Guest blogger Justin Cascio looks back on youthful summers in Maine filed with ice cream, fireworks,adopted grandparents and a motorcycle riding chef.
When my sister and I were kids on Long Island, our next door neighbors were our adopted third set of grandparents. They were Papa Joe and June, their nearly grown kids, and their dog, all of whom I called “Lady,” all of whom (possibly excepting the dog) doted on me from earliest memory. Their daughter, Debra, babysat us and sang us songs: she was one of our favorite babysitters. When she started dating a burly blond guy with a moustache who rode a motorcycle and worked as a chef, I fell for him. “Don’t marry Debra,” I secretly wanted to tell him, disloyally. “Wait for me.” I was eight.
For the summers between ages seven and ten, we would take our week or ten days of Dad’s vacation and spend almost all of them at Joe and June’s lakeside cottage in Maine. Some of the time we would be there alone, but the best times were when we were all there together. Papa Joe would get up early and vacuum to the radio. June would brew coffee on the stovetop. Later, my mother did laundry and hung it outside, and Joe and my dad would take the boat out on the lake. My sister and I took long walks along the dirt roads, swam in the lake, read the library books we brought with us. There was a TV but we were strongly discouraged from watching it. In the afternoons, there were cocktails and crackers with cheese. The adults would loosen up. My mother, especially, became animated and happy after a glass or two.
A few times during the week, we’d play miniature golf and get ice cream. One year in the village where we vacationed, there was a local fair with a beauty pageant and an ice cream eating contest. I wasn’t there early enough to have registered for the ice cream eating, but a spot opened up and I got in. I didn’t even place, my mouth was numb for hours, and I got a half gallon of vanilla ice cream, as much as I could eat. I felt like I’d won.
Other car trips from the little encampment of cottages—there were only a handful of year-rounders—took us to wander the L.L. Bean flagship store to admire camping gear, or to see a Native American monument. Several very long car trips came after the crackers and cheese and extended cocktails and negotiations, to restaurants Papa Joe knew about and had persuaded my parents would be worth the trip. The menus were long and complicated; my sister was unable to order from them at all, while I held my right to order any entree I could pronounce and eat. Sometimes it was so late my sister was falling asleep in the booth by the time her food arrived. The trips were always worth the wait.
The last year we went, Debra and her boyfriend Jeff joined Joe and June, my parents, sister, and I for the summer trek to the cabin in Maine. Sleeping in the bunks with my sister, I would recall that these were the beds where Debra’s brothers had slept, tucked like we were against the chill that would set in at night. Even in July, it could drop into the forties. Now Debra was here with her boyfriend. Even as a kid, I could imagine that it would be nice to continue a tradition like that through the generations. Someday they could bring their kids, and so on. Maybe I would still be there, too.
I thought Jeff was awesome. Not just for the motorcycle and being a chef, but because he was funny. My father is a funny guy, and my mother would punch him in the arm or give him a scornful calling out for his efforts, but other funny men got under her skin even worse. My father’s little brother, for instance, who my mother famously stabbed with a fork once, over his shenanigans. To hear him tell it, she sprayed him with the kitchen sink sprayer, and then stabbed him, without provocation. He might have uttered fighting words, and then tried to disarm her, earning the final wound. So when Jeff started taking the piss out of our mother, I was happily alarmed. What might Mom do to Jeff, if she would stab Uncle Kurt with a fork?
It started with a bang at dinner, our first night in Maine. The six adults, plus me and my little sister. I resented being saddled with her tagalong company, or made the best of it, depending on my prevailing mood. This would be a good vacation, and we would enjoy each other’s company. When dad would tease her about the guide to restaurant bathrooms she was going to write someday, I’d join in, too, but not in a mean way. It’s not like she was going to be much use in defending me from my father’s barbs. My little sister was skinny: I was “fluffy.” As in, “not fat but.”
My mother started it by calling Jeff “Cheffy Jeffy,” and “Jeffy Weffy.” It was her go-to humor tactic: she favored the sounds of words for their humor over their meanings. My father and I studied jiu jitsu at a local karate dojo, and she called it “hi-ho,” her impression of the grunts we were encouraged to make as we pretend-struck one another in practice. She even printed it on a T-shirt for my father. Sometimes he even wore it, though after he protested that the other students in his class didn’t get the joke, he didn’t wear it under his gi, only for mowing the lawn.
Jeff was the boyfriend of the daughter of the host, so he had to prove himself. He was eager to do so, and did: he brought sausage bread and made blueberry pancakes our first morning in the cottage. The three men would make a great team that vacation, getting themselves dunked in the lake when they took out the sailboat and it turned over, and leading ever more ambitious treks toward out of the way dining gems that only seasoned Maine vacationers or culinary professionals would know about. He wasn’t in competition with our father. But his low status must have rankled, and our mother got under his skin.
He responded at first with a lateral move. Since Joe was Papa Joe, and he was Chef Jeff, then our father should get a name, too. He decided that Dad—Robert—would be Barnacle Bob. June said she didn’t want a nickname, and neither did Debra. I don’t remember if my sister and I got nicknames or not. None of them lasted beyond that trip, except the one. What was memorable, and repeated ad nauseum, was the nickname Jeff came up with for our mother, Janice.
