Tag Archives: Jett Williams

One Hundred YEARS of Gratitude

Halfway on our path from the cottage to the bay.

From December 31, 1920 to September 30, 2020 a small piece of land on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia offers a tiny slice of beauty, bugs and the best of life to my grandfather, Starke Jett II, and his family.

He inherits this property from his father, Theodore Augustus Jett. There used to be far more land to the tiny peninsular where the property sits than is there now. There was a good size hotel complete with a ten pin bowling alley and guest cottages adjacent to our family claim.

By the time our cottage is a reality the hotel has washed into the bay. Three very small cottages and the bowling alley all grown over with vines and inching closer and closer to the bay with each passing year are all that is left. We kids are discouraged from playing around them but being kids we occasionally get curious and explore the empty tilting buildings. My cousin Jett falls during one adventure and and breaks her arm. After that the properties are declared off limits and truthfully it doesn’t matter too much to us as the beach is more fun. By the next season everything is gone anyway taking away any possible new temptations.

Having no need for the hotel amenities my grandparents stay in their family property about a mile inland in the wee hamlet of Tibitha situated on State Route 657 between menhaden fishing mecca Reedville and end of the road village Fleeton. Then Tibitha was a legitimate postal address for the few houses, church, and store for many years, now it’s just a name on maps. The house is still there and occupied. That’s how little things have changed over the years.

The house starts life as my great grandfather’s general store. When he makes plans for the disposition of his properties he tells my grandfather that he will leave the bulk of his estate, including the family home Sunnyside, also located on the peninsula but not on the bay proper to son Theo. My great grandfather tells my grandfather he has not concerns for his success. He is a well respected minister in the Methodist conference and has also married well. But my uncle Theo, a lifelong fisherman, has fewer prospects for gain. He wife, Maud Eyre Williams, is a local gal who could upon occasion be somewhat self absorbed.

And that is how my grandfather acquires the tiny store plus three lots on the Chesapeake Bay for his part of the inheritance. It all comes into his actual possession on December 31, 1920 upon the death of my great grandmother Florence.

The store, now a summer cottage for my grandparents, my dad and his two sisters has no running water, no power and a two seater outhouse. They get daily fresh water from Maud’s brother (Octavius) Rosser who lives nearby with his sister, Tyther Ethel. Their father is Tibitha’s postmaster. This is the kids’ chore. Then it’s off down the dusty lane to the beach. They spend their days on the bay. Occasionally my grandmother will come down to the bay for a dip which encompasses her gently settling herself into the lapping surf to cool off.

My grandfather joins the kids more often than my grandmother does. He has one bathing suit his entire life. He purchases it when the long sleeved and long legged body suit is in style. Through the years IG snips and trims at the legs and sleeves so my grandfather will not embarrass her as much.

Maybe my favorite family vacation story of theirs though is when Mother Leigh throws a bucket of water on Keese and my dad and IG while they play a game on the porch. She is so hot and wants to cool them off, sensing that they must be at least as if not hotter than she is.

The cottage that I know comes into existence in the mid fifties. My dad’s youngest sister Clarice to few, Keese to most, marries in 1947 and my grandfather reasons that no one will have any interest in vacationing in such a primitive manner and sells the house. My dad is already married and has planned a career as an Air Force pilot. IG is living an urban life as a librarian at Duke University. When Keese finds out about the sale she is aghast, explaining to her father that everyone wants to spend time at the beach.

To right his unpopular decision, Other Dad decides to build a family vacation cottage on one of the three lots on the bay. He sells the other two lots to finance the cottage construction, one lot to Rev Loving and one lot to Rev David Henry Lewis Jr, an Episcopal priest who later becomes bishop. Three preachers all in a row.

Camping and crabbing on the bay in earlier days before the cottage gets built. Mom tells of Dad once falling asleep and getting the bottom of his feet so sunburnt that it is painful for days. We are a family good at finding fun in any situation.

Years into our cottage vacation days, Mom spies a perfectly weathered and worn tree root system that will be easy to turn into a coffee table. She drafts my uncle Dick to help her haul it up a low rise in the cliff and back to the cottage. She’s at the top pulling the last few feet needed to crest the rise, Dick is below pushing. I have been walking on the beach and come along just at the moment when Mom’s bathing suit top falls down. Both adults gasp and then shamelessly start laughing. I cannot scramble up the cliff to help Mom because their project is monopolizing the only easily scalable spot. If Mom lets go to fix the impropriety all of their progress will be lost. Dick saves the moment. “Oh Midge, I’m not looking, keep going.”

