Castles Made of Sand

Nothing of the physical world lasts forever, but memories stay with us all our lives. Some of the best are born in a beach house.




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photographs supplied by Matt Desiderio;
photo collage by Kelly Carter

My family’s beach cottage is yellow, almost safety yellow, and it has a funny name: Atsa Nice. This makes perfect sense. The house, for 40 years, is where we have all retreated to laugh and enjoy the simplest and best of life’s pleasures. I think about it much at this time of year, for this is when I usually open it for the season.

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My father built the cottage in 1967, mostly in the basement of our regular suburban home. There, he spent his evenings fabricating all the partitions into 4-by-8 sections. On weekends he hauled them to the beach on top of the family’s Oldsmobile station wagon.

Those sections laid on our lot in Bethany until one April weekend when Dad and his brothers, his best friend, my maternal grandfather, and any family member who could swing a hammer or cook congregated for the Italian-American equivalent of an Amish barn raising. By Sunday afternoon the roof was on. As the structure took form, one of my uncles, playfully exaggerating the end-vowels of an Italian accent, kept saying over and over, “Atsa’nice.”

And so above the screen door, Dad nailed an old street sign. On the back, with his draftsman’s penmanship and a brush full of Rust-Oleum, he painted Uncle John’s praise.

Atsa Nice, the cottage on the corner of Kent and Collins, has stood now for 40 years. People seem to like the name. Lots of folks spontaneously shout, “Atsa’nice,” when they walk or drive by, and always with an accent.

We like this. It makes us feel sort of important. My dad used to wave back at anyone who yelled. If we were having dinner, he would invite them to join us.

My mother hated when he did that, but it was his way of having fun, and as we almost always ate on the porch, it was a common and inevitable complication in their relationship.

That sort of thing doesn’t happen as much in my family anymore. I blame it on air conditioning.

When we didn’t have that luxury, we were better, more civil people, if perhaps a bit sweatier. We couldn’t lock ourselves away indoors. We lived out on the porch, our lives a little closer to our neighbors and passersby.

Atsa Nice stands on a busy corner, though our street used to be a dead-end, dirt road. Now that road is an east-west arterial from Bethany West to the beach, so a whole bathing-suited, flip-flop wearing, chair-carrying parade of beach goers passes our porch on any day the sun shines. It’s nice to sit on the porch and stare out in a reverie at this world. Our porch is a little like the shore itself, a margin between the safety of home and the vast indefinite beyond.

A porch is the best part of any house, and Atsa Nice, is in essence a porch with a kitchen in the middle and some rooms to sleep in. In plan view, the house is a rectangle. It was originally bordered on one long and one short side by 536 square feet of screened-in porch, almost 40 percent of the total square footage of the house. About half has been converted to allow for an extra bedroom and bath, but what remains is still roomy. Under the screen and close up against the foundation grow hydrangea bushes I planted about 10 years ago. Within a few years, the 40-foot long row grew until the branches reached overhead. They now bloom with brilliant blue snowballs each July.

The house is sided with corrugated asbestos, a once ubiquitous material for homes on the shore. The inside is walled inch-thick, tongue-and-grove knotty pine, spar-varnished and sun-darkened to the color of maple leaves in November. The studs and rafters are air-dried fir.

My father chose his materials with a careful balance of economy and quality. The whole building, from its foundation, to its propane water heater and stove, cost $6,024.

The bunk beds, still in frequent use, came from Sears and Roebuck. They cost $140. At Hecht’s department store, my parents paid a cool $100 for the rattan living room furniture, which over 40 years, has always been upholstered with materials that are rugged, durable and in amazingly poor taste. In the ’70s, my mother chose floral-patterned cushion covers in orange, brown, and white. Everyone agrees these should be burned, but no one ever bothers to do anything. One of the great qualities of a beach cottage is that it does not lose its charm when ignored.

But as I was saying, the comfort of the air conditioner has taken my family inside and away from the porch. My objections to air conditioning at Atsa Nice have frequently put me at odds with many in my family, but compromises have been made, so I can usually get the house opened up in the morning. There is no better place for coffee, no better library in which to peruse the paper.

