Hi, I’m Mary, and this is my column no one asked for about things I like!
My mother used to tell me I inherited her fair Irish skin. She would say it apologetically but it was a warning, a reminder that I, like her and unlike my siblings, needed to be careful in the sun. While my skin tone could reasonably be described as olive, it’s true that I’m fairer than my brother and sister and much paler than my father, with his Italian skin, and his side of the family.
My mom often lamented that her three children looked nothing like her, that we all took after my father’s side, with our dark eyes and tan complexions. It wasn’t true. My brother and sister look quite a bit like my mom, both with a variation of her nose, her face shape. I, however, was born with my paternal grandmother’s face, received no trace of my mother’s features, and so she clung to my paler skin like a totem, proof that I was, in fact, her daughter, a truth so obvious to anyone who knew us it didn’t require the scant evidence of physical resemblance.
When my mother told me I had her skin tone, she was and was not talking about skin. She was telling me I’d inherited not only her sensitive skin, but something potentially more dangerous — her sensitive nature.
Growing up, we spent summers at the beach. We did not “summer,” it was nothing as upper-class or restful as that. My mother’s father lived in a town south of Boston called Scituate, in a tiny beachside neighborhood known as Minot, and every summer we’d go stay with my grandfather for a few weeks, to visit with family and take care of him. It was a big house, three stories, and very old. My grandfather’s parents had bought it when he was young, and he’d purchased it when they died.
My mother had grown up going there, and Scituate was the closest thing she had to a hometown. Her mother had died when she was young and she’d been shipped off to boarding school to be raised by nuns, staying with her aunt and uncle on the weekends. But in the summer, she went to Scituate, and kept going back her whole life.
Everyone there knew her. It’s a small town, the part my grandfather lived in even smaller, and most of the people who spend time there have some sort of familial connection. My mom’s eldest brother lives up the street from my grandfather’s house, her best friend Margie, whom she met visiting Scituate as a child, just a few blocks away. We’d sit on the beach and half the people who’d walk by would exclaim, “Is that Janzie Everett?” and she’d say yes, even though she hadn’t been Janzie Everett for a long time, had changed her name to Cella when she’d married my dad in her father’s yard just blocks away. She’d say, “It’s old home week!” as a joke, the joke being that in Scituate, it was always old home week.
When I was little, I loved going to Scituate. I loved the beach, being surrounded by family, loved the neighbors across the street and next door and the way dogs and children wandered around alone for blocks and blocks but always made it home in time for dinner. I loved seeing my mom treated like a minor celebrity, knowing that she, who had no hometown, no house she’d grown up in, no mother and a father who did not raise her did in fact have a provenance, and it was this place.
There are days when I wake up and my mind is in Scituate, the memory of the place flowing from the back of my head all day like waves, sometimes all night. I’m lying on the third floor in a twin bed, my sister in the one next to me, a big box fan rattling, unable to cool us on a hot, humid night. My parents are across the hall, sleeping in a bed underneath several hung paintings of ships on rocky seas.
Or it’s a cold, rainy day and we can’t go to the beach. I’m sitting on the porch reading in one of the chairs against the wall so as not to get pelted by rain, a blanket wrapped around me. I’m hoping someone will want to go to the movies later but I know I can’t ask again.
Or I’m walking along the seawall with my mother. She’s wearing khaki shorts and running shoes, saying how good it feels to get out and get some exercise. Our dog Foster is with us, stopping to smell periodically but always catching up. He wants to go in the water and we might let him later, if the tide goes out before it gets too dark.
More than anywhere else, Scituate is a place I can conjure in my mind at any moment. I can remember not only the exact details of each road, each corner of my grandfather’s house, the whereabouts of particular bowls in his pantry, of stray pieces of silver in his messy kitchen drawers, but how I felt when I was in those places. When I think of certain places in Scituate, I can remember exactly how it felt to be 5-years-old, or 7, or 10 or 13. The feeling of being small and completely cared for, carried upstairs and put to bed without brushing my teeth. The loneliness and isolation, the boredom, the belief that I could break through it with my imagination if I only tried hard enough. The sense of belonging to something, to this big, complicated family that threw parties on the porch for which everyone was expected to dress up. This family that respected the formality of an occasion, even — maybe especially — if it was one they themselves had created. I can remember how it felt to be recognized as exactly what I was: my mother’s daughter.
