Safe inside, toasty warm, while water pitter-patters on the roof . . . describe your perfect, rainy afternoon.
When I was a kid, my aunts owned a cottage on the shore of Lake Michgan. Technically, I guess it was more of a beach house because it was a bit too big to be a cottage. It had five bedrooms and an enclosed courtyard surrounded by a white brick wall with a gate adorned with the letter “P”.
Aunt Marian swore it stood for either “Push” or “Pull” depending on which side of the wall one stood on. The neighbors said it stood for “Pollack”, the last name of the previous owners.
When my sisters and I became teenagers, most of the local boys decided that it stood for “Prison”.
The cottage was my aunts’ vacation getaway, and life was pretty simple there by choice. We were there for the beach and nothing else. We were up and on the sand by nine a.m., and only came home for the occasional glass of lemonade or a quick sandwich before returning. In the days befre anyone cared about sunscreen, we baked and basted, burned and peeled, and lived by the adage that “first you burn, then you turn.”
Rainy days sucked at the cottage. We had no TV. Well, we had one, but it had a 10-inch black & white screen and a blown picture tube, so we could only see the screen in absolute darkness, with all lights off and the venetian blinds tightly closed. In those days before cable TV, there was little to watch anyway; we could only catch three fuzzy stations out of Kalamazoo and the occasional PBS special out of Chicago if the wind was blowing across the lake just right.
So we played cards, built jigsaw puzzles, and battled it out over board games. My aunts taught us to gamble at an early age, and they didn’t believe in letting us win. We won and lost pennies by the hundreds in one afternoon of Michigan Rummy or Pit, and my older sister was a true card shark of the worst degree when it came to poker. We played Bingo and mastered Backgammon and even found a way to play chess for pennies.
When too many of us became poor or when we grew tired of the games, it was time to pack into the old green station wagon and head for Saugatuck. There were all kinds of stores in Saugatuck that were guaranteed to alleviate the boredom of a rainy day, but we were interested in only two. We’d start at King’s Kandy Korner, an old-fashioned candy store with barrels of hard candies to buy by the pound. The Girls , as we called our four aunts, would give each of us a few dollars and set us free.
My favorites were the tangy watermelon hard candies and the fruit-flavored Tootsie Rolls, although I also had a weakness for Cream Filberts and jawbreakers. But it always took me longer to make my selection because I was fascinated with the pickle barrel behind the counter. It was enormous, almost as tall as I was, and had a flip-up top. There was a pair of metal tongs on a hook above it, and a hand-lettered sign that read:
A giant snapping turtle lives in this barrel so keep your pinkies out!
The pickles were huge and garlicky and sour enough to pucker everything from my head to my toes, but I had a deep and intense concern that I was eating something that had been soaking in turtle piss. That didn’t stop me from eating them, but it was a definite concern of mine.
From the candy store, we would move on to an old Post Office building that had been turned into a gift shop and card store. While my aunts prowled through aisle after aisle of useless knickacks for their already overcrowded curio cabinets, my sisters and I would slip into a hidden nook that displayed the specialty cards.
Specialty was a nice way of saying dirty.
We giggled and snorted and blushed and pretended that we understood what we were reading. Eventually, one of us would comprehend a smutty joke and laugh a little bit too loud, and the aunts would search for us. If Aunt Noni found us, she always took a few minutes to read some filth herself before shooing us out to the Hallmark part of the store.
Then it was time to wrap things up and climb back into the old station wagon to head for home. Aunt Verna always bought twice as much candy as the rest of us and we would all hide ours so we could sample from her little white bag on the ride home. Sourballs, Mary Janes, Neopolitans, Tootsie Rolls. We consumed our body weight in sugar and sang idiotic songs until someone either threw up or passed out, and when we got home the Girls tucked us in to our beds, where we tossed and turned and prayed for sun the next day.
The perfect rainy day? For me, it was a day spent with family.