Viva Willow Dell

Before I evolved into the wise and zen creature that I am today, the sound of one of my parent’s contemporaries asking what I was doing these days sounded like rocks in a blender with low notes of jackhammer.

In my twenties, when my insecurities about my career, and by extension about myself as a human being and a daughter were at their apex, stepping onto the deck of Willow Dell Beach Club where I had spent every summer of my life felt like stepping into a swarm of hungry deer flies.

Even though Willow Dell towers in the memory of so many people, it was a modest structure. Consisting of a low slung deck, men’s and women’s changing rooms with a terrifying toilet, a cold shower, and a water spigot, it had everything  beach goers needed and nothing they didn’t. What made it exceptional was its laissez faire, yet traditional sensibility.

Situated on a rugged little section of coast on the south shore of Rhode Island, Willow Dell Beach Club had the most treacherous undertow around and the funkiest beach in terms of sand quality and slope. The deck, which was the heart and soul of the place, was built from wood that seemed to have been chosen especially for the size and quantity of the splinters that it could produce in a day. Despite what others might think of as drawbacks, Willow Dell was beloved by many, myself included.

Willow Dell was a place for parents and children to be freed from each other. The only time it was acceptable to interrupt the adults was if you got boiled in one of the giant waves that would pound you into smithereens on the ocean floor before horking your bloodied carcass up onto the rocky shore. Even then, unless you were bleeding from the mouth and had to be escorted to your parents by a lifeguard, it was wiser to shake it off and carry on.

I wish I could set the stage with a more factual history of Willow Dell because it was a fascinating fishbowl of a place, but the last of my parents’ most cherished friends have all made their way to the cocktail party in heaven and cannot be reached for questioning.

My parents Betsy and Ed, made a strange brew. Bohemian inclined, yet deeply conflicted by an intense desire to fit in with the WASPs who colonized this rarefied little corner of New England, my parents found a home at Willow Dell sometime around 1960. I think they would have liked to have had the option of joining The Dunes Club in Narragansett, which at the time epitomized the last word in New England old money, but most likely they would not have made the cut on account of my father’s last name.

While I occupied myself at Willow Dell trying to fly off the sand dunes with a bed sheet for a sail, eating soap and getting gigantic splinters, my parents and their liberal friends sat on the deck enjoying martinis and tasty sandwiches with their drink “kits” and ice buckets next to them. At some point in the mid afternoon before anything unseemly could happen, kids would be gathered up and trundled home, so that the adults could take naps and prepare for happy hour and croquet, which convened promptly at 5:00, often at Willow Dell.

The best times at Willow Dell were the cookouts because being at the beach at night time was intensely exciting. The adults wanted nothing more than to party and have fun with their friends, so as aspiring visitors to the ER and petty criminals, we used our freedom to swim in the dark, play with firecrackers, and steal potatoes from the farm adjacent to the clubhouse parking lot.

It is interesting to note that the only accident I ever had at Willow Dell that required a trip to the ER took place in broad daylight under the supervision of my  best friend’s mother also known as my “other mother”. I fell through a hole in the deck and got my forehead stitched by an Army doc who must have used an upholstery needle because to this day I still have a gnarly scar.

It goes without saying that as we grew older we put away childish things like sparklers and turned our attention to cigarettes and beer, which we would consume in the warren of unlocked cabanas while our parents got hammered on the deck. Acquiring cigarettes and liquor was a simple matter of distraction.

Front Row, left to right: My sister and I on the deck at Willow Dell in the summer of 1977. Back Row, left to right: Deborah Salomon, my mom Betsy Keiffer, Judith Salomon, Mitch Salomon, Betty Salomon. To the left of Deborah is my parents compartmentalized wicker "kit" and their immortal ice bucket.

Front row, left to right: My sister (age 20) and I (age 14) on the deck at Willow Dell in the summer of 1977. Back row, left to right: Deborah, my mom Betsy Keiffer, Judith, Mitch, Betty. To the left of Deborah is my parents compartmentalized wicker “kit” and their immortal ice bucket.

My parents and their friends used to joke that the democrats sat on the left side of the deck and the republicans sat on the right. Looking back, I think that their assessment was mostly accurate. All I knew was that my parents’ crowd had paisley and madras napkins and clothing, whereas the people who sat on the other side overwhelmingly favored starchy white canvas monogrammed beach bags and tidy shirts sparsely decorated with pink Scotty dogs or spouting whales.

The children who belonged to the people to the right were tennis playing demi-goddesses with whom I was desperate to make friends, but they were never more than polite. As for the offspring of the left, it seemed like there were very few kids my age.

Those happy days at Willow Dell ended for me the summer I was fourteen. After my failed attempts to get some social traction at the high school in Providence that the Children of The Right attended, I committed myself to pot and alcohol. After three miserable semesters as an aspiring preppy, I woke up one day and realized that being super bad made me super rad, and where once there had been a geek, there was now a very bad assed and slightly stoned swan.

If tattoos had been a thing back then, I would have been covered in them, but instead I lounged about in my crocheted bikini on an Indian bedspread in the dunes next to the clubhouse and obsessively read Fear of Flying while nursing a warm screw driver.

In 1985 when I was 22, after Hurricane Gloria destroyed Willow Dell, I was lucky enough to get a summer job with the contractor who had won the bid to rebuild the deck. Rebuilding the beach club where I had grown up was about as good as it got as far as summer jobs went. I was only a carpenter’s helper, but I learned to use power tools and swing a hammer. We rebuilt the club almost exactly the same way as it had been before the storm and made a point not to have any hot water for the showers because hot water is for weak, inferior people and not something that people descended from sturdy European stock want or need.