I remember showering in the back room after going for a run one day. I must have been 16 or 17. I’d ignored my mother’s warnings a few days before and had gone to the beach without putting on sunscreen first. She asked if I’d put it on and I lied and said yes, lying there right in front of her on my stomach, my back exposed to the sun. I thought I’d just let myself tan for a little while, then put on sunscreen, but it was already too late. I got badly burned and my mother, having narrowly survived a rare melanoma just a few years earlier, was furious with me.
A day or two later, when I got out of the shower, I realized my back had blistered. It had never happened to me before and I panicked, started yelling. My uncle John heard me and came into the room, inspected my back and told me I was fine, that my burn was blistering, which was what burns did. I could tell my panic had unsettled him, but he remained calm, didn’t tell me I was overreacting. He was kind. He was always kind.
10 years ago, my mother and her siblings met on a weekend in July to clean out the house, prepare it for sale. I wasn’t there. My grandfather had died a few months earlier, and it was time to sell the house. Two months later, my mother died too.
In the wake of her death, one thing that surprised me was how much I missed the house. I hadn’t enjoyed visiting in years, since my grandfather had fallen ill and our visits had become all about caretaking, the house infused with an air of sickness. I’d go with my mother and watch her be ordered around and taken for granted, a pattern that had persisted her whole life and culminated in this misery. I’d try to help and she’d say my presence was help enough. She spent the last few years of her life making the long drive to and from that house. She didn’t know.
So it surprised me that losing the house felt like losing a piece of my mother, that I felt the loss of that piece when her whole was gone. It felt like her entire life had died with her, including this place that had been so distinctly hers. It felt like my childhood was over which, of course, it was. I was 23-years-old. My mother was dead and the place I’d most closely associated with her, or at least my connection to it, was gone too.
I’ve been back several times since she died, and it’s neither as painful nor as comforting as I expected. She haunts the streets and yet I’m aware it’s just her ghost, never to be seen, only imagined.
Two years ago, the people who bought my grandfather’s house gave us a tour. When it sold, we all assumed the buyers would tear it down and build a new house but instead they renovated. They’ve done a good job, but it was strange to see that old house made new. I looked in vain for the bookcases full of detective novels, the musty old furniture, the clawfoot tub that no one ever used. I looked for the ships on rocky seas. When we got to the third floor, I crouched in the little window overlooking the yard as I had hundreds, maybe thousands of times before, feeling slightly comforted that the view at least looked mostly the same, even if the people who now lived in the house next door were strangers to me.
Since my mom died, my dad has gotten in the habit of taking yearly family vacations to the beach using her pension, which he still collects. The last couple of years, we’ve gone to Scituate. When we went last year, the place was, once again, haunted by the specter of death. It had been my uncle John’s place as much as it had been my mother’s, and the last time we’d been there was a few months prior, for his funeral. I gave the eulogy, and afterward one of his friends told me he’d said I was just like my mother.
The last time I saw him was, appropriately, in Scituate. He’d come to visit the summer before, bringing a tent so he could camp out on the porch since we had no spare beds in the house we were renting and his older brother’s house was filled up with children and grandchildren. I can’t remember if I made him cookies but I hope I did, one last time. I may not have. I didn’t know.
This year, we’re in North Carolina, a place without personal history, which holds no connection for any of us. There’s a hurricane out at sea, so though the weather on land is nice, the ocean is too turbulent for swimming. The beach is pleasant but windy, and it’s hard to apply the spray sunscreen my dad brought so I’ve been putting it on before we leave the house, as my mother would have wanted me to. I meant to bring some Alba sunscreen, my favorite, but I forgot it. So far, I haven’t gotten burned. Hopefully I won’t.
The other night, my 7-year-old nephew was sitting on the porch after dinner. He said, “One summer, my grandma got really sick and they tried to save her, but they couldn’t.” Last night, he told me and my sister he knows her favorite song, but he couldn’t remember what it’s called. He tried to sing it, realized he couldn’t recall how it went, decided maybe it was a church song. He can’t remember the song but he knows it’s her favorite. Of that, he’s sure. He knows. He’s tan from a summer spent at the pool but he, like me, has fair Irish skin.
As always, I’d like to clarify that this is NOT a sponsored post. I received nothing for it and am pretty sure no one cares about my preferred sunscreen. Still, if anyone is reading and ever wants to give me literally anything for free, sunscreen or not, I WILL TAKE IT!!!!!!
Anyway, I hope this was helpful. I’ll be back with more unsolicited recommendations soon!