This small town in North Carolina was where both my parents grew up. The vacation spot for the family every summer. The town held memories. The town would be fulfilling family obligations.
Wilmington is a small town on the base of the East Coast of North Carolina. It is based on the Cape Fear River.
The drive to Wilmington would begin in the morning and last all day. A two-lane highway. Little traffic. Hot. Windows rolled down. Bouncing in the back seat for hours. Probably loosen some brain cells.
Stop once at Stuckey’s. Peanut brittle for Mom and cokes for the rest. Pit stops were made along the side of the road. After miles of woods and farmland, the winding road led to a small skyline. Little buildings, no stop lights. Lots of trees. We would turn left and travel the shaded suburban streets past manicured yards and freshly painted houses. Everything was quiet. Everything was calm. The houses looked old. The few people visible on the street were elderly. As they looked up to see the car drive by, there was a questioned look in their eyes. Strangers in there quiet town. We were tourists in the hometown.
My grandmother, on my mother’s side, lived in a small brick house. A driveway on the side of the house went around the back, past a porch with a swing, to a garage. The front of the house was red brick with white door and columns and shutters. Small shrubs lead up to the front door. The two-story house was always approached from the back door. (The same tradition was found at 4101 Patterson).
The backyard held roses. Lots of roses. A wired fenced yard with little shrubs and roses. Roses grew everywhere. An outbuilding was never investigated. The garage was cool and damp. Across the alley were dirt yards with live chickens. High wooden fences hid the houses from the middle class view of my grandmother’s eyes. There were lots of dirt yards, smells, and damp feelings about the neighborhood. My grandmother never talked about her neighbors.
The entrance to the kitchen became the welcoming spot. Everything was done in the kitchen. It was warm and inviting. Off the kitchen was the music room. A small room with window overlooking the driveway. An upright piano and sheet music filled the room. I would learn music there. My mother and her mother loved to sing, but rarely played the piano.
All the family on my mother’s side loved to sing. Religious songs, and other songs I did not know. Anytime two or more Aunts got together a song were to be had. The kitchen was the usual spot of singing while preparing food.
Down the hall from the kitchen was the dining room. Very formal with laced tablecloth. Few meals were had here. Mostly the family ate in the kitchen. There were ceramic squirrels on the wall.
Across from the dining room was the living room. The family never went in the living room. It held a desk, sofa, chairs, and lamps. A rotating clock played its chimes every hour. On the desk was a picture of my uncle Clyde, the pilot lost in World War II and his flying cross medal. No one talked of the photo or the history.
Several uncles had served in W.W.II. There was no talk of their action or duty. The family only talked of the present. The family always was laughing and singing.
Upstairs were the bedrooms. One was packed with boxes and a small bed. This is where I would sleep when we stayed in Wilmington. It was hot and musty. I never ventured into the boxes, but wondered about the W.W.II relics.
A small room in the back of the house was the den. This room had the only television set. This was the only room that was used by our family. I practiced bass guitar when we stayed there in ‘66 before the “Club A Go-Go” gig.
As soon as we would unpack, the family would decide what was going to be eaten. All the women gathered in the kitchen to prepare the food. The men made small talk and smoked. The porch swing was a spot for the children to get away.
Across the street, my mother’s half sister lived. Teresa would be called over for dinner. A heavy woman with pulled back hair and plane flowered dresses. She had the 40’s look. Teresa would play the piano when the women would sing.
“Mamma”, as my grandmother was called, would always have an apron on. She would orchestrate the kitchen and the worker bees. She did not smoke or drink. She was the gyro that kept the family together and busy. Mamma seemed aloft of troubles and always made a pleasant or religious statement when problems were discussed.
Mamma was married to several men. She was young, with a smile, a small body, and well endowed. She enjoyed the attention of the gentlemen. She dressed in lace and sheer materials. She moved with grace and style.
“Fona T. and Herbert Love”, lived in another part of Carolina with three girls. Fona was the youngest of the sisters. She was attractive with large teeth and thick black hair. Herbert was a salesman. He was always trying to kid or act up.