The storm that had demolished Willow Dell also wrecked the beach club next door. Blackberry Hill was generally acknowledged to be not as good as Willow Dell. I have no idea why Blackberry Hill was considered inferior but I suspect that it lost points on account of being Irish or Italian. The same thing went for  Carpenter’s Beach on the other side of Willow Dell. They were beyond the pale because they had a snack bar.

Most likely, it was more of a financial than neighborly instinct that prompted the Willow Dell board of directors to extend a helping hand to the displaced people of Blackberry Hill after Hurricane Gloria. Many of them ended up joining Willow Dell and I assume they were forced to occupy the middle portion of the deck.

It wasn’t until I had graduated from college and moved back to Rhode Island that I noticed that the people from the right side of the deck could be counted on to detain me as I walked onto the deck and inquire “And what are you doing these days Lizzie?” Being a mature college graduate who had taken fiction writing classes, I answered their questions to the best of my ability.

“I’m a graphic designer” I would answer cheerfully, when in fact I was a paste-up artist and wanted to stab myself with my X-acto knife every day. Or I would answer “I’m in advertising” which back then was a great field to be in, especially in Providence, but I was merely a typesetter at a print shop in south Providence that had been implicated in a porn scandal.

Willow Dell continued to be a part of my life well into my thirties because it never occurred to me not to go there. Until I got married, I was part of my parents’ family membership at Willow Dell, and then once I was married, my parents, trying to be nice and to avoid static for being cheap, paid the heady initiation fee for My Royal Consort and I to join the club as adults.

When we joined Willow Dell as a new family, I had high hopes that as official grown ups we would partake of the adult pleasures that my parents had enjoyed and obliviously ignore our children while they frolicked on the beach. What ended up happening was that my contemporaries were politely aloof, and our kids only enjoyed going if they could bring a friend with them. Before I could set my bag down and slather some sun-block on my children, someone much older than me, who knew my parents and remembered me from my childhood would sail up and ask me what I was doing these days. I, being face blind, would have no idea who I was talking to and would be too paranoid to make an introduction to my children for fear of getting the name wrong.

After I quit working (I was an inker at Hasbro until the day I went into labor) to be a mother to Thing 1 and then Thing 2, the “what are you doing these days” question would completely flummox me. After admitting that I wasn’t exactly working at a career at the moment, I would curse myself for not snarkily saying that I was a fecal engineer or a lactation consultant. My Royal Consort was not immune to detention and questioning at Willow Dell either, but unlike me, he answered the question honestly and said that his career still involved applying paint in mostly monochromatic color schemes to buildings.

Despite our inability to really fit in at Willow Dell and the fact that we could barely afford the yearly membership, I was asked to serve on the board of Directors. At the time, my only experience with boards was when I was painting them for the rich Wall Street New Yorkers who had colonized Watch Hill (when asked what I was doing these days I told them I was an interior designer or if I was feeling frisky I might tell them that I was doing faux finishing). Flattered, I agreed to serve on the board despite the fact that I didn’t know a Rule of Order from my right leg.

During my time on the board, our family attended one of the Tuesday night cookouts. In my official capacity as Vice President of Willow Dell, I helped another board member haul out the trash and put away the Weber grills after everyone had left. Following in my parents’ footsteps, I left Willow Dell that evening with a fairly full sail, which I continued to fill at home with a friend who was staying at our house. We both went to bed thoroughly drunk, as in “We are so going to regret this tomorrow” drunk.

Passing out into my bed, I was awakened by my equally drunk friend who had miraculously heard our phone ring and answered it. It was the South Kingstown police calling to inform us that Willow Dell was on fire. I sobered up immediately and tried to remember if I had remembered to remember to check the Webers for live coals. As we hurtled back toward the beach, I could see the towering smoke and flames shooting out of the building. Willow Dell was a total loss, but the good news was, the fire had been started by arsonists and not by me.

Our tenure at Willow Dell ended after the fire because the annual dues went sky high to subsidize yet another reconstruction. In 2011 Willow Dell was set on fire a second time and then vandalized within the same week before a crew could be mustered to rebuild the structure. Then, in 2012 it was compromised once again by Hurricane Sandy.

I haven’t visited Willow Dell since Hurricane Sandy but if I did, instead of rendering a full account of what I am doing these days, I would describe in excruciating detail what Thing 1 and Thing 2 are doing these days because I am at that age (my unborn grandchildren are on the conversational on-deck circle). “Thing 1 is living in Vermont and works as a landscape designer at an historic golf course while he finishes his degree” (he has a job as landscaper at a golf course and needs 4 credits to complete the lengthiest BS in the history of SUNY Plattsburgh). As for Thing 2, he currently has college immunity, but only for two more semesters, and then he better give me something good to work with.

Fascinated by me and can’t wait to find out more? Simply look to the left of the page and see the heading called “POSTS FILED UNDER” . Find the category called “Growing up Keiffer” and prepare to be stunned.









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  1. Amber Kelley Collins says:

    This is a fun read. My childhood was not a Willow Dell one (far from it) but my husband’s was. I do love Matunuck

    1. admin says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it Amber! I’m finally putting together the fact that you are married to a Collins, am I correct? My parents and the elder Collins were great friends back in the day.

  2. Meg Rutherfurd says:

    Glad to get the update on Thing 1 and 2. My Miss Thing may be working in RI this summer as cook. Will make sure to see you if she’s up there! I love the way you write!

    1. admin says:

      Please let me know where she is working and let her know that she has a friend in RI if she needs anything. Ah the life of a cook–I love it and should have just gone to culinary and called it a day. There is something so magical and zany about kitchens. Thanks for the compliment on the writing.

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