My own memories begin in earnest when we begin taking our annual family summer vacations at the cottage. We as a family have just returned from a tour of duty on Guam and this no frills cottage reminds me enough of our flat roof cinderblock base quarters to immediately feel like home. It too is cinderblock with screens for windows. Our base house screen windows have wooden louvers to regulate air flow, the cottage has heavy wooden shutters that have to be shut from the outside when rain threatens to blow inside.

The cottage roof line is A shaped allowing for an attic. The cottage shape is a rectangle with two bedrooms at the front corners. At the back corner is the kitchen joined by the one bathroom, a very small bedroom and the last corner bedroom. The T shaped balance of the space provides room for eating, reading, card playing, sitting by the fireplace on cool nights, and bay viewing. The attic is floored across the part over the kitchen, bath and two bedrooms and has a pulley style drop down set of stairs. There are narrow walkways along each edge for storing tubes and such. The rest is open loft that provides light from windows in the two end walls. Our tiny cottage is airy and perfect.

And it sails us through summer after summer of cherished memories. We have no radios much less TV which is in its infancy, no fans nor air conditioning which too is in its startup years as a home commodity and sometimes not even a working toilet as the unfamiliar overload causes our one toilet to give up. But that’s all minor. What we do have is the bay, each other, fresh decks of cards, and random books brought by one relative or another. It is here I discover James Bond thanks to my Uncle Martin. I fall in love with Big Little Books and original Nancy Drew mysteries.

We deal with mosquitos, sunburns, chiggers and the awful smell of the local menhaden fish factory churning out fertilizer and cat food. The night that the fleet returns finds Dad excitedly calling out, “The fleet’s coming in!” He can see the lights of the boats rounding Smith Point. He hastily loads any of us who want to see them dock and unload into his car and we’re off. It’s a short drive and the dockyard small. This smell really is ungodly. I breathe through my mouth and hold a tiny bottle of perfume to my nose to keep from gagging and barfing. But the wonder of the night with fishermen knee deep in dead fish vacuuming them up out of the hold under harsh bright lights makes it all so exciting and daring.

We visit relatives and occasionally take an hour long trip to the nearest town of Kilmarnock where we peruse the goods at the town drug store while having a soda or cherry coke at the fountain. I’m always eager to buy a new nail polish or lipstick with my hard earned babysitting money.

But mostly we play on our beach, a term very generous in name because it is full of fallen down pine trees, broken washed up glass but not washed enough for collecting as all the shards still have sharp edges (Keese spends every day picking up buckets of broken glass so that we can play safely), drifting sea nettles and slippery clay. Still it is ours and we love it. We pretend the trees are ships, we each have our own, we use black inner tubes to avoid the stinging sea nettles, and the clay is in small patches mostly and thankfully down the beach from us.

We need access to this unique beach from a fifteen foot or so tall bank that spans most of the bay side of the peninsula. All of that is flattened out now due to erosion. But then we have no money for stairs that will wash away in the winter anyway and so dad carves footholds down to the beach and we’re all set. We are on the beach from morning to dusk. We kids are usually sent to the house to pack simple sandwiches for everyone. Peanut butter & jelly, relish, lettuce & tomato, things like that.

Sometimes we walk the beach, the fallen pine trees making it an adventure because we have to go into the sea nettle infested water so many times. Climbing over or under the trees works sometimes but not always. If we get all the way to Bayview at the end of our peninsula the land spreads out into a flat wide beach. We sigh over what might have been. My grandfather really wants this piece of property and a cousin who owns it agrees to give my grandfather first refusal when he decides to sell but then changes his mind and sells it out of the family.

Walking in the other direction gets us to the public beach for the town of Reedville. It’s a small but wide and sandy beach and is very popular. We always feel a bit smug to have our own private beach even if it does have fallen trees and broken glass.

