MY LOVE FOR THE EASTERN SHORE GOES BACK TO MY CHILDHOOD, when each summer we would pack two cars to the gills with everything that seven people swore they couldn't live without for two weeks. We were on our way to Dewey Beach, Delaware, which 40 years ago was just a few cottages behind the dunes south of Rehoboth. Our supplies included seven suitcases, a box of towels, an old horse blanket for sunbathing, a few decaying beach chairs, a smoked ham, Grandmother Raver's black-walnut cake, Mother's raisin cake, enough beach books to fill a library, two bikes, a couple of tractor-size inner tubes, crabbing and clamming gear (old tennis shoes, buckets, net, rake), and Grandmother's medicine bag, which contained enough pills and powerful liquids to stave off the heart attacks, asthma, arthritis, constipation, and migraines of a small army.
My father, who was trained as an engineer, defied the laws of physics by getting us, our dog Joe, and all our stuff into two cars, whereupon we would wait for what seemed like forever while Mother ran through the old farmhouse making sure no one had left a light on or a toilet running or shut Babyface, our cat, in a closet. Finally, she would back out of the house, slam the door, and dive into the car saying, "We're off! And Mrs. Raver fainted."
This was our little family joke, as we left the farm in western Maryland, inhabited by four generations of Ravers, for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and the flat, sandy land that was my mother's home. She had grown up in Denton, Maryland, a quiet town on the banks of the Choptank River, in a rambling Victorian that always smelled of Grandmother Moore's fresh-baked potato rolls and whatever good food she and Annie Taylor, her cook, had prepared for our lunch.
The five-mile Bay Bridge, arching over that sparkling water, its steel towers rising above our heads like ship masts, was the gateway to a kind of paradise unknown to my father's landlocked clan. We were entering a world of gulls and terns cawing in the wake of fishing boats; of sandpipers skirting the hissing foam of the Atlantic Ocean; of farm stands piled with juicy, orange cantaloupes, white peaches, and Silver ¤ueen corn; of little inlets where you could wade into the shallows with a wash bucket floating in an inner tube, and feel for the hard-shell clams with your bare feet.
We'd pull up to Grandmother Moore's house to find Grandpop and Reverend Turkington rocking on the porch, swapping dog stories and tales of either Grandpop's business, which was to bury everybody in Denton, or the reverend's, which was to bless their souls. Grandpop always set out the funeral/no parking signs to save room for our caravan, but sometimes the signs were for real, and we would arrive to find one of Denton's departed citizens in the front parlor, amid a sea of gladioli and lilies. We'd try to get a good look before Grandmother shooed us into the dining room, sliding closed the big oak doors and seating us at a table laden with sliced ham, fresh corn and lima beans, ripe tomatoes, coleslaw, potato rolls, and Aunt Stella's watermelon pickles. After we'd downed a few glasses of iced tea, a big piece of Grandmother's angel food cake, and a couple of Aunt Dolly's brownies, Uncle Charles would hand Dad the ancestral beach umbrella, we'd check on Grandmother Raver for any signs of a heart attack, and then be off.
Those rambling stories on the front porch, the sensuous pleasure of eating too much, the sound of bees droning in the pink blossoms of the crape myrtles all around town were as much a part of the Eastern Shore to me as the boom of waves hitting the beach at night as I fell asleep on the screened porch.
Last summer I returned to some of my childhood haunts to see how they had changed in 40 years—to walk on the boardwalk at Rehoboth Beach and ride the waves at Bethany Beach, where dolphins play just beyond the breakers. I spent one afternoon at Chincoteague Island watching the wild ponies, and another bird-watching in the marshes of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, near Cambridge. I took in old towns like Oxford and St. Michaels and went down to Crisfield, from which I caught the boat to Smith and Tangier islands, where watermen have been making a living from the Chesapeake Bay since the 1600's.
I was moved by what I learned about Maryland's early history, and about how those precious soft-shell crabs come to my table. I was glad to find that I could still sail down a creek near Chestertown with my cousins on their old oyster boat, a Chesapeake Bay sharpie, watching great blue herons and hawks flap out of the trees. But those cantaloupe fields of my youth are fast turning into subdivisions, and condos now line the shore of Tilghman Island.
As I rambled through this watery land—the light and the salty air still quickening my heart—I had to admit to uncomfortable realities not understood as a child. In those days, riding toward Rehoboth (where, I am glad to report, the honky-tonk boardwalk still has bumper cars and saltwater taffy), we would pass black farmers hoeing their sweet corn, and little girls in tattered dresses playing in dusty yards outside tar-paper shacks. I never connected their hard lives with the comforts of my grandmother's house: the bacon Annie cooked so perfectly that we called it Annie bacon (it has been the standard for all other bacon since); the ironed sheets; the curving banister polished within an inch of its life.
Sometimes we would give Annie a ride home to her little house on Fourth Street, on the black side of town; but though Grandpop helped out her family, I never played with any of her children. That sense of separation—of almost no one crossing the color line—is, sadly, still palpable to any visitor to the Eastern Shore, which is as Southern in its soul as western Maryland is Yankee.