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. Anticipation grew as the trip drew near. When the day of departure arrived, all six of us plus luggage were crammed into our Chevy for the long drive to the shore. When our car crossed the Route 50 bridge leading to Ocean City’s barrier island, we gained our first sight of the town, its neat white buildings gleaming in the blinding summer sun. 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 one’s room included meals served in the large dining room graced with 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. Breakfast included pancakes, waffles, muffins, eggs, sausages and bacon. Dinner offerings included fresh seafood, southern fried chicken, or steak accompanied by biscuits or dinner rolls, and a wealth of summer vegetables – corn, stewed tomatoes, green beans and summer squash – all grown on farms within a few miles of the resort. Though desserts were not 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.
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 in the stores along the boardwalk. One of my favorites was an art shop with a painting in the display window entitled “The Deadly Vanity”. An optical illusion, it depicted an elegant woman seated at her dressing table which morphed into a large skull when one adjusted their view. Another favorite was Edwards 5 and 10. Here I searched for affordable trinkets to bring home to my friends, spending the dollar my grandmother pressed into my hand each morning.
The beach was reserved for afternoons. My parents, brother and I would cross the hot sand to the ocean where we built sandcastles, jumped waves, got sunburned.
When we returned to the hotel, we found my grandparents relaxing in 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 me.
After showering off the sand and salt of the afternoon, my mother would insist that I don a dress for dinner which was served amidst clanking china and silverware, the aroma of the dishes mixed with the clear salt air.
After dinner we sat on the porch before beginning our evening boardwalk stroll past the Dairy Queen, the sweet-smelling candy corn stands of Fishers and Dolles, the displays of saltwater taffy – then on to Trimpers Arcade to the games and 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, with 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 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.
Not encouraged by the heavily fingerprinted glass entry door or the dead plant on the reception counter, I proceeded with check-in. We helped the older women to our rooms, my heart still clinging to unreasonable hope. The rooms were tight, the furniture shabby, the beds sagged, their coverlets grown pale from many launderings. A metal door leading to the balcony had peeling paint and was badly rusted. In our bathroom, the ceiling dripped water into the commode, and mold grew around the tub. This was not a place we wanted to stay, especially with elderly companions. I returned to the desk, telling the clerk that the rooms were unacceptable and requesting a credit to my card. Since it was early in the season, there were abundant vacancies along the boardwalk, and we found a 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. I’ve learned many times the truth in Thomas Wolfe’s phrase “you can’t go home again” [1) and that trip made this aphorism unquestionably true for me.
(1) “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.”