My favorite place for this ritual is an antique metal porch chair, the kind with a rounded back and bent steel arms and rockers. I place my coffee on one of the two old beer kegs on the porch that serve as end tables. My eldest sister, a respectable suburban grandmother, stole them 35 years ago during an Army-Navy game.

Among other fixtures on our porch are a redwood deck chair, several wooden rockers, a metal milk can, antique fishing poles, a ship’s bell that serves as a doorbell (pull on the old doorknob hanging outside to ring it), a hubcap from Dad’s old Beetle and a bookshelf my brother made entirely from driftwood.

It’s the paintings, however, that distinguish the space. A low wall, 32 inches high, wraps the porch. Above is screening. Spaced every 4 feet along this wall stand uprights that support the roof. These uprights divide the low wall into panels. Some years back, my brother decided these would make good canvases. He began painting. I eventually added my own panel. So did my father, then, a couple summers ago, my niece.

These paintings give the porch a lot of what diplomatic people call character.

My father, did in fact, take art lessons after he retired, and he got pretty good. The cottage became his gallery. He was quite prolific. Unfortunately, most of the work that ended up in the cottage includes his early efforts, work that has a lot of “character.” The walls are covered with waterscapes, lighthouses and beach scenes. My favorite is a winter scene, one of those tranquil compositions with a limited but tasteful palette that is often assigned to beginning art students. In it, a deer stands in the snow under a copse of birches. But like most things my father did, he made the painting uniquely his: Pop added a rabbit. But he didn’t get the eyes quite right, so the rabbit looks as if it has been shocked with a Taser.

A man who claimed to be a professor once knocked on our door, then asked to see the porch. He was studying the role of porches in our culture, he said. The professor loved our porch, but it was our outside shower that sent him running for his camera like an archeologist stumbling upon a cave painting.

Outdoor showers are common at the beach. They’re a smart and simple solution to sandy bodies. Ours, however, is more than merely utilitarian. Oversized and painted a Caribbean blue-green, its walls drip with the vines and leaves of hanging plants. A vast grapevine grows over the open top, its leaves letting the sun through patches so that it sparkles on the wet walls. With grapes overhead and water running underfoot, it could be the bath of Tantalus. The facility is lighted with lanterns and candles for evening showers.

This shower is the great luxury of the cottage, though in essence it is a simple one. Its beauty comes from the fact that it is outdoors, that it is made of natural things, that it is lit only by sun or fire. Besides, all one needs at the beach is a little rinse. The sand and salt scour away all impurities.

One doesn’t need a wardrobe either. I lived for years in my surf shorts, keeping handy a T-shirt for places that require such things. I was especially Spartan in my early 20s, when I spent my summers working at a sailboat rental. I learned a lot about responsibility, and I met one of my best friends there. Our days consisted of rigging, repairing and sailing catamarans on Little Assawoman Bay. Every night we went in search of waves, then often crashed at his place over a local surf shop. When I needed a good night’s sleep, I retreated to Atsa Nice. It was the quiet hub of my life, a life that from my vantage point now seems perhaps more idyllic than maybe it was. Still, it was unfussy and straightforward, and who could not be content with that?

More than anything, that is what Atsa Nice has been for anyone who has lived there: a place of simplicity.

Weekends there were not hard to plan. The progression was natural. Saturday morning, Grandpop dragged us from the bunk beds, then loaded the car with his homemade crabbing equipment; lines of twine, old tomato stakes, and anything that would serve as a weight—a lead sinker, a heavy washer or a discarded faucet handle. All of our crab nets, the cheap nylon having torn out of them, he refurbished with chicken wire. Those nets were indestructible, and crabs didn’t tangle in them.

All of this went into the car, along with a package of frozen chicken necks, fishing poles and a can of worms. It was my job to dig them from the garden.