For many years Mom and my aunts lament not having a dock but monies are tight and it is a pipe dream until they realize that they are literally sitting on most of the building materials. They begin shoving and toting water washed pine trunks until they have enough to create a foundation for a modest platform built with lumber yard cheap plywood. Upgrade!

Time marches on like it always does and sees the family going in many directions. Family vacations continue but begin to dwindle. Donny & I spend our honeymoon at the cottage and some of our first vacations as a family there. Years after that my brother lives in the cottage for awhile as does my cousin Mart later still. There is discussion about selling the property that goes on for decades. Keese has built nearby as have IG & Dick, and Mom as well. She and Dad split the blanket years earlier but she will not be denied the beach life.

And now we are here and I purposefully post this piece exactly one hundred years later on December 31, 2020. The property has finally been sold and is in the capable hands of its new owners. They are lovely people according to Keese. They plan to live in the cottage, updating it. She tells them that it has seen a lot of special moments. They tell her that they know, they can feel the love it emanates.

Epilogue

As our final step everyone’s copy of the sale documents need to be notarized and so it’s off to the bank for me. There I am delighted to find Anna Shipley Mccurdy in her office ready to help me. Anna and I share many Outer Banks moments. Her dad is responsible for helping to set the scene to create truly great family memories of our own. When Donny and I are discussing house plans with various builders Jim Shipley looks them over and suggests to Donny that we rework them to make the wraparound covered porch one foot wider. He tells Donny that by adding just that one foot will make a huge difference. Donny follows the suggestion and everyone who knows us knows how much our porch is used and beloved. Anna and her sisters were swimming students of mine, going on to be instructors and lifeguards themselves. And it is her mother Mary Ann that gets us started on home school testing, our current business and life saver when the family lighting store falls to big box businesses and the early nineties savings and loan crises. Mary Ann needed help getting testing materials and I knew the ropes. The world is a wide and an amazingly small place.

PS If you are an avid reader you may recognize some of the photos and episodes from earlier posts. I chose to repeat them here as final homage to The Cottage, our beloved unceremoniously named family getaway. My cousin Jett tried to name it The Other Dad well into its years of unfaltering service to us but it only somewhat stuck.

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The HEART of Christmas

Christmas dinner at 6416 Three Chopt Road mid 70’s

“Fla’Leigh, I need the table.” This will be my grandmother pleading with her oldest to please move her Christmas present wrapping project so that the big dining room table can be set for dinner. I haven’t quite got the spelling figured out; but, my grandmother is extremely good at blending my aunt’s given name of Florence Leigh, which is what she is always called by her parents, into a one syllable word. Others call her Flo. Most call her I.G. I think I get that tag for trying to say Florence Leigh and coming up with an overly simplified version that sticks, but no one else calls her like her mother does. It’s a definite mother daughter thing.

“Yes, Ma’am,” everything is swiftly moved to a beautiful round cherry side table that collects odds and ends. It would be dining room table enough in any standard size room.

As I wrap up another year of present wrapping using our own long dining room table with gifts stretched out in a long line by family, I.G. and her Christmas present wrapping flurry always comes to mind. After dinner, back come all the presents still to be wrapped and the fixings.

It’s a cozy set up. The dining room is centrally located with its floor to ceiling pocket doors always open. One doorway is a view of the open staircase in the central hall ever busy with eternal holiday bustle. Carolers easily fit there when they stop by to fete us. Because there is plenty of room we invite them in for a moment of warmth.

Another pocket doorway gives access to the living room where an eternal four hand game of bridge rotates between the six adults. It is also where the tree is, so wrapped presents quickly get dispatched to a spot in the ever growing pile.

Placing packages under the tree mid 70’s. The dining room pocket door is on the right.

How did I.G. score this perfect wrapping spot? Mom always wraps presents before we leave Ohio. She plans to be ready to play bridge and shop at a moment’s notice. She even puts on bows and it is up to Dad to see that the car is packed in such a way as to minimize crushing. He could easily have created the game of Tetris. He is an expert at working all the angles. But even so, some bows suffer. Finally after too many years of even slightly smashed bows, Mom compromises. She will add bows in Richmond.

My other aunt, Keese and her husband Martin, always stay in the former maid’s room located next to the kitchen with its own outside door to the second story back porch that spans the back of the kitchen. Thankfully for cold weather this room also has an added tiny access door at the back of the connecting closet that opens into the pantry. It’s like a small apartment complete with bathroom and enough space for wrapping presents.

