Zucker: A Madeleine (A Memoir)
Vacations are not only events but points and spans of time anchoring our memories and, if we’re lucky, awakening our most real selves. Of course, we look forward to them to rest our spirits as well as change our routines.
When Marcel Proust in his saga, In Search of Lost Time, tastes a tea-soaked pastry, a “madeleine,” he is able to bring back the details and feelings of his childhood). My madeleine is any seashore. That always evokes the images, people, and events of my family’s two-week vacations in 1948-49 during the flush of post-war prosperity. I was ten, my sister fourteen. We drove for two days in a stuffy Dodge from the outskirts of Cleveland to Cape Cod. The first year was Hyannis, the next year Wellfleet. I am summoned back 65 years marked by the war not only to the distant post-war era but a different sense of time. My father was too old for the draft, yet every family member was involved in the war effort in some way.
There were no interstates then (except for the Penn turnpike, which was off our route), so we drove on two-lane roads, almost all rural, through small towns. In the first summer we were on the outskirts of Concord, Mass, when our car struck and killed a deer which had suddenly vaulted across the road. By state law, the cops awarded the deer to my father, who told them to give the glassy eyed carcass to a local hospital. My sister was hysterical. The deer-event projected an image of violent death that has haunted me since. We spent the night at an old hotel in the middle of Concord while the car was being repaired. That first night away continued the bickering between my sister and me. She objected to sharing a hotel room with her little brother and we were both in shock from the deer’s death. My parents, though annoyed at the delay, seemed unmoved.
That first year’s Cape vacation brought another fiasco. The seaside resort my father thought he had booked turned out to be only a motel on a busy state road in Hyannis. After a half day’s search he found another “motel resort,” and the good news was that it faced the ocean. My mother managed to settle us after a day in the housekeeping wing of the “resort.” My sister parked herself on the beach at a distance from us, happy with her new portable radio playing crooner tunes. My father spent most of the day reading his supply of magazines and newspapers. Away from her daily housewife chores even on vacation, my mother enjoyed walking back and forth along the water’s edge; she did not enjoy swimming but she was fascinated by any sea or lake. When bored with digging in the sand, I threw a tennis ball off a wooden beach barrier, catching with my new fielder’s glove, constantly working on softening the pocket. When he would take a break from his reading, my father, a strong swimmer, took me into the surf. Our best times in the motel cottage were at our simple meals, typically hot dogs. In a few days my sister and I managed an uneasy peace.
The next year my father planned more carefully, following the advice of a friend who recommended a rustic resort in Wellfleet which accepted--in fact, catered to—mainly German Jews. Such a vacation place aroused my parents’ interest. In the Forties, they had sometimes encountered on a registration desk a placard, “Gentile clientele only,” in response to which they would immediately walk out. Yet if they wanted to they could “pass” as gentiles; my mother actually was one of those and my father did not “look” very Jewish. Having been raised “pareve,” not fully Jewish or gentile, my sister had only a vague idea about ethnic markers and I was completely in the dark.
The resort’s Cape-style frame cottages and the communal house with dining room were weathered and unpainted, with beach roses and rhododendrons along a wide walkway to a large windowed dining room with walls covered with photographs of distinguished past guests. A large sleeping black cat was stretched out by the dining room door, frightening my sister whenever we went to a meal.
I don’t recall the name of the resort; perhaps it had none. The “grownups” (we were the only children that summer) my father described as war “refugees,” most of whom had already “made good” in America, and most lived in New York. There was Erwin Panofsky, an eminent art historian, and his wife Dora. Both were polite but distant, and they paid little mind to our family. Mrs. Panofsky had very short hair and wore man’s clothes, which my sister and I thought weirdly amusing. My conventional parents commented that “there are some unusual people here.”
There was Hans, short and bald, with his beautiful and younger wife; he published a German-language newspaper. I noticed large scars on his wrists and ankles and asked him, to the dismay of my parents, how he got the scars. He shrugged in a kindly way and said in his thick accent, “from the war.” He always came over to our table, with a sway and limp, to chat with us, especially with my sister and me. None of the “refugees,” my parents noted, had pronounced accents except Hans, although I heard them sometimes speaking in German. There was a young couple--he was German, she was not—their names, like most of the others eluded me. He was handsome and athletic; my sister had a crush on him. He and his wife quickly became friendly with our family, going on a few outings with us, to the beach, to the ponds near the ocean, and on two occasions, to Provincetown. He enjoyed displaying his strength and agility by leap-frogging over parking meters. A superb swimmer in the rough surf always pounding the outer cape, he would swim out beyond the limits of ordinary mortals, defy the considerable undertow, and return to the beach refreshed and glowing, ready to throw a beach ball with us. My sister and I adored him. Back in the comfort of the common room with its many sofas and game tables, he and his wife tried to teach me bridge.
The expansive beaches of Wellfleet and Truro, now protected as “national seashore,” were then almost without tourists. We were usually the only ones in sight as we spread our blankets near a huge dune and spent the entire day there, my parents reading (my mother bestsellers, my father a thick book ). We would all be very careful not to go far beyond the beach line and the wild surf and clots of seaweed. On the way back to our cabin we swam and washed off the ocean brine at a favorite among the several inland ponds. Usually no one else was there.
Far from Cleveland these two summers, especially Wellfleet, were not only escapes from our very ordinary lives, as most vacations are supposed to be, of course, but also renewals of spirit for my parents, despite the trivial distractions of family life even on the cape. Wellfleet especially became an Eden among my memories. The Wellfleet was my first experience with people very different from us. In ways I didn’t understand when I was ten years old, they were connected to the war, and post war, era. Now whenever I am at or even near an ocean, I understand the power of Marcel Proust’s taste of the madeleine.