We had a couple of favorite spots, but the most fruitful was “the point,” a spot down a dirt road in South Bethany that ended where the main canal met Little Assawoman Bay. There are houses there now, but in my young crabbing days, there was only grass and water. The breeze, unimpeded by structures, carried the sweet smell of myrtle over the marsh.

We always caught a bushel of crabs before noon. The night was spent around the table. In the hot air of August, the smell of Old Bay seasoning permeated the kitchen and the porch as we picked. Even after we were full, we kept picking crabs, for the rest of the bushel would go into the spaghetti sauce for Sunday evening’s dinner.

My grandfather was a chef. Hanging in our kitchen is a photo of him in his chef’s coat and toque, standing with a half-dozen other chefs who had cooked John F. Kennedy’s inaugural dinner. My grandmother, however, made better sauce. She made it from tomatoes she canned herself. When crabs were added, there was simply no better sauce to be found from Delaware to Naples. A little kid who’s just spent a sunny day playing in the waves can eat a lot of spaghetti.

Mom’s specialty was blueberry pie. She, my grandmother and the younger of my two sisters were addicted to picking blueberries. They would descend on the local berry farm with buckets belted around their waists, then sweep the berries in like human combines. They brought home blueberries by the gallon. They filled both vegetable drawers of the refrigerator, the cold-cut drawer and several coolers they stowed in the pantry.

Over the years, a wild blackberry hedge 150-feet long sprung up along the border of our double lot and became home to a score of rabbits. Every spring, the yard came alive with bunnies, much to the delight of visiting children. I planted a garden to ensure a supply of fresh tomatoes and basil, as well as berries. I grew sunflowers, lettuce, squash and melon.

About a year ago, we received a letter from the town of Bethany, informing us that our blackberry hedge was in violation of an ordinance that forbids plant growth that might harbor vermin. Vermin? Rabbits, it is true, are technically vermin, but the rabbits never seemed to be offensive. The town’s rules, like many other things at the beach, were growing complex. I suppose we could have fought the town, but we simply did as they asked. So the hedge is gone, and the rabbits too. My neighbor Joe got so angry he called one of the town officials and lectured him on his folly of razing a natural resource. Joe is a good neighbor.

For years Atsa Nice had no phone, so we collected our mail general delivery at the Post Office. We did eventually put a box on the street (it collects a lot of junk mail) and a phone too—a boxy old rotary dial. We use our cells now, but the old phone remains on the wall. We just can’t seem to let it go.

When we returned to the cottage after an evening out, we took to the rocking chairs. Grandpop told stories, Dad told jokes and the family made plans. If Uncle John were visiting, he would play the harmonica.

The porch on such nights, was lighted by citronella candles. Inside, the lamp over the kitchen table lighted the family’s nightly gin rummy games. The only other light was a streetlight, a single incandescent bulb under a corrugated tin reflector. It cast a gentle light that did not intrude on peace of the evening. The street is far too bright now, and traffic noise rattles one’s senses too much for the kind of conversation or meditation that porches are meant to kindle.

The long, gray plywood floor of the porch was a great playground on rainy days, and the hammock my brother had strung in one corner surpassed any other place for reading. I dog-eared his entire collection of comic books while swinging in that hammock. That’s all there was to do when it rained. We never went shopping because there was no place to do so. We stayed in the cottage, piecing together puzzles, playing cards or napping.

Sleep is always so much better at the beach. My parents used to say it was the salt air that made a sleep so much more restful than at home. Salt air was also their reason for a healthy appetite. Yet the salt air never did anything except rust tools in the shed. It was the energy with which we threw ourselves at our days that stoked our appetites and made our rest so still and deep.

When I hit my teens, I stepped off of the porch more often to play in the surf by day, to chase girls at night. Even misbehavior in those days seemed somehow wholesome. My friends and I would find someone to drive to Ocean City (Bethany was dry) and buy a case of beer. Then, from Bethany, we hiked north into the sand dunes, where we would build a bonfire. We never caused any trouble because we couldn’t afford enough beer to get up the nerve, so I always wandered home safely to Atsa Nice where, in the quiet of the night, I would raid the fridge. Mom was never pleased when she discovered that her freshly baked blueberry pie was gone in the morning.

