Mr. Hay lives next door to my mom, and he and Mrs. Hay, Ester and George, were my first bosses. It was this time of year but forty-five years ago. It was 4th of July weekend and they needed some extra help at the beach club down at Atlantic Beach, and so they asked me if I wanted to work. Beach club members had cabanas and access to the Atlantic Ocean, and they also had the beach club food that Mr. and Mrs. Hay provided. I have no idea what was at the other end of the food line, but I helped at the drink end, with ice teas and ice coffees and, if I was lucky, mixing the milk shakes as well.
That was the summer I was thirteen turning fourteen. I worked weekends for the Hays. The following summers after 9th, 10th, and 11th grade, I worked down at a neighborhood beach club in Baldwin Harbor, a much smaller establishment than the one down at the ocean. This beach club was very local, so I could ride my bike there, and I worked five days a week. I’d start around ten and do the prep for lunch — the boiled eggs for egg salad, the chicken and tuna salads, the cut-up fruits and vegetables. We’d be ready at the grill and the salad bar for the Jewish mom’s down in Baldwin Harbor to order their health salads and ice teas. I was a Catholic girl who lived up above Atlantic Avenue and had gone to St. Chris. The beach club was a whole new cultural experience for me.
There were lots of kids at the beach club too, who’d come up to the candy and ice cream window, but lots of the neighborhood kids were off at summer camp. My best friend Mary Chris worked there too with me. Mrs. Hay was our beach club mom. The life guards were our summer amusements. We were thrilled by our paychecks. I saved money from those summers working for my first 35 mm camera and for graduating early from high school and going off to Paris.
Mr. and Mrs. Hay taught us about working hard. They were the best first bosses I could imagine. They taught us how to cut tomatoes and cantaloupes, how to work efficiently during lunch rush hours and weekends, and the importance of prep and clean up. Mrs. Hay was always happy to see us and kept us on our toes. On the weekends after busy Saturdays, they would mix up some sangria during the end-of-the-day clean up. We might have only been fifteen and sixteen, but the drinking age was eighteen back then and we were hard workers. We learned how to enjoy an end-of-the-day drink with them and to do so in moderation. And then we got back on our bicycles for the ride home.
When I went off to college, Mrs. Hay was always there for me next door. I’d visit my parents, of course, but I was over in the Hays’ kitchen eventually. Mrs. Hay would call to Mr, Hay, “George, get some Duckie from downstairs. Carol’s here.” And Mr. Hay would go downstairs to their walk-in cooler and pull out a bottle of sweet and sparkly Cold Duck wine. I would catch Mrs. Hay up on my life. She was always there with a smile, enthusiastic to hear about whatever I was telling her. She was one of my most enthusiastic early supporters.
Mr. Hay was quiet and in the background, but now it is he who is still alive and who I See each time I return to Baldwin. It must be twenty years ago that Mrs. Hay died from an auto-immune deficiency syndrome. I came back up from Georgia for her funeral.
I never learned to call Mrs. Hay “Esther,” but I now finally call Mr. Hay by his first name George. I am 58 and he is 90. Tonight I asked to use his gas grill for hamburgers for me and my mom. In the south shore suburbs where I grew up and where I am now with my mom, our neighbors’ back doors are quite close. I can be at George’s back door as quickly as I can be on the front porch, and his gas grill is even closer.
When I went over to check the temperature of the grill just one more time, George came out to suggest that I light up the other two burners. He always knew how to grill burgers, and so I followed his advice. I turned to Mr. Hay and asked him if I was a good worker way back when, and he give me a definite “yes” in reply. Perhaps it was the wine from my happy hour with the cousins that loosened my tongue, or just my ease with sharing my personal stories, but I told him quickly about the awful bike tour leading experience I had this spring. I don’t think I have ever cried in front of Mr. Hay, but once again I got teary thinking back on that awful bike tour leading experience, without a doubt the worst work experience of my life.
And that’s when Mr. Hay said, “Just forget about it.” He was so certain that it had nothing to do with who I am. I appreciate his reminder that this two-month tour-leading-from-hell experience is not who I am. IF the dice had rolled differently and I had been paired with a different co-leader, the whole experience would have been different.
“Just forget about it.” I’m trying, George, but it’s taking some time.