Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Best Neighborhood Ever

I grew up in the best neighborhood in America, back in the sixties and seventies. It was a great time to be a kid. It was back in the days of, more or less, hands-off parenting. We lived in a small neighborhood called Colonial Acres, off of Route 28 in West Yarmouth, Massachusetts. It was a neighborhood with a pilgrim theme. All the roads were named after pilgrims except for Mayflower Road which was, well, named after their ship. And Tanglewood Drive, which was tacked onto the development as an afterthought. We lived on the corner of Standish Way and Alden Road in a small red three-quarter Cape until I was eight or nine and we outgrew it. Then we moved over to Tanglewood Drive where my parents stayed until two weeks ago. They sold their family home and are moving to Florida. It’s the New England senior citizen thing to do. Old bones get cold, they say, in that damp air in winter.

What made Colonial Acres such a great place? It had everything a kid could want. First of all, we were uniquely situated. Our neighborhood sat right on Lewis Bay, an inlet of Nantucket Sound, so we had a beach at the end of the street. We also had a back bay that flowed along one side of our neighborhood, called Mill Creek. You could reach it from every little side street off of Standish Way, including Alden Road. The opposite side of the neighborhood was bordered by a marsh. So there was only one way into the neighborhood, and the same way out. By car, anyway. You could always take a boat. Or venture through the woods. Or muck through the marsh. And we did. But nobody else did. It was all ours.

There was a tiny stream that started in the woods and trickled along through the marsh and down to the bay. When I was about six or seven and my sister was seven or eight and our neighbor friend, Sarah Carpenter, was about eight or nine, we each had a little light blue, hard plastic shell of a boat with one wooden paddle. Each boat was just big enough for a little girl to sit in. We’d take these to the place where the stream from the marsh almost reached the bay, and paddle ourselves up and down for hours. We probably could have drowned. (When we were a little older, we had real boats, and sailed them on the bay.)

There was a little foot bridge at this same spot that we’d play on, too. And on the opposite side there was a private beach with huge rocks piled on top of each other, forming a great wall. We totally ignored the “Danger: Keep Off Rocks” sign. We climbed all over them. We’d find little “rooms” down between them and play house. We probably could have been crushed to death.

We used to do a little impromptu fishing at this same location. We’d pull a long piece of beach grass to use as a pole. Then we’d pry a slipper shell away from a rock and crack it open. We’d take the clam out of it, carefully rip a hole in it, thread the beach grass through and tie it on as bait. Then we’d lie down on our stomachs on the bank of the stream, holding our makeshift poles with the bait in the water, and patiently wait for a school of chubs to swim by. As soon as we had a nibble, we’d yank the whole thing out onto the bank.

There was a fresh water pond in the neighborhood, too, behind the Mendozas’ house. It was full of all the usual pond life: frogs at all their stages of development, strange kinds of fish, and turtles. Including huge black snapping turtles. Sometimes these would climb out of the pond and up the bank into the Mendozas’ backyard. During the coldest part of winter, the pond would freeze over, and we could skate on it. Everybody ice skated. We traded around sizes every year until every kid in the neighborhood had a pair of skates that somewhat fit. We also had a cranberry bog right across Route 28. In the fall they’d flood it in order to harvest, and then in about January it would freeze. Instant skating rink.

We had woods in our neighborhood, with an intricate network of trails. We knew them all well. This is where we learned to identify all kinds of growing things, from skunk cabbage to poison ivy to lady slippers. It was supposedly against the law to pick a lady slipper. Teenagers who had come before us had dug an incredible system of tunnels in the woods, the tops covered over with old sheets of plywood. As small kids, we were always a little afraid we’d find actual teenagers in the tunnels, but we never did. They were long gone by the time we discovered their handiwork.

Back in one corner of the woods was an old abandoned fort built high in a tall, straight oak tree. There were wooden rungs nailed up the trunk. We never knew who had built it or how long it had been there. We probably could have fallen through rotting boards to our little deaths.

