Cape Towns

Cape Towns

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Mom

Cape Towns

When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.
~Mark Twain

When I was seventeen... it was a very good year. That was when I first visited Cape Cod. However, and this is a very big however—I was with my mother. We stayed in Hyannis. I hated being with my mom. And she knew it. She made several references to my sulking. I snapped back with something sweet like, “I wish I was never born.” Then we exchanged more clichés.

“Wait until you have a daughter of your own.”

“I’m never having children.”

“That’s what you say now.”

Mom tried to make our visit better by taking me to Provincetown. She figured I’d relate to a place that’s not on the middle class map. You see, I wore beads and headbands back then. She meant well. What mother doesn’t? But Provincetown? Oy, what a mistake.

This is not only a beautiful quaint artists’ colony on the tip of Cape Cod. It’s a wonderfully unique place inhabited by, as Marlo Thomas once put it, people who are “free to be you and me.” Provincetown’s folks live just like they’d like to live, in a community where they are accepted and welcomed regardless of their lifestyles. But my mother, from upscale Baltimore, never associated with anyone other than the conservative members of our synagogue. So when she saw a man in a dress, she had a conniption.

As we were strolling through the wild and wonderful carnival-like Commercial Street, she screamed, “Do you see that?”

Being seventeen, and definitely not into being uncool, I saw the person in the red chiffon dress. Then I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Isn’t that a man?”

Frankly, I wasn’t sure. But I figured whatever she said in this phase of my life was most certainly wrong and worth arguing about. “Not every human being on earth is a middle class person from Baltimore, MO-THER.”

Then she wanted to go in a store. “Let’s find something for your Aunt Ruth.” The shop’s sign read, “Eros.”

“Mom,” I pulled her away. I knew they sold primarily erotic things, and of course mothers know nothing about any of that. “Let’s go have a lobster.”

She looked aghast. “Lobster?” she said way too loudly. “You should never eat a lobster. They eat sewage. When people on Cape Cod flush their toilets, it all ends up in a lobster.”

“Mom,” I sighed. “That’s not true.” I shook my head. “And lobster is the best thing I have ever eaten.”

“It’s not kosher. It’s a bottom dweller—a scavenger. You know, like your Uncle Lou the leech.”

There was no lobster on that trip. When we left Cape Cod, something haunting about it lingered in my mind. So after graduating from college in New York, Mom came to pick me up so she could help me move to the Cape.

As mothers often do in some divine miraculous way, mine still loved me.

First, she wanted me to live in elegant Sandwich, the oldest town on the Cape, where she saw the huge white captains’ houses and stately inns. She figured I’d spend my after-work hours in quaint book stores among the intellectuals. I wanted to live in rural Eastham, where you can actually breathe the salt air since it’s so close to the ocean on both sides. She didn’t like Eastham. She thought I’d be too isolated. They didn’t even have a Macy’s and apparently, according to the local fishermen she harangued, had no plans to build one.

Then I saw the gorgeous cranberry bogs in Harwich and decided to live there. “I’m going to marry a cranberry farmer,” I informed her, “and spend my days shucking berries.”

“Cranberries don’t get shucked,” she said. “And besides, we’re talking physical work here. Think about it.” I thought. We compromised on Falmouth.

“I’m going to live in a shack by the sea,” I announced. “I’m going to decorate my shanty with nets and buoys and I’m going to get up at dawn and dangle my feet over the side of a lobster boat while my swarthy fisherman takes me out to Cape Cod Bay.”

“You’ve never gotten up at dawn your entire life.”

“Well, I’m starting now.”

“No Jewish man is swarthy. What does it mean, anyway? I think it means somebody who hasn’t taken a bath in two weeks.”

“Oh,” I looked up in a dramatic swoon, “it means devil-may-care. It means lust for life. It means...”

“It means I’m getting those heart flip-flops you gave me when you weren’t wearing a bra at your cousin’s graduation.”

We found a lovely one-room apartment. And there, the most amazing thing happened. Mom, it turned out, could actually be fun. We traipsed all over Falmouth trying to find salt and pepper shakers in the shape of lighthouses. We never found any, but as they say, it’s the journey that counts. While searching, we developed frequently occurring cases of uncontrollable giggles. That is, until we discovered steamed clams.

“Shellfish isn’t kosher,” I reminded her, as she looked over the menu at a seafood restaurant.

“There’s something you should know,” she said, solemnly. “It has been commanded that we can eat non-kosher food outside of the house.”

“Who commanded that?”

“I did, and so did your Aunt Ruth.”

The waitress brought us a bowl of steamed clams. Mom picked up a clam and pried it open. She looked at the gloppy gray insides for more than ten seconds. “Now I know why God made shellfish unkosher,” she said. “He took a look at one of these. It looks like something in a specimen bottle.”

I started laughing so hard that the waitress came over. “We’re fine,” I said, trying to catch my breath. “Do you have hamburgers?”

After two weeks, it was time for Mom to leave. I didn’t want her to go.

“Can’t you stay one more week?” I fought back tears. She was doing the same.

“Your father needs me.” I knew what she was really saying was that she needed him.

“How do I thank you, Mom?”

“You just did. You always do. It never has to be said out loud, to me.”

And so I waved, sad and frightened, as the taxi took her away from me. Soon she’d be back in Baltimore, among the red brick houses with their classic marble steps, and I was faced with the task of beginning life on my own on Cape Cod, the peninsula surrounded by sea.

Now, thirty years later, I still adore the Cape. I love the seashores, the sand dunes, the golden marsh reeds. The only thing that’s missing is my mom. Last year, on the day which would have been her birthday, I took my husband to a gift shop. To honor Mom’s special day, I bought salt and pepper shakers in the shape of lighthouses. The gal asked if I’d like them gift wrapped. I said I would.

To this day, the unopened gift-wrapped box rests on our mantle. When I look at it, I not only savor memories, I sense her presence. I guess the little girl in me still dreams she may someday open my gift. Now that she’s gone, of course it’s impossible.

But I can still dream, can’t I?

~Saralee Perel

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