Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Easily Influenced: Love Letters and Sunkist Soda

For almost forty years, a woman named Joan worked for Grandmother, and it was Joan who actually ran the house.  Joan was deputized as de facto first lieutenant, and she took her job very seriously.  She had her own room at the other end of the house, and kept the pace exacting, regular, and perfectly coordinated to Grandmother.  My older cousins called her the Gendarme, and she would give us a “five-minute warning” to clear ourselves and possessions from the lawn before the mowers started, and then literally chase us away once they could be heard.  My father always described her as “having the warmth of a German combined with the openness of a Yankee”.

Joan was a widow who saw three sons go off to Vietnam, but only one return.  Her surviving son was the local mailman, and he was virtuosic in memory and had never had a cold, fever, or sickness as far as anyone could recall.  He was dependable and friendly, and lived by a cowboy code of refusing to gossip, which frustrated those along his route.  He would walk the mail up to the big houses and collect required signatures, etc. and often delivered hand notes between neighbors.


Grandmother’s cousin had moved to California --to Hollywood of all places-- in his thirties, partly to find himself, to crash several sportscars, and mostly to piss off his father and mother (Grandmother’s aunt and uncle).  He had scandalized his uptight parents with accounts (by letter) of lavish poolside parties and relentless name-dropping of disliked Hollywood figures, none of which played well with that portion of the family, but which suited Grandmother surprisingly well.  Even when both were much older, Grandmother liked visiting her cousin, his parties and the guests, and Joan would always go out to California with her to keep things in order and assist with logistics.

On one trip during the late seventies, Joan met a younger handsome former hippie/actor who charmed her irreparably, and for the first time in her life, she actively began dating.  It was a strange and improbable match, but Joan had given herself completely to this man, and Grandmother was happy to see a bounce form in her step because of it.  They dated for the entire spring, and Joan spent all of her free-time with him. She also began to hum and sing around the house Grandmother rented in Hollywood for the spring. 


That summer, Grandmother and Joan returned to the New England coast, and began the process of opening the seaside house for the summer with the usual efficiency.  When we arrived, everything was in its place and running as expected, but Joan was noticeably different.  She kept a small battery powered radio by her side in her small office, and sent away for Beach Boys records that her son would deliver, played every evening when she was off-duty in her room.  Within a month, she sang along to all of them, having memorized the lyrics.  She wrote letters to her beau at the rate of almost one per week, and her son accepted them each morning during his rounds.  As the weeks passed, the love-struck Joan waited for a letter to be answered, but a response never came.  Her son, would always hand her the daily bundle of mail, and say in his characteristically honest tone that he had not seen any letters from the man in question.  Joan concealed her disappointment as best she could, but even the children could tell that she was wounded. 

Joan’s son was married that summer, and Grandmother surprised him by sending them on a honeymoon to Europe for three weeks.  It was the only vacation time he had ever taken from work (excluding his tour in Vietnam) and they shipped off in early August.  His replacement was an older capable mailman who was unfamiliar with the route, but still friendly and professional.  During his first week, he walked up to the house with the mail.  The bundle also contained Joan’s letters to her beau, all postmarked and stamped by the California post office as UNDELIVERABLE and ADDRESS UNKOWN

“These were sitting down at the office” he said, handing her the letters.  She stared at them for a moment and then took them into the house, disappearing into her room for several hours.


When her son returned, tanned and refreshed from Europe, he walked up to the house on his first day back in uniform, with gifts for everyone, the nicest of which he gave to Grandmother.  His thankful bride sent about two dozen pies throughout the following week and we ate ourselves stupid.  According to my father (who recalled the conversation below), Joan asked her son if there were any letters for her from California, and he responded as usual “No, sorry, Mum… none today.”

“Do you think they’re getting through?” She said, giving her son the chance to come clean.

“Of course, Mum.  I’m sure he’s reading them.”

“Okay.” She said, knowing that he had sweetly been shielding her from the disappointment the entire time, in the only way a son knew how.

“See you tomorrow, Mum.”

“Okay, Marcus… glad you’re home safely.”


Several summers later, my cousins and I were watching a tiny TV during a rainy summer day by the sea.  There was a commercial for Sunkist orange soda that incorporated a Beach Boys song (“Good Vibrations”) and featured a catamaran launching off of an oncoming wave, ostensibly in southern California.  My cousins and I were gobsmacked.  We immediately knew that we were going to attempt the same feat.  It took about three days to sweet-talk and arrange for use of a catamaran, which was a small (ubiquitous) Hobie, and three of us set out to perform the jump, speculating about the height, the gasps from onlookers the jump would elicit, and the likely heroic status we would have for the rest of the summer.  We were also certain that Sunkist would want us in their next commercial.  As it turned out, Sunkist would likely not have been impressed at all by the pitch-poling disaster, the embarrassment of a spectacular capsizing, the loss of one pair of boat shoes, the stitches required for two foreheads, and the pleasure craft that thankfully came to our rescue.

***UPDATE: I was just corrected via text message by one of the participants:

"you got it wrong dork!!! nobody got stitches. only big bandages. bled like crazy tho."

My apologies, Cuz.   -YWP


  1. Then the boat must have flipped backwards...
    I remember when I was young and had family dinner, the main course is fish. The word"flip a fish" is strictly forbidden(meaning eating the other half of the fish) because it suggests that family would be dead in the sea. Well, this is long gone.

  2. We flipped a Hobiecat in a pond. It was so shallow the mast got stuck in the mud on the bottom. Good times........

    We saw Hobie at a local restaurant not too long ago, he's in his late 70s, perhaps Joan's long lost beau?


  3. *Chen: It flipped over the front quarter. We didn't have a trapeze, so we must have been hanging onto the spreaders. Nice meeting you at TSFIV... you scored a great suit.

    *Patsy: Which pond? Also, both Joan and the Hollywood flake died in the 90's.

  4. Sunkist indeed! My brother and I pitch-poled and turtled our Hobie somewhere out on Buzzards (Boozers') Bay when we were young and dumb(er). At impact he spun off on his trapeze around the forestay like a Flying Wallenda and banged his head real hard, I meanwhile banged a hole in my kneecap (scar still there) after sliding down knees-first into one of the cam cleats. Worst 'boat bite' in my career, but we still laugh about it 26 years later! Thanks for sharing your story, great memories! - JP

  5. Great Pond in Eastham.


  6. Now that's what I call a yarn (pt. I). Part II is a little mystifying to me though my sailor ex-girlfriend might be able to make sense of it.


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