And so the dining room table is free for the having as my grandmother will have wrapped her few gifts before the thirteen of us arrive. She always give country hams to her three children. We grands get the balance of her gifting attention. My freshman year in college she gives me a much longed for wrap around skirt. They are the current rage. Mother Leigh has no idea what a wrap around skirt is, but that does not deter her. She gets help from a friendly clerk at LaVogue, a high end store out of her shopping league, but it’s where fashion happens. It’s my favorite present that year.

At the dining room table, I.G. can wrap presents and still be part of all the fun activities. She’ll even take a rare break, allowing me to take over after I prove my worth at proper wrapping. Together we will put ribbons on her last gifts mere moments before Santa arrives.

The dining room has one more door. This door leads to all the things that wrap every one of our family gatherings up into a figurative bow. It’s a swinging door to the back hall and beyond that the kitchen. The kitchen is where my grandmother holds court from sunrise (well before any of us are up) to sunset. She sits in the chair behind my dad in the photo and makes biscuits, rolls, and so much more but these two stand out in my mind. She cuts perfect biscuits, a few at a time from an enormous dough ball, with a drinking glass. Alton Brown has nothing on her ingenuity.

My beautiful cousin Jett gone too soon, my Dad and my Aunt Keese in the only picture that I know of that exists showing the kitchen at 6416 Three Chopt. It had our heart and is our core.

Mother Leigh’s cooking is traditional southern comfort food. She gets a real ham deep in the country. Her favorite spot is a dusty two pump gas station between Suffolk and Whaleyville. I take her on this journey one time. Those of you who know of Cindy’s Kitchen sixteen layer chocolate cake procured at the gas station in Coinjock, here’s to gas station food always ringing true. Prior to our arrival, she cooks the ham to perfection. She makes red eye gravy from the drippings. All through Christmas a bit of it will be simmering on the stove, ready to go on a freshly baked biscuit.

The smell of Mother Leigh’s legendary coffee drifts throughout the enormous house and nudges late sleepers awake. There is a steep switchback staircase between the kitchen and dining room that gives quick access to this family hub. Breakfast is an ongoing affair, something hot always waiting for each of us as we stumble down the stairs in haphazard fashion all morning long.

I make myself learn to like black coffee like my adored Uncle Dick (also godfather), husband to endless present wrapper I.G. It’s a drip affair. Eight O’clock blend beans ground to drip specification on the spot at the down the street A&P. Not content to settle for ordinary and not willing to pay more for the richer Bokar Blend, Mother Leigh cleverly pours the economy Eight O’Clock through twice making it even richer than Bokar. My sibs, cousins and I have cut our teeth on her coffee milk, mostly milk & sugar with a splash of coffee. But as the oldest grand it is my responsibility to take up the mantle of adult coffee drinking. Only Dick is a hard core purist. It’s an acquired taste but I persevere and to this day prefer my coffee just this way.

Mother Leigh’s kitchen is the heart of our Christmas. It’s where we air differences. It’s where we make up. It’s where we solve the world’s problems. And we cherish every moment. We know we are blessed.

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The JETT Set

cottage sideReedville, Virginia calls our name in the summer. Home to generations of Jetts since Peter first stepped off of the boat near Leedstown with his wife, Mary, and their two sons and two daughters in 1663, we head there like migrating monarchs year after year.

In the late fifties my grandfather, using free cinder blocks my uncle Dick got from a job, builds us a cottage on the Chesapeake Bay between Reedville and Fleeton, Tibitha to be exact. Other Dad’s (my name for him that stuck) original plan is to buy Bayview at the end of the tiny finger of land the Jett’s call home the family homestead Sunnyside being just around the corner on Taskmaker’s Creek.  A cousin who promises my grandfather first refusal instead sells it out of the family. Decades later a rich buyer razes (my aunt begs him not to do it to the point of laying down in front of the bulldozer) the original home saved from certain destruction during the Civil War by the Sutton sisters, and which was in pristine condition, to build a more modern style. Then he decides the mosquitoes are too horrible and sells. To this day Bayview is still the perfect setting with a yard that slopes to the bay unlike our spot with a steep hill to clamor up and down as well as being a constant erosion challenge. It sits next to the family cemetery where many of Other Dad’s young siblings are buried. The results of two first cousins marrying we are told. Three children survive to adulthood, my grandfather one. He is so sickly his mother promises his life to the church if he is spared an early death. He becomes a beloved minister on the Methodist circuit. He takes his family to Tibitha every chance he can get. The heritage of life on the bay runs deep within his veins.  And he wants his grandchildren to know those same joys so he buys three lots nearby, selling two off to pay down the mortgage on one.