We’d been warned against polluting the lake on the grounds that it was piped directly into the houses and supplied all running water: in other words, no peeing in the lake. At the cottage, we drank and the women cooked from a bottled water dispenser stationed in the dining room. It was another vacation food, like the Kraft caramels from the grocery store bulk bins that Papa Joe favored, and later, the Cambridge Diet milkshakes he’d whip up and share. I would drink them with him, and then eat breakfast, too. Brown eggs instead of white. My mother disapproving of my double-dipping; I was already being put on diets, then. Laundry on the line instead of in the dryer, because there was no dryer. Baths in a claw foot tub, because the shower is downstairs, and a little scary, and only the adults use it. These are the details I remember about our rhythms in that old house. The bathroom has that wallpaper that looks like ads for potions from the turn of the 20th century. The staircase is narrow. In the mornings, if you get up early enough, you can come down those stairs, look out the windows of the living room, and see the lake, perfectly still, before the vacationers strike it with their boats.
The fireworks that year were the best ever. Papa Joe gathered and ordered only the most unusual and stunning pyrotechnics. Part of the manly talk about fireworks includes their provenance and the laws overlooked in their procurement and transportation to lakeside, and in these details, I was not disappointed. Catalogues and particular exits over state borders were mentioned.
On the Fourth of July, activities wound down early as preparations began to kick up the party fires at home. No trip out for putt putt and ice cream cones that day. The cocktail hour began around lunch, and ramped up as the usual evening hour the grownups began drinking came and went. Grilled dinners were consumed from paper plates. I sat beside my sister on the steps of the deck, watching the setting sun and letting the mosquitoes suck her blood instead of mine. It’s a fact that they prefer some people, and she’s one of the magnets.
Papa Joe’s fireworks were resplendent. As the sun set, we started with sparklers, which any baby could hold. As the sun set and the men drank, the fireworks were more and more spectacular. Joe had long experience coordinating this show and knew which ones to hold back until last. Not that the interim fireworks were less than intense. Before the sun fully set and we directed our attention to the skies over the lake, where my father, Jeff, and Joe aimed the bottle rockets, Roman candles, and other wonders, there were the tank wars.
Cardboard tanks, about four inches long, with thin metal axles and cardboard wheels, packed full of explosives, were uncrated and doled out in pairs. Fireworks in the back were lit, and a tank was faced off against its twin. When the fuse burned down, the first whistling, smoking crackers propelled the tank forward. Because of the shoddy construction, the forward movement of the tank could not be fully assured. Often, they didn’t move at all. Sometimes they flew at one another and ended this first segment wedged cannon to cannon, to blow each other to smithereens. Sometimes this caused them to catch fire, with flames including licks of emerald and violet along with the usual yellow and orange of burning paper.
When all went as designed, the tanks would end, facing each other with several inches between, and an internal fuse would light a second volley of fireworks, this time erupting from the cannons, which sprayed one another with a shower of sparklers.
One of the last ground-based fireworks we would watch was a pinwheel covered with fireworks, which was bought as a single piece and attached, early in the evening, to a sturdy tree on the bank, where we could watch it spin from our seats on the porch. Finally, the show would move upward, exploding into the stars.
In the morning, there would be litter covering the grass and floating on the surface of the lake. Joe would get up at the same hour as always, run the vacuum, the radio, the blender.
At the end of our trip, the leftover ice cream from the contest went into a blender with the remaining fruit and a generous quantity of booze, fueling the adults’ last cocktail party long into the night. I didn’t mind the assumption of my prize; I had eaten my fill of it, and been better satisfied by the power, granted by Jeff’s nickname, to cause my mother squirm upon command, all week long.
It had caused the adults to erupt in laughter, and my mother to protest, but she lost. Though I was too young to understand all of the power plays involved, I sensed there was no way she could win this one. My father would take her swipes and eyerolls and be quiet, but Jeff didn’t owe her shit: not after “Cheffy Jeffy.”
My sister was too young to even guess at the nature of the humor involved; I was well-read enough to be able to tell it was naughty—this was before Urban Dictionary.com, and real dictionaries didn’t even have curse words in them—but not worldly enough to be sure I knew its full meaning.
My mother truly hated it. My father didn’t entirely ban us from repeating the name in her hearing, though even he would stop us when we chanted it to the point of obnoxiousness. He never tried to stop Jeff; that would have been a violation of the man code. He bore “Barnacle Bob” with the same dignity that a frat pledge wears his toilet seat neckwear, not at all like the prickly way Jeff bore my mother’s nursery rhyme renaming of him and everything else she couldn’t conquer outright. What he called her, made the week better in a way somehow similar to the way cocktail hour improved the lives even and especially of us kids, who did not drink. It brought her down to the level of the others from where she stood on tiptoe over us. It made us grateful, not to her, despite the words, but to Jeff.
All those years ago, Joe and June gave us the gift of family vacations, and I am grateful to them for my whole life for that. But the license to call my mother by this name—“Wham, bam, thank you, Jan”— for the length of our vacation, was Jeff’s gift to us all that summer, and for this also, I am forever grateful.
Photo of Fireworks courtesy of Shutterstock