Essays

Hotel Rideau

I’ve learned many times the truth in the phrase “you can’t go home again.” [1]  A trip to a Maryland seaside resort several years ago made this aphorism unquestionably and somehow sadly clear for me once again.

For successive summers in the 1950’s I travelled with my parents, brother, and paternal grandparents for a week-long vacation in Ocean City, MD. Other than Christmas, it was the most exciting highlight on my childhood calendar. Anticipation grew as the trip drew near and my mother began packing the large brown suitcases laid out in my parent’s bedroom. When the day of departure arrived, all six of us, plus luggage were crammed into my father’s old Chevy for the interminable drive to the shore. When the car crossed the Route 50 Bridge leading to Ocean City’s barrier island, we gained our first sight of town, its neat buildings gleaming white in the blinding summer sun. The promise of fun was in the air. And the aroma of the place was distinctive as well – an intoxicating mix of salt air, suntan lotion, and fried chicken.

The Rideau, like many hotels of the day, operated on the  American plan, meaning that the price of ones room also included three meals a  day in the large dining room where tables were covered in starched linen and  decent cutlery.  There was a small  printed menu from which one selected an entrée, but all sides and accompaniments  were served family style in white china serving bowls. Our table was assigned for  the remainder of our stay, as was the pretty young college girl who was our  waitress. Breakfast was larger than any we had at home with pancakes, waffles,  muffins, eggs, sausages and bacon.  Lunch  and dinner entrees included an abundance of fresh seafood, southern fried  chicken, roasts, chops, ham, biscuits or dinner rolls, and a wealth of summer  vegetables – corn on the cob, stewed tomatoes, green beans, limas, summer squash  and salads – all grown on farms within a few miles of the resort.  There were desserts, cobblers, pies, cakes,  and while none were advertised as “homemade” as restaurants disingenuously do  today, I expect there were made on site of honest unadulterated ingredients and  by cooks following time-honored recipes.   They were easily as good as my Aunt Ruth’s cakes or my mother’s homemade  pies.

Released to the freedom of the boardwalk after  breakfast, I was off in search of a bicycle to rent.  My mornings were spent tearing along the  boardwalk, the wheels of my 3-wheeler clicking a rhythm against the timbered  boards. There was much to explore.  There  were stores along the boardwalk and one of my favorites was an art shop with a  painting entitled “The Deadly Vanity” in the display window.  A skilled optical illusion, it depicted an  elegant woman seated at her dressing table which morphed into a huge frightening skull when one adjusted their view.  Another favorite was Edwards 5 and 10.  It was here where I searched for affordable  trinkets to bring home to my friends, spending the money my grandmother pressed  into my hand each morning. At the end of the boardwalk was Trimper’s Amusements  with its beautiful carousel and an arcade that would provide our evening entertainment.

Despite my pleading, the beach was reserved for afternoons.  My brother and I were required to eat lunch and then wait a full hour before changing to our bathing suits.  My parents, brother and I would then make the trek over hot sand to the edge of the ocean.  I built sandcastles, jumped over waves with my father, got sunburned. 

We returned to the hotel after several hours to find my grandparents relaxing in the rocking chairs on the Rideau’s front porch.  It was a lovely porch – wide, roofed and edged with green striped awnings that flapped in the ocean breeze. There were checkerboards in abundance and my grandfather, showing no mercy, routinely trounced both my brother and I.  He played to win each time, disregarding my grandmother’s suggestion that he play a gentler game.

After showering off the sand and salt of the  afternoon, my mother would insist that I don a dress for dinner, a service of Eastern Shore bounty, eaten amidst clanking china and  silverware, the aroma of the dishes mixed with the clear salt air poured  through the open windows

After dinner we were sent to the porch for a brief respite before beginning our evening boardwalk stroll, down past the shops I had visited earlier, past the Dairy Queen, the candy corn stands of Fisher’s and Dolle’s, the displays of saltwater taffy, and the smell of French fries, hotdogs and Taylor’s pork roll sandwiches, on to Trimper’s Arcade to play games, and to the rides which beaconed with their twinkling lights and music. Bedtime, usually avoided, was not resisted.  Worn out from the day’s activities, I drifted off to sleep, salt air and the sound of crashing surf pouring through my window.

Fast Forward to 2005

My grandparents are long deceased, my father recently so, my brother several 100 miles away.  My husband and I decide to take my mother and her sister for a holiday in Ocean City.  I knew that the old Rideau hotel had burned (in the 1970’s, I believe) but had been rebuilt. I realized that the new structure would be modern, but naively envisioning the warmth hospitality and cheerful, cozy comfort of the 1950’s, I reserved our rooms.

The Rideau is now billed as a “motor inn”. Not immediately encouraged by the heavily fingerprinted entry door or the dead plant on the reception counter, I preceded with check-in.   We helped the older women to our rooms, my heart still clinging to unreasonable hope.  The rooms were tight, the furniture worn and shabby, the beds sagged visibly, their coverlets grown pale from many uses and launderings. A metal door leading to the balcony peeled paint and was horribly rusted.  In our bathroom, the ceiling dripped water into the commode, and mold grew around the tub caulking.  This was not a place we wanted to stay, especially with our two elderly companions.  I returned to the desk, telling the clerk that the rooms were unacceptable and requesting a credit to my American Express card.  She did not seem surprised, and asked no questions but immediately processed the credit.

Since it was early in the season, there were abundant vacancies along the boardwalk, and we found a lovely hotel several blocks away.  The rooms were ample, clean and comfortable with a spacious balcony from which my mother and aunt could enjoy the view of the boardwalk and ocean.

I was unexpectedly saddened by the experience, a thwarted attempt to catch a piece of the past.  I had wanted the Rideau to remind me of those golden days of childhood…just a little bit. 

[1] You Can’t Go Home Again. Thomas Wolfe: “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”

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