Our cottage is a one level affair, a basic rectangle, with a bedroom in three corners, kitchen in the fourth, a bathroom and one more bedroom between the kitchen and corner bedroom along the back wall. A T shaped open space for dining, viewing the bay through the trees and card playing by the rarely used fireplace make for socializing and overflow sleeping. Rope and pulley stairs to the open attic where we store inner tubes for swimming and snakes seek shelter for sleeping in the off season round out the deal.

cottage backWe have no TV, no radio, no fans, no air conditioning. We use wooden orange boxes from the grocery for clothes organizing and are happy to have real beds to sleep on. Screens only for the big windows. If a bad storm blows in we close the heavy wooden shutters.

We have mosquitoes. We are fair game night and day. We have chiggers. A trip into their territory becomes necessary when the septic system surrenders from overuse by so many people. My uncle rescues us from being total pioneers with a once a day trip to the local gas station.

We measure the success of a night by how strong the wind is blowing the smell of the fish factory away from us. When the ships come in, always at night, we rush in all cars available to see them unload. Such is entertainment. The smell cannot be masked even by perfume held under a nose. There just is no smell like a menhaden fish boat unloading.

reedville beach

Midge Jett (Mom), my uncle Martin Williams, my grandfather Rev Starke Jett II

We spend the entire day on the beach accessible by steps we carve in the sloping sandy drop to the beach dotted with eroding pine trees. Someone goes to the cottage, a short walk through the waving pine trees, to fix lunch for everyone else.

Mom and my aunts, Keese and I.G., make creative shade shelters for nap time. Many years into our summer adventures they haul water washed pine poles from down the beach back to our spot for my dad and uncles to build a dock. We play with black inner tubes that must be constantly turned over to keep from practically scorching a layer of skin off. We never use sunscreen. Sun burns are a rite of passage. Peeling each other’s burnt skin layers a labor of love.

lifeguard

My brother Starke Jett V, me, my cousin Jett Williams, Mom, my sister Suzanne Reynolds, my friend from Whitehall Ohio, Carol Brenning.

We have sea nettles to thwart our best attempts at playing in the water. We have a wonderful tide that bestows awesome sandbars for wading in the already shallow water. We have tricky blue clay on much of our private beach that will humbles us in an instant with a gooey slippery spill. We have endless shards of sharp broken glass that my aunt Keese collects by the bucket full to make our beach more user friendly.

To get to this slice of heaven we, more times than not, hop in the car at our parents command as we spontaneously race to catch the last ferry of the night. We are crossing the Rappahannock River where a bridge now ages. But we only know the ferry. We sit on the dock waiting for it to return from across the river. We spy huge red sea nettles and crabs swimmings. The air is filled with night sounds of crickets and cicadas.

I find a stash of Nancy Drew books one summer and read my way through these originals. I find Ian Fleming another and meet 007. We invent games for our days spent on the beach. Fallen pines are ships and homes. Our inner tubes are boats.

screen with holeDrift wood of amazing proportions is everywhere. Mom loses her bathing suit top trying to hoist a big chunk up the sandy cliff. My uncle pushing from the bottom laughs at his unexpected delightful view. Neither are willing to forgo the goal. They win. Topped with round glass it makes a handsome coffee table.

We thrive on fresh foods. We pick crabs. We savor salt roe herring fried crisp and set aside for the warm roe tucked inside mashed with butter and spread on a hot biscuit. We shell butterbeans. We snap beans. We pop sugar peas. We peel peaches. We slice warm tomatoes. We shuck oysters and corn.

We catch lightning bugs and fill our mason jars with their wonder. We explore along the lane picking Queen Anne’s lace and yarrow blooms. Even when it rains the days are as hot as expected. We know nothing else and life is good.

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