old.”
Meanwhile, as Leo, who has lived in this neighborhood since childhood, turns a corner and drives by a small gray cottage with a fenced-in garden in the backyard, he suddenly recalls a most precious memory from his youth, “That is where I lost my virginity, right there in that garden.” He then laughs aloud as my grandmother shakes her head.
Old Lyme is the kind of place where neighbors generously share their homemade wine, brag exaggeratedly about their grandchildren, immediately inform the entire street when a bargain on nail clippers has been found and organize a ban of the local Dollar Store when the prices were raised to $1.25. Groups gather in the evenings to play poker or mah jong, watch the Red Sox or chat about the newest beauty salon in town. At the end of the night, everybody returns to the comfort of their own home, sips Wolfschmidt vodka on the rocks and prepares for bed. While wearing the bath robes they stole from their last cruise they take a quick read through the coupon booklets before turning out the lights. Another perfect day in paradise.
Last year, I was in Old Lyme during the Fourth of July, when the neighborhood was full of golf carts draped in flags, fireworks rocketing out of driveways and hors d’oeuvres served on red, white and blue napkins purchased from the Dollar Store before the ban went into effect. My grandmother and Leo held a barbeque, hosting and entertaining a motley collection of close family, friends, family friends and distant relatives with names such as Bunny and Irving. The warm weather, the beautiful beach only a few blocks away and 3 lb. tubs of cole slaw ensured that the day was a success for everyone. The three-month-old defrosted brownie cake was simply the bonus that made the event truly spectacular.
On the following day, when her party-hosting skills were no longer required, my grandmother was forced to deal with a situation so urgent that passersby may have mistakenly concluded that the survival of the entire summer cottage-living civilization depended on its outcome. I actually hate to admit that such a situation was created by a member of my own family, but the truth is, she had lost the slip for Leo’s shirt. ‘What slip?’ you may ask. I shudder with embarrassment as I say this, but it was the slip to pick up his shirt from the dry-cleaners. Can you believe that?
The slip had simply vanished and with it went my grandmother’s hope for ever being able to retrieve the shirt. She arrived at the logical conclusion that ‘the cleaners will give the shirt to someone else’ and this naturally threw not only her, but the entire street, neighborhood and town into a panic. People began to wish and even beg to be immediately stricken with Lyme disease in order to avoid facing another second of this tragic disaster.
‘How would the dry cleaners give the shirt to someone else?’ you may also wonder, just as I did. The explanation, as many of my grandmother’s explanations are, was more than obvious in the end. Someone would naturally find the slip for the shirt laying on the ground wherever she had misplaced it and because people ‘are not nice these days’, that person would undoubtedly drive to the address of the cleaners on the top of the slip, pay the $2.75 and retrieve the freshly cleaned large men’s striped polo shirt, just in case they happened to be or knew someone who was, a large male in need of a striped polo shirt.
The wait until noon, the time when the dry cleaners opened, was long and uncomfortable, with tempers flaring under the pressure of having the future of cottage life linked to this lost dry cleaning slip. Finally, a phone call was made and my grandmother desperately told her story to the woman on the other end of the line, begging her not to give the shirt to anyone else. “I will pick it up myself tomorrow,” she emphatically repeated. When she had conveyed her message as convincingly as possible, she hung up the phone. “I don’t think the woman is going to listen to me,” was all that my grandmother could murmur as she shook her head in hopelessness.
But thank goodness! The following day, the residents of cottages worldwide were able to relax as the shirt had been successfully returned to the bedroom closet.
Oh were we ecstatic! With such a disaster avoided, the three of us all sat down to enjoy a celebratory and hearty evening meal. The Wolfschmidt was poured more freely than ever and the tub of cole slaw was served yet again. In a state of relieved joy I enthusiastically began to plop spoonful after spoonful of the watery cabbage onto my plate, prepared to feast until I could feast no more. But then my grandmother suddenly chimed in, “Take more Earl, really, take some more. I’m going to throw it away tonight as soon as you’re done, I think the cole slaw has gone bad anyway.”
After putting my fork down and pushing the cole slaw aside, let’s just say that I laughed until there were no more tears to fall from my eyes, as did Leo and eventually my grandmother. And when we then discovered that the expiration dates on almost everything my grandmother had served for dinner had already passed, the laughter became even more uncontrollable and didn’t let up for a long, long time. Needless to say, we all happily settled for a meal of crackers and cheese instead.
The following morning, as I prepared to leave Old Lyme, I remember thinking how much I would miss such moments of laughter. Life needs such moments, when the absurdity reaches a point where nothing else but laughter will suffice. And that is why I return every year to visit my grandmother and Leo here in the adorable town of Old Lyme, because here such moments occur often.
Do you have a special place or person that reminds you of the need to enjoy life as much as possible?