Rockport, Massachusetts, with just under eight thousand year round residents, sits on the tip of a peninsula called Cape Ann that extends ten miles East into the Atlantic Ocean and is accessible by car, train, or boat. If you arrive by car, listening to WEEI Sports Radio, you travel 30 miles north of Boston on Route 128, cross the Annisquam River, and thereby enter onto an island. 128 ends in the town of Gloucester, America’s oldest working seaport (the frozen food section of my grocery stocks Gloucester’s Gorton Fish Company products). Until several years ago, if you wanted to get a drink, you left the dry town of Rockport for Gloucester. You can drink now in Rockport in a restaurant, but there are no bars or package stores. From the end of 128, take Route 127 into the fishing and artist’s colony of Rockport.
I am 56 years old. I have been visiting Rockport my whole life. I wear a silver ring with a sliver of turquoise on my right hand finger that I bought on Bearskin Neck when I was sixteen – an exact replacement for one that had gotten too small as I grew. I do not take it off except occasionally to reenact my girlhood game of using the ring as a crown to my thumb, the queen.
I spent my summers as a girl in my grandparent’s house on Railroad Avenue, just down from the commuter rail station out of Boston. My legs were so short they squared off with the curb as I watched the Fourth of July Parade and caught candy flung from the fire truck. Sometimes I would stay in a duplex apartment my grandparents shared with my great aunt, Marion Bruce, who taught several generations of Rockport families. She and my mother taught me to swim in the buoyantly salty waters of its beaches and I return each summer with my family to fling my body into the waves and see what else, besides myself, has washed up on shore.
The houses I ran past then on bare feet to get to the downtown beach are still there, marked by historic plaques and in most cases the same color as in my youth, because of historic preservation rules. The salt water taffy machine that stretches and pulls and eventually wraps individual taffies is still in Tuck’s Candies front corner window, low enough for someone of any age to gaze unimpeded from the sidewalk. The Country Store on Bearskin Neck has its wall of penny candy stocked with my old time favorites Flying Saucers and Boston Baked Beans. The Nickelodeon is there as well, offering for a mere quarter, a thoroughly entertaining rapture from the rhythms of the player piano and glass encased cymbals, snare drum, Indian wood block, tambourine, triangle, and cow bell. I still have shells I bought with my summer babysitting money at the Shell Shop. Before leaving home to go to college, I waitressed in a friend’s restaurant at the end of Bearskin Neck. I have a butter-smudged doily from that summer that has the disgruntled patron-written remark: “I owe you 1 cent tip.”
I am old fashioned. (Did I mention the homemade Old Fashions, twisted crullers, and jelly doughnuts at The Coffee Shop on Main Street, where you will also get the town’s local news sitting on a diner stool as well as the day’s Price Is Right?). Staking out the bench outside of Toad Bookstore, once the Granite Savings Bank, I wait for old timers who come to pass the time so I can ask them if they remember my Aunt Marion. “Oh, yes. She taught me how to write in the first grade . . . I remember once she rapped me with her pencil!”
Like many New England towns, Rockport lives with its early history. For several years our family rented a cottage built in 1720 by one of the town’s founding families. The original two rooms, with their shared fireplace, were intact, with a built in brick baker for beans and bread on one side and a root cellar under a trap door under the rug in the adjoining room. Tunnels, though blocked up, are, according to a resident neighbor, still in existence and connect the downtown beach to certain pre-Revolutionary era homes, a function of circumventing the British blockade of supplies to the colonists.
Weather ten miles out into the sea is taken seriously in Rockport. Wind howls. Rain charges across the water and batters. Thunder and lightning sit beside you. Waves crash and sweep clean.
Rockport has its share of eccentrics, its criminal activity, and those challenged by hardship or abuse. Several years ago a neighbor down the street from the cottage we stayed in was killed by her boyfriend. An old, charred spoon with a blackened bowl is forgotten on a stone ledge of a beach. A frail, elderly lawyer gets chastised by our kayak instructor as he, my sons, and I pass. The instructor explains how the man swindled several in town of their savings. In the summer, Rockport Library and Toad Bookstore host weekly author readings, many of which are mysteries to capitalize on the season’s particular thirst for beach entertainment. Introducing one author’s book, our library host notes: “Neighbors are not always who they seem. Sound familiar?”
People ask why I don’t travel to other places on my summer vacation. When I look out past Old Harbor, past the schooners which are moored for the weekend, I very well could be looking out over the Mediterranean. I get the best tasting lobster roll and fried clams (with no sand) and the most tender New England clam chowder on Bearskin Neck. I can pad, bathing suit on and towel around my waist, to Front Beach, slip down the ramp next to Toad Bookstore, and swim the protected cove, admiring the new Shalin Lui Performance Center, which looks out over the cove, the schooners and trawlers, and us who swim out by the lobster traps. I go to Back Beach to hear the Rockport Legion Band play their summer Sunday evening concerts and watch the children run around the bandshell as the music plays, just as I did as a girl.
I realize I am not a local. With humility I dip into this tender town for two weeks each year. My memories of bare feet, jeweled night skies and shooting stars, movies at the repertory house in the town hall, and time marked by church bells layer in the past and in contemporary times. Reintroducing my own family into the picture rekindles a deep family connection. Locals welcome us back each year (“It wouldn’t be summer without you body surfing.”), remark and query about our boys’ growth, commiserate about new stages in familyhood, and share stories about living on the edge of a continent. To hear Rockport, Massachusetts, the sound poem, click on Media, or go to: http://www.redroom.com/audio/rockport-massachusetts