When I was growing up, we were regulars at Hopkins Cottages in East Brewster on Cape Cod from at least 1967 right through the end in the 80s. For two weeks nearly every August we breathed the salt air-dune grass-beach rose scent of freedom and wide open spaces. We ran feral on the soft corduroy sandbars, let hermit crabs skitter across our hands, built sandcastles, walked out a mile at low tide to see giant hermit crabs, swam in water warmed by sun-baked sandbars when the tide came in.
We’d wake to reveille from one of the nearby camps, listen to bob-whites, and walk up Crosby Lane to Cobies for soft-serve chocolate ice cream on hot afternoons. At least once each visit, we’d drive over to Nauset Beach to swim in bone-chilling waves, slide on the Truro dunes, or swim in Brewster’s kettle ponds. We’d have chowder and pie at a church supper in Wellfleet, and go to the movies on rainy days. We read a lot, and played hearts at the little table in dim lamplight. Sometimes if we had a rainy stretch, we’d even turn on the gas heater–quite a thrill for a kid from New Jersey who had sweated through summer.
Most days I’d wander out into the salt marsh to spy on the fiddler crabs scuttling through a trickle of water in the bottom of a ditch. They’d hold their big claw before them like a medieval shield and sidle around each other in rush hour traffic. Would they topple over? If I so much as blinked, they’d dart back towards their burrows. I spent hours watching them, first solo, then with my brother, and I have often wondered why I didn’t become a biologist.
They say you can’t go home again, but we’re going to try – again. It won’t actually be our first family visit. Once, when the kids were three and five, we stayed briefly at a house in Woods Hole just within striking distance. One day we made a bee line to Crosby Landing.
When we stepped out of the car in the town parking lot, I did what I always do upon arrival: inhale. One whiff of beach rose-sand-dune grass- salt water–alone or in any combination–makes me 10 again with a whole Cape day ahead of me.
I shepherded the boys onto the sand and saw the ocean had rearranged the tidepools, but that was to be expected. As the boys scampered, I led them into a pool to find hermit crabs to race across our hands. We wandered further out and I looked down and saw giant hermit crabs–descendants of my old friends?–in enormous barnacle-crusted shells. I exclaimed, admiring them, showing them to the boys, when I drew the attention of two women.
One asked to see the crabs. I thought she just wanted to look at them as we did. But before I could stop her, she shook the little crabs right out of their shells and confiscated their houses.
“How could you do that?” I managed through mingled shock and anger. As usual, I couldn’t think of what to say. If I ever meet a genie, that will surely be one of my three wishes, to say the right thing in the moment.
“What, you don’t eat fish?” the woman sneered. As if that somehow justified taking the little crab’s house. “He’ll find another shell.”
“Not that big,” I said. Ever since, I have pictured shaking the woman out of her house–and then taking the house. But of course I haven’t, and I’m counting on karma to make this right, which it may have already. My boys are 14 and 16 now.
I haven’t been back since. At first I was too mad–horrified that anyone could value another creature’s life so little, that these people were allowed on my beach, and that they’d sullied its introduction to my boys. This place that had been a refuge, where I’d spent the happiest weeks of my childhood, was now tainted. And my kids would never really know what I loved about it. To them it was just a beach –and the people weren’t that nice.
If I needed confirmation that you can’t go home again, that was it. I had been to the Cape in my 20s and it was never quite right–the traffic made going anywhere life threatening and I couldn’t stay in the little cabins.
The cabins, built of World War II surplus material, were never what you’d call robust. Years of minimal maintenance and abundant weather had taken a toll. In the 80s they were briefly offered for sale, then torn down, and the property transferred to the public.
Though the cabins are gone, the beach and salt marsh–miraculously–are still there, protected by the state of Massachusetts and the town of East Brewster.
Without the cabins, I can’t recreate my summers, but I can camp at Nickerson State Park, which is almost close enough. So that is what we’ll do this summer: pitch our tent in the sand and pines, hop on our bikes, and take a spin down memory lane.
They say you can’t go home again and I know it’s true. But I’m going to try anyway.