“Nan’s Favorite”

By Richard Banbury

Every Sunday during the summer, without exception, my mother would have a breakfast of whiskey and bacon. After mass at Saint Jude’s by the Sea, I would take her to Tad’s Place, a local eatery overlooking the Sound. It was pretty much always the same gang after the 11:00 service, back in the day when Catholics were required to fast after midnight in order to take a chaste Communion. Nan would finish off the extra crispy bacon with unbuttered wheat toast. After three doubles of the Irish, she needed a bit of tending while navigating our exit from Tad’s to my 1950 Ford Woody. The regulars were gracious with their friendly farewells, but gossiped about Nan’s drinking when we were gone.

Back at our spacious 1920s cottage, Nan would fall asleep on the veranda while watching her seven grandchildren play a disorganized game of croquet. Alex tended to go out of turn, and Muriel claimed that her blue ball touched Josh’s yellow one. After she woke up, usually about 4:00, Nan would change into her swim suit and gather her beach tokens, most notably a large pink parasol. The beach was only a three minute walk, after which Nan would help Victoria and Brooks build a sand castle, which would inevitably succumb to the incoming tide. She then splashed into the soothing saltwater for her 20 minute swim. At 72, Nan was a remarkably athletic swimmer, rotating the four strokes at a brisk pace, replicating her long ago training on the Vassar swim team. Seemingly immune to the water temperature, Nan followed this routine through September and often into October. Mother had two siblings. Her brother Nate, an outstanding student and athlete at Yale, was lost over Germany in 1943 when the B-29 he was piloting went missing. Nan’s older sister Frances was a Registered Nurse at the Cleveland Clinic for 38 years and retired with her husband Carl, a cardiac surgeon, to Adare, a small town in west Ireland.

During the long summer evenings at the Gull Rock Cottage, the seven grandchildren, ages six to thirteen, played Monopoly, Scrabble or worked on their summer reading. The Ping Pong table was seasonally set up in the backyard, as a further distraction for the youngsters. On some occasions they paired up to play doubles. Everyone wanted 12 year-old Eric as their partner, since he was by far the most skillful at the game, and was also a ranked tennis player in New England for his age group. She wouldn’t admit it but Nan’s favorite was Josh, the ten year old son of my sister Abby and her husband Richard Foley. Josh’s bright engaging eyes, good-natured character and quick wit reminded Nan of her father, Mike O’Conner, who came over from Galway in1898. The Irish spirit may be why Aunt Frances retired to Adare. While the children concentrated on entertainment and competition, the adults chatted, reminisced and, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, played bridge. Every night Nan would strike her ship’s bell nine times. Nikki and I were then responsible for getting Alex, Eric, Muriel, and Josh to their bunks in the loft, while Abby and Rich escorted Victoria, Brooks, and Quincy to their rooms in the back of the cottage.

The Gull Shore Association owns the beach where we play. In turn, the Association is comprised of the 26 families who spend summers in our neighborhood and have deeded rights to use the beach. By tradition, each cottage has a name which includes the word Gull, in recognition of the seagulls which are polite but uninvited guests at our beach picnics. The Association owns just under 400 feet as measured along the mean high tide line. There are no lifeguards. A few members of the Association also belong to a yacht club about a mile away, but the majority are content with our quiet enclave.

It was Labor Day and the cars were packed up in anticipation of school the next day. Nan would stay behind, accompanied only by Chester, her six year old Chocolate Lab. We will make it down on weekends, not leaving until after Alex and Muriel’s Saturday morning soccer games. Late in the afternoon Josh and Rob Santiago are fishing for blues and porgies 100 yards from shore in an 8-foot inflated rubber lifeboat. The only child of Raffi and Maria Santiago, Rob is three years older than Josh and made the JV swim team last year as a ninth grader. Raffi and Maria were among the first Cuban families to flee when Fidel took over in January of 1959. An electrical engineer schooled at the University of Michigan, Raffi had transferred his substantial investments from a Havana bank to a Miami brokerage firm three years earlier. When they left at night in their open 40 horsepower inboard, with their infant son, they had plenty of reserve gas but little else. It was a rough 90 mile crossing, with high seas and a strong westerly wind. Maria’s brother had moved to Miami two years earlier and helped them through those early months. It didn’t take Raffi long, however, to find a good job in Connecticut building jet engines for the Air Force. That success led to buying the Gull Patch cottage two years ago, just down the beach path from Gull Rock.

The first indication of a storm was a couple of lightning strikes far out onto the Sound. Summer storms can move quickly over open water. Within two minutes of the lightning, the sky turned dark and the surf started to churn. The full force was only another minute away, with beach umbrellas flying and spinning inland, while adults gathered up beach paraphernalia and young children. When the rubber lifeboat flipped, Josh was confused and disoriented. He tried to swim but was gulping water and going in the wrong direction. Sixty yards from shore, Nan was halfway through her routine when the sudden storm descended on land and water. She heard someone calling seaward, clearly in distress. It was only until she reached the upturned lifeboat that Nan realized that the distressed call came from Josh, who was now trying unsuccessfully to hang onto the boat. “Josh, get on my back and put your arms around my waist.” Nan started with a butterfly stroke, but quickly tired out. The breaststroke was steadier and, with the wind at their back, Nan and Josh struggled to the shore. Nikki and I had been tying bikes on top on the station wagon when the storm hit, not realizing Josh’s jeopardy. There was chaos when we reached the beach, just as Nan and Josh walked out of the surf.

Josh missed the first day of school, recovering from the harrowing experience, but was fine after that. Rob, the excellent swimmer, had managed to make it ashore. The next day, with the beach nearly deserted, Chester watched as Nan went through her 20 minute drill in calm water. When she returned to the cottage there was a message from Josh. She returned the call. They talked, bound together by their adventure of the previous day. After all, how often does a grandmother save the life of her favorite grandchild.

(Email: banburysixty@aol.com)
May, 2014