Thursday, November 4, 2010

Cape May

My mom, my dad, and my sister Kate, Perry Street beach, Cape May


We finally put my mother’s ashes in the ground, a week after the funeral. She had wanted to be buried with my father, in a military cemetery, and she got her wish.

The man who had just finished filling in the grave took his cap off and said, simply, “My condolences.”

We walked about thirty yards away and I found my dad’s father’s and my grandmother’s graves, Joseph Edward Leo and Rose Leo, side by side. I saw that my grandmother and grandfather had been born two days apart in 1896, and that my grandfather had been in the 147 MG BN, 41 DIV, in World War I. I also saw that my grandmother outlived my grandfather by thirty-two years, just as my mother outlived my dad by thirty-three years.

My grandfather was a Philly cop, an alcoholic apparently, and so my grandmother left him and moved with my dad’s brother and sister to Cape May, New Jersey. She worked as a cleaning lady, and then she bought a big ramshackle unheated white Victorian house on North Street, she bought it for a song because the formerly well-off people who owned it had lost their money and couldn’t pay the taxes. My grandmother rented out rooms to summer vacationers, and then one day she bought the old Victorian next door, at Perry and North, and over the years she acquired a few cottages and a barn behind the big white house.

Eventually my grandmother’s three maiden sisters, my great-aunts Edna, Kate and Sarah Reilly, who all worked at the armory in Philadelphia, bought another boarding house right down the street on Perry. I have very fond memories of summers and being coddled by all four of these tiny old women. I would buy remaindered and second-hand comic books from Wally's cigar shop on Washington Street, a shop that actually had a cigar store Indian in front. I would sit on my aunts’ porch and read comics all day, and every once in a while my aunts would give me some crackers or a liverwurst sandwich to eat, and some ginger ale. It was kid heaven. Every once in a while I would be asked to mow a lawn or trim some hedges, but that was fun too.

For me summers were Cape May, with plenty of family around, aunts, uncles, cousins, some of them living there year round, some coming down for the summer or for vacations, everyone within a few blocks of everyone else...

My grandmother was extremely religious. It was a point of some contention among some in my family when she gave away the big white house to the Franciscans, but I always figured it was her property to do with as she pleased.

She had no real interest in physical comforts or luxuries. She always lived either in a small one-room apartment in one of her houses or, in her last years, in a tiny cottage in the back yard of her property.

Her one concession to the beauties of the physical world was gardening. Her gardens were beautiful and lush, her hedges perfectly trimmed, her grounds in summer smelled like flowers, mixing in with that old Cape May smell of damp wood and salty air.

I remember when my grandmother was in her declining days I would go and visit her every day when she was in Pennsylvania Hospital for a couple of weeks. She would say, “You don’t have to come here every day. You must have other things to do.” That was my grandmother, tough as nails to the end.

She remained separated from my grandfather for about twenty-five years I think, but they never got divorced. They were old school Catholics. And when my grandmother died three decades after my grandfather she was buried at his side...

The cemetery was enormous, row on row of uniform headstones as far as the eye could see, the memories of thousands of men and of their wives.

One little patch of this cemetery includes the memories of my mother and of my father, and those of my dad’s father and my grandmother.

19 comments:

Jason Gusmann said...

Thanks so much for the heartfelt work, Dan Leo.

Jennifer said...

As someone who is infinitely curious about people and what it is that makes them tick, thank you. I love your writing, but I really loved getting to read a little more about you and your family.

Again, I hope the powers that be are kind and that you find your new normal with relative ease.

Dean Rohrer said...

great to see old photo of your family in cape may--i can see your dad in your face now.
really great piece--love it--reminds me in tone especially of the early arnold chapters that i love so much

Mare said...

Hi Dan, Thanks for another nice tribute to your family. Great picture of Mom and Dad and Kate.
aahh, Cape May. Love, Mare

Manny said...

Beautiful, Dan.
Such an American story. And it's nice that your parents and grandparents are buried in one spot. So many families get scattered to the winds.
God bless you all.

Dan Leo said...

Hey, thanks so much everybody. We should all get together at the Ugly Mug in Cape May and toss back a few.

Di said...

can I come too?

Dan Leo said...

The party doesn't start till you get there, Di.

kathleenmaher said...

Such fond and poignant memories: It's fascinating how circumstances which must have been difficult at the time--your grandparents' marriage, being one, take on a rich patina in time--lived apart; buried together.
The women in your family made efficiency and independence immediate expressions of love, which you've presented so clearly and directly that it becomes real to everyone who reads it.

Dan Leo said...

"The women in your family made efficiency and independence immediate expressions of love..."

Word, Kathleen. When I think of my grandmother going off with no money and two kids to a strange town to start a new life, and building what she built there, basically starting a colony for a whole extended family -- I'd like to have one tenth of the strength she had.

Dean Rohrer said...

i'm up for the ugly mug toss back--this coming spring june good for all?

Dan Leo said...

Hey, Dean, don't know if I could deal with the present-day Cape May in June! Not to mention the damn summer rates. But I'm seriously considering an off-season mid-week jaunt sometime; cheaper rates and fewer damn tourists!

Dave said...

Talk to Nancy Granick at the Chalfont, mention me and you might get a nickel off.
Great memories Dan, I've a similar story about my grandparents.

Dean Rohrer said...

my usual typo alert...i meant to say "spring or june"...may would be good... for a tour of "arnold's cape may" culminating with a good toss back at the Mug

Dan Leo said...

Dave -- I'll drop your name and see what happens!

Dean -- I was actually checking the prices and consumer reviews for non-modern places in Cape May last night. Boy, it's hard to find a reasonable place that doesn't have at least one scary one-star review...Congress Hall actually got a lot of decent ratings. Not as beautiful as some of the joints, but reasonable, with off-season rates, and very well situated. What the hell, I'll go down any time, as long as it's not the weekend and not the summer!

Now how do we get Di there from Australia?

kate said...

danny no worries. i actually caretake and hold keys for a rental property on perry street across from congress hall. six bedrooms and fully funtional.
we open the house in late spring but i have some open time in may/early june this year coming so we can make arrangements if you want to spend a few days. we can fill the house with your friends and have a blast.
i have crashed there a few times when i didnt want to drive back to court house. love ya kate

Dan Leo said...

Wow -- sounds cool, Kate. We'll talk...

Mark said...

Dan -- thanks for noticing my blog, and more importantly thanks for your very thoughtful, and personal, post about your family, and your childhood.

A very moving post, and I'm glad you shared it with those of us in cyber-world (and the real world).

Mark Miller

Dan Leo said...

Thanks, Mark. For my other readers here is Mark's fine Cape May blog.

P.S. And I've listed your blog on my blogroll. May you get many visitors!