We had a haunted house, too. It was right through the woods from our Tanglewood Drive house. When we took a certain trail through a part of the woods known as the Dark Forest, we came to a spot where we could stand shielded behind some trees and look up across a lawn of dead crab grass at the back of Miss Mackey’s house. Miss Mackey was an ancient woman who lived in this two story wood frame house without electricity. Rumor had it that her crazy brother lived there with her, and that whenever she had to go out, she’d tie him to his bed, put honey on his fingers, and give him a feather to play with. One evening, we walked through the woods to the library with our babysitter, Candy Blanchard. (Another great feature of our neighborhood---the library within walking distance in one direction and a little family-owned store called Fruitland in the other.) On our way home, we had to pass by the front of Miss Mackey’s house, which faced Route 28. Of course we were talking about Miss Mackey and her crazy brother, and how they lived without electricity. She had to be a witch, right? Because we had to walk through the woods to get home, we had a flashlight. We shone it into one of Miss Mackey’s first floor windows. She shone a candle back at us. We screamed and ran as fast as we ever had the rest of the way home. All through the woods I was sure she was following us. I had nightmares for weeks.

We had an assortment of excellent climbing trees spread throughout the neighborhood. Maryellen Clark was the very best climber. She could make her way up any tree. Sometimes we’d each make a lunch and meet in a tree to eat.

One of the most convenient features of our neighborhood was that a good many of the houses were summer homes. We had the run of their yards for three quarters of every year. This was really great in winter when we had snow.

Wildlife was everywhere. Our yards were inhabited by rabbits, skunks, squirrels, raccoons, turtles, and toads. And all kinds of birds. A salamander under every rock.

And every house had an outdoor shower so you could rinse the sand off when you came up from the beach.

Each town’s fire station blew a lunch whistle at noon every day. From our neighborhood, we could hear the Hyannis whistle as well as the West Yarmouth whistle. They were always a few seconds apart. Every kid in the neighborhood had to drop everything and go home when the lunch whistle went off. Unless it was summer. In the summer, we spent most days on the beach, and our mothers would pack lunch. We all had swimming lessons, too, every summer. We could all swim. Down by the beach there was a house that had this little outbuilding that played chimes on the hour. It had a repertoire of songs it played for years. Whenever I hear “Winter Wonderland” at Christmastime, I think of warm sunny days on the beach. I’ll bet I’m not the only one who does, either.

It was a great place to grow up. I’m sad that my parents have left it, but it’s not quite the same anymore anyway. Someone bought up most of the woods and built a motel. Miss Mackey and her brother are long gone, and so is their house. A gift shop stands in its place. I can’t climb trees like I used to. And I don’t think there’s a lunch whistle anymore, either, so if I were there, I’d never know when it was time to go home.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Hi Melinda:
    This is Karen Hanneman.
    Marcia shared your blog address and I have fully enjoyed your essay. It helps me understand your family and life on the Cape better. What a wonderful spot to grow up. And, no one was even permanently hurt or maimed. I am sure you will all miss your trips back home no that your parents are moving to Florida. Somehow, it just isn't the same.

  3. Thanks! Yes, we will miss it. It was a great place to grow up, and it's been a great place to take our kids to visit, too.

  4. It all sounds so wonderful. I have great memories of growing up with a cow pasture behind my house with millions of little frogs to play with and a cool treehouse in the weeping willow tree in my backyard. We used to spend the summer up in that tree with lunch, books, and folding paper grenades. Fun memories.

  5. Thanks for not mentioning the times I would climb the tree with my lunch and then you guys would leave me there. Needlesstosay I wouldn't let my kids climb trees - probably because I wouldn't be able to get them down! Great story!

  6. Hey, and I didn't tell about when we tied you to the tree in the Pressmans' front yard and left you there! You were just so fun to tease! And a good sport, to boot.

  7. Or how about the poison berries? I still see those things today and wonder if they are poisonous!

  8. The purplish-red ones? Nah, we just told you they were. JUST KIDDING! I have no idea! I'd forgotten about those. I wonder what they were? The ones that grew in clusters down a stem, right?

  9. Yes those are the ones! There is a bush near our house on the Cape. The first time I saw them a few years ago I had a flashback! Purple berries and Walter Pressman - that's right up there with Miss Mackey stories!