63 Years Later

Yikes! It’s been 63 years!

That’s right! It’s been 63 years since I made my appearance on this planet! (Actually, it’s now been 72!)  It seems that every day I see someone or read or remember something that reminds me that I’ve been here for more half a century and am working on 3/4.  I have a picture in my bathroom of my mother and 5 of her friends.  They called themselves “the River Rats” because every September they spent a week at a cottage on the James River near Surry, Virginia. They started way back when I was just a little kid and I’m not really sure how they knew each other in the beginning except that Mary Ann Perkins lived across the street from us when we moved to our new home in 1957.
Some few years after that, we became charter members in the Battlefield Park Swim Club where my Mother, who was a lifeguard and a Water Safety Instructor, worked every summer from the day it opened.  She and a woman named Wesy Chappell worked as lifeguards for the 1st 2 weeks of the season before school was out and the regular lifeguards came to work and for the last 2 weeks after they returned to classes.  Louise Fuller worked the gate and I’ll always remember her fingernails! They were so long and perfectly formed and hard as the concrete around the pool. She would sit at the table at the gate and work on those nails for hours. They were bright red and exquisite and I was insanely jealous of her. My nails were and still are like my mother’s – thin and brittle and they still snap off into the quick if you look at them wrong.
Mabbot Rideout was a friend of Mary Ann’s and there was one more – Marie Spatig – and I don’t have a clue how she fit into this group. They played bridge together once a month; most of them either swam or worked at the pool; and they decided one summer that they had pretty much had it with kids and husbands so when the pool closed for the summer, they took off for Surry and a friend’s cottage on the river for the day. They left early in the morning and Mom dragged in about 9:00 that night, sunburned and bleary eyed, but beaming from ear to ear. They had thoroughly enjoyed the day and had made a solemn oath to do it again the next year.
To make a long story short, they slowly increased their “get-away-from-the-men-and-kids” until by the time I was married, they were spending a whole week at the river. No men and no kids were allowed and they never talked about what they did except for one thing. One of their traditions while at the river was to get dressed to the nines one night and eat dinner at The Surrey House, a very nice restaurant that for some obscure reason was located in a tiny town with a crossroads, a gas station, a church, a hardware store, some houses and this very good restaurant.  Every year they would dress the place up even more as they graced it with their presence. They pranced in, got the biggest table in the middle of the room, ordered a glass of wine, and proceeded to talk, laugh, and eat – in that order – until they had driven away all the locals and were watching the waitresses (well, that’s what they were in the 1960’s) trying not to be too obvious about the fact that it was past closing time.
They learned to tip well on those nights out, which helped with the waitresses and soon they were a welcome fixture. I don’t know if they ever figured out why they were missing so many sugar bowls and napkin holders and cream pitchers during those years, but we all knew because each family had at least one souvenir – we had a sugar bowl – with the logo of The Surrey House on it – a black “surrey with the fringe on top” that was so distinctive we had to hide it when company came over.
I’ll never forget the time we were taking my sister back to school at William and Mary – the route took us right through Surry and right past The Surrey House, which my father said served the most incredible iced tea in the state of Virginia. My brother was about 8 years old at the time – innocent as a lamb – and he had us running for the car when he grabbed the sugar bowl off the counter while we were waiting for our “iced teas to go” and yelled, “Look Mommy, they have a sugar bowl just like ours!”
Anyway, one year they decided to really go crazy and they all dressed up like “floozies” for their night on the town in Surry. They had on short dresses with wide stripes, long beads, lots of makeup, high heels, and crazy hair styles. I’m not sure what the style was they were aiming for but they got something between a flapper and a hippy. They caused quite a stir in Surry and Mother told me they were glad they hadn’t told anybody what they were doing because Daddy and all the other men swore they would have been there to drag them out of that restaurant if they had known what they were doing.
Now, every day I look at that picture and I can’t believe how many years ago the River Rats were tearing up the banks of the James River in Southside Virginia. I look at them and can’t believe that half of them – Mother, Marie, and Louise are gone now. Louise, God bless her, has been “gone” for more than 40 years as she was struck by something they later thought was Alzheimer’s at 39 years old and spent more than 40 years in a nursing home. She never knew anyone again after the first few years and the River Rats always had a little memorial ceremony every year before taking over The Surrey House for the evening, an event which was dedicated to the memory of Louise “Hard-as-Nails” Fuller.
Wesy and Mary Ann and Mabbot are still going strong – when I saw Wesy and Mary Ann at Mother’s funeral more than 3 years ago, they looked almost like they do in my picture. They were sad about Mother but knew she was better off after her long bout with Alzheimer’s. I was sad too and still am some days, but my huge picture on the bathroom wall cheers me up every day as I look at those crazy women and think about how old Marie would be now – she was the oldest – and that Mother would be over 90 had she lived. I also think – gee, I’m older now than they were when that picture was taken 

I’m 63!  Yikes!

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