Saturday, June 29, 2013

A Wedding on the Beach

In a recent post (“For the Bride Who Has Everything”) I mentioned that the month of June is high-water month for weddings and that I had two on my calendar. 

1920 Vintage Photo
The first was a wedding on the beach in Cape May, New Jersey, just an hour’s drive from my home. 

Cape May Mermaid
The beautiful little town of Cape May sits right at the southern tip of the Cape May Peninsula, where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. 

Beach Scene 19th Century
Vacationers from Philadelphia began flocking to Cape May in the mid 18th century to escape the oppressive heat of the City, and by the 19th century, Cape May was America’s most popular summer destination.  The country’s oldest seaside resort suffered a devastating fire in 1878, which destroyed the town center and much of the outlying area and homes. 

The 1879 Emlen Physick Estate, Cape May's only Victorian house museum.
Following the fire, Cape May’s reconstruction of beautiful “painted lady” homes made it then and now the country’s second largest collection of Victorian homes after San Francisco. 

In 1976, Cape May was designated a National Historic Landmark, ensuring its preservation for centuries to come. 

We stayed at the Congress Hall Inn, which is just across the street from the beach, where the wedding was to take place. 
The Inn was one of the many hotels destroyed and rebuilt following the famous Cape May fire of 1878.  
The public rooms are lovely, but our room was incredibly tiny (Trust me, I’ve been in bigger broom closets!!) and incredibly expensive.  

The Blue Pig Tavern
While I was disappointed by the size of our room and appalled at the price, I was delighted by the dinner we had that evening at the Blue Pig Tavern, the most informal of the Inn’s several restaurants. 

The Congress Hall Inn maintains its own working farm less than two miles away.   Farm fresh eggs, herbs and produce from Beach Plum Farm are used in all their dishes.  I could have been totally content with my luscious farm salad, which was so simple and fresh, were it not for the main course, salmon with a light dusting of crisp, marinated cucumbers, which really took center stage. 

A medley of fresh fruit for dessert was the perfect way to end a light summer dinner.  Absolutely delicious!

I was beginning not to mind being overcharged.  Well…..almost. 

A torrential storm began in the middle of the night and was still raging when we awoke the next morning, the day of the wedding. 

At 3:00, the rain was still coming down in dark, grey sheets.  A torrential storm began in the middle of the night and was still raging when we awoke the next morning, the day of the wedding.

The Mermaid Bride
…Perfect weather for a mermaid bride; not so perfect for a bride sans fins and a tail. 

Suddenly, at 3:30, the rain stopped, the skies grew calm and took on that beautiful afterglow like two people who’d just had a noisy lovers’ quarrel and just realized how much they still loved each other. 

What a lovely day for a wedding, I thought. 

And what a lovely ensemble I had put together for the occasion.
What to Wear to a Wedding on the Beach

As we waited for the bride to arrive (She was exactly 56 minutes late; I know precisely, because my husband kept checking his watch), a song kept running through my head -- a silly, little love song from the late 1950s that winds its way through the Jersey Shore towns and ends up in romantic Cape May.  For those of us who grew up in the Philadelphia area and spent long, lazy summer weekends at the Jersey Shore, it became our summer anthem.  If you grew up there, you probably know all the words; and after a couple of Cape May’s specialty cocktails, like the Mariner, you’re ready to lead the old gang in a rousing rendition of “On the Way to Cape May." 

But, let’s leave it to an expert to do it right. 

“On the Way to Cape May” sung by Philadelphia’s own Al Alberts (1922 -2009)

Couple at Sunset
In a world filled with so many things that aren't there anymore, it's comforting to know that young couples are still falling in love on the way to Cape May. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Best Years of Her Life - Part 2

Isabelle Anne (August 17, 1916 to June 10, 2013)
At the end of “The Best Years of Her Life – Part 1” it was 1949 and Isabelle had just landed in France on the SS Ile de France from New York.  The money she had won on a radio quiz show would make Isabelle’s long-held dream come true.  She would finally meet the family of her fiancé, Louis, who had been killed in action during the War. 

We pick up the story from there. 

Paris, Spring 1949…”Unavoidably Detained…”
During the voyage Isabelle meets a very attractive Parisian Philosophy Professor named André.  He offers to show her the “real” Paris when they land.  Isabelle sees the advantage of not passing up such an offer. 
She sends Louis’ sister, Jeanette, a telegram:  “Unavoidably detained in Paris STOP Will see you very soon STOP”

On the surface, Paris has survived the war remarkably well and is just as Isabelle remembers it.  The Nazi officer in charge of the city had so fallen under its spell that he ignored Hitler’s orders to destroy it.   But the scars below the surface run very deep. 