“Mark and Mary MacKeever” lived in Richmond, but always seemed to be in Wilmington when we arrived. They would stay at the home of Mary’s parents, the Sniden’s. This became our second home when in Wilmington. The house was above a ground level garage on the sound side of Wrightsful Beach. Little Mark and Liz would always be there too. Mark, who was Mom’s older brother, was a preacher. He held services over the food that was delivered hourly.
Down a winding road past moss covered trees, in a planned neighborhood was the brick ranch home to “Mabel”. She had three girls who baby-sat me when the elders would go out. There was lots of hugging and kissing. Mabel’s husband committed suicide in the garage by gassing himself in his car.
“Pamela and Rex” were different as night an day. Pamela, mom’s younger sister who lived in Raleigh, was outgoing and cordial. Rex was reserved and quiet. A big burley man, who worked for Caterpillar tractors, he stood back when the family got together. Pamela was up front and a leader in the singing. She would later get Parkinson disease and break down. The two could not bare children, so they adopted a boy and a girl.
“Lewis and Grace MacKeever” lived in Wilmington. They kept the family together. Lewis sold insurance for Sears.
Grace, sister to Mary, kept the Sniden’s home up. With the shower in the first floor garage, and the outside stairway to the second living floor, the house next to the pier was kept as a safe haven for all the family. Mr. Sniden was a white hair man in poor health. He was quiet and reserved. He kept to himself. Mrs. Sniden was as outgoing as Mamma and always tried to feed everyone.
My cousin Whitney (Lewis, Jr.) and his sister, Sassy and two twin brothers Douglas and Dannie lived in a custom community outside of Wilmington.
Whitney became my teacher at the beach. Instead of sitting on the sand with my parents and other relatives, I could sneak away with Whitney. We would take the motorboat out to the sound and spin around the inner waterways. When the harbor patrol came to follow us, we would turn to the ocean. We would jump over the waves, the wooden hull groaning with each slam against the hard water. Twin Mercury engines would save us every time.
Whitney would teach me other beach stuff. Water skiing really worked with enough power on the motor boat. The whole family learned. Snorkel diving and riding the surf became second nature. Surfing on long waxed boards filled the days. We would sit on the boards waiting for the right wave. We laughed and splashed in the ocean air. We would get dehydrated, sunburned, and wrinkled by the hours of soaking in the water. We did not care.
At dust, we would put the boards up, grab a T-shirt and travel to one of the local hang outs to sweep the floors, clean dishes, straighten tables, or do any chore to earn some money. A few dollars were gathered. Every teenager at the beach worked this way. These dollars would be collected and be enough to get some food and drink for the night.
Next to the bridge, leading to the ocean was a bait shop. It was a dark Little building with a sandy floor. It was always packed with ice and cool. The smell of fish filled the nostrils. This was the shop for fishermen. There was a large selection of alcohol. Beer by the case.
Though underage, Whitney and I would approach the owner and ask for beer. We would place the money on the counter when no one else was in the building. We would point to the case we wanted. We would grab the case and leave without a word said. The cash register would ring up the purchase. We always gave more money that the price, but that was the deal. I always thought that I looked older than everyone else did, so the owner excepted my age. I was growing a beard that showed before the fair hared cousin did. I never showed an ID.
Back on the beach, as night fell, a pit would be hand dug. The local kids would fan out searching the beach for firewood. Others would bring food and drink. There was always enough to go around. In the blaze of the fire light, crabs, fish, and marshmallows were the meal of the day. Even the crusty burnt supper flipped hand to hand to cool was nourishment. And we washed it all down with beer.
The Wilmington teens would sit around the fire and regal at the days activities. What great wave came, the new bathing suits, the problems with parents. Someone would bring a guitar and we would all sing. Folk songs mostly. As the night went on and fire died down, couples would split to the sand dunes. Giggling could be heard in the distance drowned by the roar of the ocean.
Many names were changed to protect your patience.