Sometimes we just can’t cram enough excitement into our lives like that scorching week in August back in 1974. Everything happened at once. I quit my job and went into my own plumbing business. We started negotiations on the purchase of a house in the suburbs to accommodate our family that had just reached a total of seven the previous May. We decided at the last minute to throw in with my sister’s family of six to spend a week vacationing at the Atlantic shore in north Wildwood, NJ. We rented a single home site unseen from an add in the local paper. It sounded grand: Large five bedroom home with two and a half baths, spacious kitchen, large yard and garden surrounded by a historic hairpin fence equipped with swing set sandbox and a screened in sun porch stocked with amusements for rainy days.
We arrived to find a dilapidated haunted looking house, shutters hanging by a thread, birds nesting on the sun porch, a rust colored fence entangled with Tarzan vines and strange animal sounds coming from the dense forest growing within its boundaries. The swing set was serving as a trellis for the “Jack in the bean stalk” vegetation that was holding it together. The sandbox was weathered down to a few gray rippled boards with rusty old nails protruding everywhere but still containing sand along with sea grass and a whole community of misquotes' nests.
Our two families reluctantly got out of our overloaded vehicles and approached the front door taking care not to fall through the missing floorboards on the porch. The front door was hanging open and we ventured a “Yahoo! anyone here?”. A rough throaty answer came bellowing through the thick smoky atmosphere, “Out here in the kitchen hun”. Our entourage of thirteen slowly made our way around piles of clothes, boxes, and stacks of old newspapers (some of which depicted headlines of the Normandy Invasion) that left only a narrow path leading out to the spacious turn of the century kitchen.
Sitting on a stool in front of the open refrigerator and besides a large sleeping canine of unrecognizable heritage was the spitting image of the “wicked witch of the west”. She told us to make ourselves comfortable while she finished cleaning out her refrigerator. There was a visible order coming from this crusted vault, meaning you could actually see the thick stench mixed in with the frosty air. “I am running a little late getting out of here" she said, which brought me to the understanding that she lived here and intended to disappear for a week in order to rent out her house. "I am going to visit my brother up in Long Island for a week, but I just wanted to get the icebox ready for you nice people before I leave. There now you can have what’s left in there for your own use." I encouraged her to continue emptying the various condiments, some of which had to be pried from their perch with a garden tool I found sitting on the drain board of the sink.
She then began to take us on a tour of this ancient ruin starting with instructions to empty the living room bucket faithfully so it would not overflow and stain her oriental family heirloom rugs. The bucket was part of the plumbing. It seemed as if its job was to catch the water that pored from the ceiling every time the toilet got flushed. We met all of Mrs. Kelly’s ancestors who were hanging in frames all over the place. It filled me with a sense of trespassing as though I was an invader overlooking the spoils of war. Her entanglement of gray brillo hair hung down to where her buttocks would normally have protruded had she not had the form of a pencil. We followed her shuffle into the living room where she pointed out a large framed picture. It was a black and white studio picture of a young beauty in a swim suit adorned with a banner from shoulder to hip that read Miss New Jersey 1919. When she turned to see if we were making the connection her eyes opened wide like a curtain was going up. I could see a glimpse of pride in them and it touched me and caused my mind to wonder. Her long lost beauty still had its roots and what had a first sight looked freighting to me now came across with an appreciation of the old cliché “The eyes are the windows of the soul”.
We four adults who were at first determined to get back into our cars and call off this last minute vacation idea had a little huddle. The kids would be broken hearted if we called it off, so we decided to make the best of it and so we helped the lost beauty queen finish packing her stuff and sent her on her way with the promise that we would treat her humble abode as though it was our own. She and her dog who’s name we found out was Jersey Girl drove away from “our new vacation home” about 5 PM in a rusty old Plymouth bearing the reminisce of an old “I like Ike” bumper sticker on the back. The duo headed for Long Island NY but left behind some of “Jersey Girl’s” intimate companions, namely a bunch of lonely fleas looking for a new residence. The girls went grocery shopping while my brother in law and I got busy with the phone book trying to find an exterminator who would come out on a Saturday night.
Somehow we made the best of it and stayed the week; we were the first ones to the beach everyday and the last to leave. We even entertained our Real Estate agent and his prim and proper wife as they came down on a Wednesday evening to have us sign the final papers on that single house we were buying in the suburbs. As we sat around the old dinning room table with the big lion claw paws at the base of its legs and with the sound of the living room bucket catching the toilet spillage, she remarked “Oh what a lovely old Victorian home this is!” How gracious of her to say such a thing in spite of the obvious surroundings. The funny thing is I was beginning to feel the same way! I guess it was our worst vacation but it brings back the best memories.