Isabelle falls in love with Paris and the Parisians all over again and, in turn, the Parisians, crazy about all things American, are charmed by this stylish young American who speaks fluent French. 

Normandy, Summer 1949…”Battle Scars…”

Isabelle travels by train through the countryside of Normandy.   Looking out the window, she sees the true battle scars and open wounds of war. 
Isabelle and Gérard
As she steps off the train Jeanette, her husband, Marcel, and their little boy, Gérard, are there to greet her.  The little boy smiles shyly while waving a small American flag.  It feels more like a reunion than a first meeting.   Tears, hugs and laughter and Isabelle, an only child, will become forever part of Louis’ family. 

Isabelle, Marcel and Gérard. 
Don't you just love the bobby sox and wedgies?  My Mother was always on the cutting edge of style.

Canteen Girls Isabelle and Millie
Mom and Millie were best friends who spoke on the phone every day until Millie's death seven years ago.
Philadelphia, Summer 1950…”The Fleet’s In…”

Isabelle gets a call from her best friend and fellow Canteen Girl, Millie.  A French ship has just docked at the Naval Base and there is a party for the officers that night.  The party is in full swing when they arrive. 

She is introduced to a group of young officers, one of whom is tall and dark.  His face is gaunt but handsome, and his deep set eyes are large and sad.  She notices his wedding ring, so she writes him off, but he asks her to dance and she accepts.  Well, she thinks, there’s no harm in an innocent dance with a married man, is there?

René says very little and smiles even less, but he is an excellent dancer.  He thanks her politely for the dance and walks off. 

One of his friends tells her that René spent the last two years of the war in a German prison camp and that his wife had died the year before.  Isabelle suddenly finds herself not only interested in but intrigued by this serious young man with the sad eyes; but, she is once again in demand on the dance floor, so off she goes for a spin. 

All at once, Isabelle sees René walk up to the bandstand, grab the microphone and begin to sing.  He has a beautiful baritone voice and everyone stops dancing to listen.  The song is called “Isabelle” and he is singing it to her. 

Isabelle's wedding suit, made for her in Paris, was a deep blue velvet.  I still have it.
Toulon, France, March 1951…”Wedding Bells…”

Isabelle and René are married in a little church near the naval base in Toulon.  They honeymoon in Nice and Monaco. 

France is still suffering from the effects of the War.  Everything is rationed and their tiny apartment has no refrigeration. 

René tries to teach Isabelle to cook with only limited success.

11 months later, I make my appearance, and three years after that my brother, Paul, makes his. 

Philadelphia, November 1963…”Everything Changes…”

It is a crisp autumn afternoon as I make my way home from school.  I walk into the house and everything is strangely quiet.  My Mother is wearing black in the middle of the day and has been crying.  Father Coyle has a cup of coffee in front of him that he has barely touched.  No one needs to tell me what has happened. 

The best years of Isabelle’s life are over.

One week later, on a sunny day in Dallas, Texas, a single bullet takes the life of our handsome young President, a man for whom my Father had proudly cast his first vote as an American Citizen. 

America’s Camelot years are over. 

Isabelle never remarries. 

For the past five years, my Mother had lived in a tiny room at St. Mary’s Catholic Home.  St. Mary’s is run by The Little Servant Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, who are devoted to the care of the aged.  They still wear the white habit and veil of a nursing Order, and are among the happiest women I have ever known.  They are doing God’s good work, and it shows in their smiles.  Of course, that never stopped my Mother from giving them the rough edge of her tongue when she felt they needed it.  Not surprising, really.  My Mother was born ready and eager for a fight. 

“Life is a battle, ma chère enfant,” she would say.  “Choose your weapons wisely.”  She fought long and hard to defend her dignity as she aged, and she won that battle. 

They say that when the time comes, God sends a loved one to fetch you home.  I’d like to think that He sent Louis and René to escort my Mother from the battlefield of life.  I love the image of the Warrior Maiden walking off, arm-in-arm, with the two great loves of her life.  It would have been a beautiful and fitting end to a life well lived.  Besides, Isabelle always preferred the company of men. 
R.I.P., Madame Mère.  You will be greatly missed. 

For Part 1, click HERE.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Best Years of Her Life – Part 1

Isabelle Anne (August 17, 1916 to June 10, 2013)
On Monday morning, June 10th, I got the call from St. Mary’s Catholic Home.  Madame Mère had passed away peacefully in her sleep.  I had been with her only a few days before.  We talked about her birthday in August.  She would be 97. 
The day of her funeral was the most beautiful, sunny day we had had in weeks.  I’m sure she had something to do with that.   One by one, my friends came to pay their respects, and one by one each remarked how beautiful she still was at 96.   Whatever else she was or was not, Isabelle was always beautiful.  

