Warwick’s Highland Beach epitomized the wholesome side of 1950’s America. Stay-at-home Moms devoted themselves to their families in airy homes with all the latest gadgets and comforts. Their husbands provided enough income for almost every want to be met and we children suspected even then that we were experiencing close-to-perfect childhoods.
Highland Beach came alive each summer on the bay front just north of Rocky Point. Our house on Burnett Road had a lawn about 30 feet deep that ended at a sea wall with steps bringing swimmers directly into the bay. A year-round garrison it had a sweeping porch facing Barrington’s Rumstick Point across the water. Similar homes stretched along the beach toward Longmeadow to our north, most occupied by families eager to enjoy a summer retreat. There were few year-rounders.
The mainly Italian-American residents had names like Pari, Zinno, Radoccia, Isacco, D’Arezzo, and Palmisciano forming one huge summer clan. On beach days, children knew that if their own mothers were home cleaning or baking, the mothers with us were our overseers. We understood that we answered to and could be scolded by all and any of them. This insured against sassiness and, conversely, only added to our sense of well-being as we stared adulthood in the eye.
Our fathers returned each evening, weary from the hour-long drive from the hot city before Rt. 95. After a quick swim, they dined on the porch with the family. My mother often served pasta with littlenecks: she was a champion quahauger able to harvest dozens from the murky bay bottom in minutes. As summer waned, the sweetest corn from Morris Farms hit the table. For dessert there were sliced peaches in red wine. There was no rush to watch Fox news: better, there was no Fox news.
Offspring of hard-working immigrants, we were living the American dream and we knew it. Yet the traditions of our roots lived on. Mothers swam on the feast of St. Ann (July 26) when that saint-- the mother of Mary and patron of mothers, grandmothers, homemakers and housewives-- traditionally bestowed blessings on the bather. I don’t remember any openly feminist women in the Highland Beach of my childhood, though I feel certain some there must have been planting those seeds, however subtly.
Newborns were baptized at St. Benedict’s Church in Conimicut where the dead were also remembered, and after-Mass feasts always included the traditional pastas, roasts and cakes our grandmothers had served. Even “hot dog roasts” relied heavily on Italian sausages lovingly brought to the beach house from the city’s Charles Street, Federal Hill or Silver Lake neighborhood shops by our commuting Dads. Fried zucchini flowers spilled off heaping platters, and homemade wine always materialized.
For us children it was paradise, with guardian angels around every corner. When I fell out of a tree at Carol Radoccia’s tenth birthday party, a host of Moms were at my side in seconds spewing ice cubes and comfort. On torrid days when none of us wanted to come out of the water, someone’s Mom would appear beachside with sandwiches and watermelon slices for whoever needed them. Elders who didn’t want us to understand what they were saying, would slip into the Neapolitan dialects of their parents. Drug problems and infidelities were never discussed in any language: In Washington, Senators McCarthy and Kefauver were busy taking care of anything that might be wrong with America.
Highland Beach was the place where most of us experienced our first cigarette, our first kiss and our first death. When, at sixteen, one beloved son died of Mediterranean anemia-- an affliction most of our parents had never heard of—he was waked, buried, mourned and remembered in the traditional ways which insured that, even now—a half-century later—his name still echoes in our hearts.
Highland Beach was the hothouse for the ethic which still lives in all who spent summers there. In the stillness of late summer mornings, from my bed, miles and a lifetime away from my room on Burnett Road, I sometimes still strain to hear the quahaugers’ voices being carried ashore on gentle low-tide waves. And sometimes, I think I still hear my Mom downstairs in the kitchen baking a mulberry crostata with fruit from her neighbor’s bayside garden.
Having returned many times to my father’s and grandfathers’ beloved island of Ischia in Italy’s Mediterranean, I appreciate why my Dad loved Highland Beach so much, and can still hear him whispering-- as he often did, relishing HIS Highland Beach-- “Che meraviglia!” (“What a marvel!”)
And that it was.
Winter visit to Highland Beach, circa 1946
This piece originally was published in the Providence Journal 8-4-2013