On one such evening in Bethany occurred my first kiss. It happened with a pretty, summer breeze of a girl with long hair. We sat together on the steps of the old Bethany Beach lifeguard house, then leaned toward each other until our lips touched, no doubt far more awkwardly than I recall. The town tore down the lifeguard house years ago, but it left the step, a small, out-of-place block of concrete, a memorial to my youth. Recently, I noticed the step had disappeared, but then again, so did my youth. One has to learn to let go. Nothing is permanent.

One day not long ago, as I sat on the porch with my coffee, I noticed an old man standing on the shoulder across the road. My sister came out from the kitchen.

“Do you think he’s alright?” she asked. “He’s been standing there a while.”

She walked out and brought him to the porch. He had been out walking when, due to Alzheimer’s disease, he had lost his way. He recalled his phone number, however, so my sister dialed it. The man’s daughter answered. It turned out that he lived in a big cedar-shake house that I had passed every day.

As the man waited on the porch for his daughter, I sat with him in the heat, trying to make small talk. He seemed tired, so I mostly sat quietly. As a look of understanding came over his face, he lowered his head, softly rapped the floor with his cane, then swore quietly to himself, angry over what he had lost.

My own father is becoming more vulnerable as he closes in on 90, but last year, he was still able to visit Atsa Nice. He spent his days sitting on the porch he built with his own bare hands, looking out on the world and waving to anyone who yelled “Atsa’nice.” Dad was a superb carpenter, an old-school master. He never used nail guns, power tools or laser levels. He cut his wood with a hand saw, drilled his holes with a brace and bit, stood his walls with a plumb bob.

I’m a carpenter now, and I’ve learned enough to be amazed by what he was able to do. When it comes to the beach cottage, I can also be critical. “Now why in the hell did he do that?” I’ll mutter when running up against one of his shortcuts while working on the house. Then I remember something a friend once said: “Your old man has forgotten more than you’ll ever know.” Small strokes have erased most of that. He knows his family still, but even on a good day, he fights to keep up with a world time is taking away from him.

A short time ago, Pop and I were sitting together when my nephew walked in. He had been working on something in the house, so he was holding one of my dad’s old hammers. Pop looked up, reached out and took the hammer. He eyed it, turned it in his hand, then made a couple of half-swings in the air.

“Sixteen ounces,” he said.

It was the first thing other than “yes” or “no” he had spoken in days. The work a man does for love never completely leaves him, even when most other things have.

Pop loved swinging a hammer. It was what he did to relax. If he wanted a vacation, he built something. Atsa Nice gained its addition that way, which proved useful as more grandchildren and guests began to appear. But what he really built was a place where people could focus on the act of being together, the joy of sitting by the sea.

My family has been using the cottage less and less in the past few years. The floor on one end of the porch has rotted, the fence needs mending in places, and the outside could stand a coat of sunny yellow. I’ll get to it soon, when there’s time, and for now, I have that.

I have an old, 126-format photograph taken on the beach at Bethany. On one end, it shows me at the age of five sitting in the sand, my mother beside me, smiling. In the center is my sister, young and pretty, her hand on her husband’s shoulder as he looks into her face. On the other end, my grandmother kneels behind my grandfather with her hands on his shoulders. Though he would live only eight more years, Grandpop looks fit, hair not yet fully gray, chest like a barrel of the wine he used to make in his basement. In the foreground of the photo stands a sand castle we had all built by letting wet sand run through our cupped hands. The sand formed weird cones like volcanoes made of worms. The front of the castle shows the effects of an incoming tide that would in time erase it.

We built our cottage just as we built that sand castle, so we could play in the sun. We built it for the sheer joy of making it, and we have enjoyed it as if it would stand always. We knew, however, that time and tide softly washes away even such labors, and so we made Atsa Nice simple, that without distraction we could delight in summers that are all too brief.



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