Not long ago, she told me she was starting to forget some of the details of her past, so I promised to write them down for her, to the best of my ability to remember the stories she had told me over the years.  We worked on it together.  I wrote; she corrected.  The following is an excerpt I entitled, “The Best Years of Her Life.”  This was the part of her life that she enjoyed reading and rereading the most.  I’d like to share it with you now.  I think she would be pleased. 

Philadelphia, 1943…”Doing Her Bit…”

Isabelle puts her budding opera career on hold and decides to do her bit for the war effort.
Isabelle Rehearsing the Role of Yum Yum in "The Mikado"
Isabelle and her Leading Man, Frank Guarrera.  Frank would go on to have a 30-year career as a popular baritone at the Metropolitan Opera in New York

During the day she is a secretary and translator in the Commerce Department....
and evenings and weekends she is a Canteen Girl entertaining the boys on leave and doing her best to remind them exactly what it is they are fighting for.
American, British and French ships are arriving at the Philadelphia Naval Base on a regular basis to be repaired and refitted, and the Canteen Girls do their best to keep up morale, both foreign and domestic. 

 The Girls have only two Rules: 

 (1)    Don’t fall for the “I’m shipping out tomorrow and would really like to have something special to remember you by…” line;  and

 (2)    Don’t leave the British and French sailors alone together.  (As their Canteen leader puts it, “They may be fighting on the same side, but give ‘em half a chance and they’ll kill each other on the dance floor first.”)

 Rule No. 1 notwithstanding, couples are falling in love and getting married at a fairly brisk pace.  For these young men and women dancing in each other’s arms, the real enemy is not Hitler, Mussolini or Tojo -- it is time.  How much time will you have with that shy young man with his arm around your waist?  How much time does he have?  A week?  A month?  A year?  50 years?  There is no time to weigh your options or fret about the future.  You simply follow your heart.

Louis in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia
Philadelphia, 1944….”Love in Bloom…”

Being perfectly fluent in French, Isabelle is a very-much-in-demand Canteen Girl. 

She soon falls for a tall, handsome French sailor named Louis.  He has fair hair, bright blue eyes and a smile that sets her heart on fire. 

Isabelle and Louis in Atlantic City
Isabelle and Louis become engaged and spend as much time together as possible before he ships out to sea again. 

Isabelle and Louis in Québec.  Louis took this picture.
A few weeks later, Isabelle is notified that Louis’ submarine was bombarded and sunk somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean.  There was only one survivor, and it was not Louis. 

In her grief, Isabelle reaches out to Louis’ family in France and begins a life-long correspondence with his only sister, Jeanette.  They share their grief.  Through the duration of the War, Isabelle will send Jeanette packages filled with items no longer available in France:  sugar, stockings and lipstick.  Some slip through, some do not. 

Philadelphia, 1949…”Local Girl ‘Strikes it Rich’…”

The war is over, the boys are home and people begin to build and rebuild their lives.  Isabelle is a contestant on a radio quiz show called “Strike It Rich.”  After several rounds, she is one of two remaining contestants.  Family and friends are listening as the final “Strike It Rich” question is asked:  “What was the name of the Count in the Dreyfus affair?” 

Clever Isabelle, always at the top of her class, hesitates not an instant before answering,   “Count Esterhazy.” 

She walks away with the grand prize.  When asked by the game show host what she plans to do with the money, she tells him she will use it to go to France to visit the family of her dead fiancé. 

The next day, local and national newspapers run the story:  “Local Girl ‘Strikes It Rich’ – Will Use Money to Visit Family of Fiancé Killed in Action.”  She is an instant media sensation. 

New York, Spring 1949…”Bon Voyage…”

Family, friends and photographers gather at the New York Pier to see Isabelle off.  She has booked passage on the SS Ile de France.  

She shares a cabin with a middle-aged woman who is clearly a seasoned traveler.  The woman’s steamer trunks are plastered with stickers from all over the world.  One enormous trunk contains nothing but hats, which she uses to great effect.  Whenever an errant child gets within arm’s reach, she removes her hat and proceeds to beat the child over the head with it while yelling, “Midgets!!!  Damned midgets!!!  I hate midgets!”  Had she been travelling in 1st Class she would have been called  eccentric; since she was a 2nd Class passenger, she was simply known as the Mad Hatter!   

During the voyage Isabelle meets a very attractive Parisian Philosophy Professor named André.  He offers to show her the “real” Paris when they land.  Isabelle sees the advantage of not passing up such an offer. 

And so, we leave Isabelle in Paris.  In part 2, she finally meets the family of her first love and finds love with a tall, dark, handsome stranger.   Stay tuned. 

For Part 2, click HERE.