Grandma, the King and I: Memories of Westhampton Beach
By Anne Ritchie
“When can we go to the beach?” Grandma was sitting on the sweeping veranda of the old Howell House in Westhampton Beach. I was seven and impatient. My guardian was attempting to read that day’s issue of The New York Times, but she knew it would be a losing battle. The ocean was roaring down at the end of Beach Lane, calling to me. Grandma knew I wouldn’t relent.
“When can we go to the beach?” It didn’t matter that we’d been there on a daily basis for the last two weeks. I was ready to be back in the water and I wasn’t going to give up. And, of course, I knew I would prevail; my Grandmother loved Roger’s Beach as much as I did. So we’d pack up and drive down – though one hearty seventy-something at the hotel always walked – and there it was! Inviting in its constantly changing aspects.
Here’s what the beach looked like and still looks like everywhere on the East End: white and purple sand whose patterns shift every day. Clams, horseshoe crabs washed up on the beach, their lives given over to sea gulls and gawking beachcombers. Sunlight glistening on the waves, except when taking on a cloudy moodiness. The ocean churning up big waves, but sometimes becoming gentle as a lake.
We changed in the cabana and I was ready to go. I sped down, pausing only to acclimate my body temperature to the ocean’s chilliness. After a few hesitant attempts, I was in, still too little to dive through those impressive and sometimes scary breaking waves.
Grandma did not know how to swim, so she confined her beach time to whatever contemplations occupied her. When it was time for lunch, she’d be at the water’s edge, signaling me to come out. I’d always see her and always pretend not to, extending my time in the water as long as I could. I didn’t care how wrinkly I got.
Eventually I retreated from the water to change my suit and have lunch. Grandma always ordered a hamburger and I always wanted a hot dog. Lunch was also a chance to visit with the Jarvises, who managed Roger’s at the time. Mrs. Jarvis was faithfully behind the scenes, ready to help with any concern. Mr. Jarvis sat behind the check-in desk, with a far-away look in his piercingly blue eyes. They were always trained on the sea, which I know he loved. He was also keeping an eye on his lifeguards, whom he trained and disciplined relentlessly. There would be no drowning on his watch.
I myself would be pulled out by Mr. Jarvis’ lifeguards twice. Rogue rip tides got me. Each time I was safely retrieved and returned to my Grandmother. Thank you, Mr. Jarvis.
The time always came to pack up and drive back up Beach Lane to the Howell House. Afternoons brought a sacred ritual of their own. We’d each take a bath in a large, claw-footed bath tub then change into nightgown for Grandma, pajamas for me, and take a nap. In retrospect, this nap time must have been Grandma’s favorite part of the day. Finally, peace and quiet.
Sometimes it was hard for me to get to sleep. I’d ponder the large, coiled ropes generously provided the guests in case of fire. Given that the average age of the (mostly) ladies staying at the Howell House was around 80, I couldn’t imagine them even uncoiling the ropes, let alone scaling down one or two stories to safety. Luckily for everyone, there never was a fire.
Then we’d dress for dinner. Those of a certain age may remember when one did such things. Dressing up to go to a restaurant, dressing up to fly on an airplane. We would gather in the lounge just outside the dining room.
I still remember my Grandma greeting one really old lady, Mrs. Hitchings, who was in her later 80’s. I was astonished that she could have been my Grandmother’s mother. I could hardly believe I was meeting someone of such antiquity.