I can smell the beach house sometimes—the stale scent of heat and dust, suntan lotion, and Old Bay seasoning. I can feel the pain in my toes from stubbing them on the heavy furniture. When the weather is warm, clear and bright, it brings me back to the screened porch and the boundless view of the bay, so wide at that point that we could see the Eastern Shore on only the clearest days.
There I am early in the morning, listening to the seagulls while lying in one of the old metal beds lined up in rows in the finished attic. I hear the sound of a whippoorwill calling, “Bob White, Bob White.” I feel the heat from the mysterious storage spaces under the eaves where there were boxes of sharks’ teeth found at the water’s edge and arrowheads that my father had found in the tobacco fields as a boy. Black snakes shed their paper-thin skin in the dugout garage under the house near the old agitator washing machine with the roller wringer. The wind-up record player with only one record, “I’m a jaaaaaazzzzz baby.”
We used to walk past the tobacco fields to the old store to play nickel slot machines. We stole crabs from the watermen’s crab pots and fished for rockfish, using cut-up eel for bait and went weeks without wearing shoes, except to go to church. Bessie, my father’s old rowboat. The blue Shirley Temple glasses in the corner cupboard. Pouring vinegar on jellyfish stings. The old black tenant farmers, Clarence and Jumbo, driving a horse-driven wagon down the road, shouting, “Cantaloupe . . . watermelon.”
My grandfather on my father’s side had the beach house built in 1929. He sold ice and coal before electric refrigerators and central heating. Even during the Great Depression people needed ice and coal so he earned enough money to build the little house overlooking the Chesapeake Bay on an old tobacco plantation called Neeld Estate. My father grew up spending summers in the little house and his children did the same. We had no telephone, no television, no hot water. Then I thought it was dreadful, but in retrospect it was nearly perfect.
Despite the languid, idyllic summer days spent at the beach house, I was haunted by a menacing feeling that grew from the isolation and the solitude. The plantation house had been there since before the Civil War. Growing up I heard a legend about a slave child who was thrown down the stairs and killed by the mistress of the plantation. It was said that the child’s ghost could be heard crying in the house at midnight. We avoided walking past the plantation house after dark, but one night, in my fifteenth summer, I had no choice.
Early that evening my friend Anna and I walked down the road to the beach where we ran into Ray and his friend. I knew Ray only slightly from past summers, but he said, “Wanna ride with us to North Beach? I have to pick up something for my father.” An offer hard for any 15-year-old girls to refuse—we could ride in a car with boys and listen to the radio.
What Ray was getting was not for his father. He bought beer in North Beach and headed back, but he turned off the road into a gravel pit about three miles from home. He stopped the car. I was in the front seat with Ray. Anna was in the back seat with the friend. One of them said, “Put out or get out.” We had never “put out” before but we knew what they meant. So we got out of the car and they sped away without saying a word.
Anna and I were barefoot, on a moonless night, in an area we scarcely knew. There were no houses nearby and there was no telephone to call for help. We considered our options. The quickest way home would have been to go across an inlet between Breezy Point and our beach. But I had no idea how deep the inlet was and I was afraid we would never be able to climb the slimy jetty walls, especially in the dark. So we headed for the old dirt road we called Tobacco Road. Although it was unpaved and cut through heavy woods, it was the main passage to Neeld Estate. Fearing what strangers might do to two girls walking at night on a secluded dirt road, Anna and I decided that we should hide if a car came along.
So we walked down Tobacco Road in darkness as fast as we could, hid when we needed to, and prayed the Hail Mary aloud. At one point, a car approached and we hid out of sight on the side of the road. But Anna slipped off the side into a ravine where people had been dumping trash. I screamed, “Anna! Anna! Annie, please answer me!” No response. She finally crawled out of the ravine, shaken, her feet bleeding.
We continued to walk in silence. When we reached the paved road, a dog belonging to a neighbor with the unlikely name of Mason Dixon came out of nowhere, barking and growling. I wet my pants. So at that point, we were dirty, bleeding, and I had peed on myself. Finally, we reached the bay. We just sat in the edge of the water and washed ourselves as best we could, then we walked home past the old plantation house.
We didn’t hear the child’s ghost scream.
I never told my parents what had happened, fearing I would be punished for going in a car with boys. Anna and I thought we were at fault. Over the year I have lost contact with her. We never discussed what happened to us that summer night.
The quintessential Chesapeake Bay food—crab cakes. Crab cakes are the standard by which I measure restaurants. And for 40 years I have been refining my crab cake recipe. It’s a work in progress, but here’s the current version. Do not under any circumstances use that creepy canned crabmeat that comes from the Philippines or Thailand. Trust me—only real lump meat from blue crabs will suffice. Call me a crab snob. Where I come from, it’s a badge of honor.
Maryland Crab Cakes
1 pound crab meat (remove shells and cartilage)
2 eggs beaten
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce (optional)
1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
1/2 cup finely chopped parsley
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (optional—see alternative)
1 tablespoon butter (optional—see alternative)
Mix eggs, mayonnaise, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, Old Bay, and parsley. Pour egg mixture over cleaned crab meat and mix very gently with a wooden spoon. Refrigerate for one hour. Mold into 8 cakes.
To fry: Sauté in fry pan with oil and butter until evenly brown.>
Alternative baking cooking instructions: Spray lightly with olive oil. Bake in 400 degree oven for 20 minutes.
I sometimes make a simple lemon-yogurt sauce to serve with the crab cakes:
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
1 fresh lemon, juiced
1 tablespoon capers (optional)
Fresh-ground black pepper to taste
Mix and serve with crab cakes.