When a Beloved Childhood Memory Manages to Be Even Better 50 Years Later

AUGUST 10, 2015


I will never forget the first time saw the Ocean House in Watch Hill, RI.

It was 1965, and it was the only time my family ever went on vacation together.  We grew up modestly in Waterbury, CT, and I was the oldest of 6 kids, so that, given the economic times, the idea of a family vacation together was basically off the table.  However, my mother unexpectedly inherited a tidy amount of money from an aunt who suddenly passed away, and my parents, even more unexpectedly, decided that this was to be used for a family vacation.  And we were off.

At that time, the Ocean House was an old Victorian hotel built on the Rhode Island coast in 1868.  It lacked heating, ventilation or air conditioning, but we kids didn’t care as long as there was the Atlantic nearby.  Because this was the first time I had ever seen the ocean.

It was a world of new experiences.  For example, the discovery of The American Plan, which meant that breakfast, lunch and dinner were included throughout our stay in the elegant dining room.  Each day we had the same table and the same waiter, who was kind enough to let me take his ordering pad and write down for myself just what I wanted to eat that night.  I always wrote “mashed potatoes.”  In addition, I had no idea that the hotel’s putting green and croquet lawns were not necessarily meant to attract someone like me, but I didn’t care, I loved them anyway.

I recently returned to Watch Hill with my sister Katie to test my memories.  We drove into town with some trepidation as we passed the tourists, the T-shirt shops and the town’s carousel, where I used to reach for a brass ring each day.  Kids on that day were loving it, too, but the ride was a lot more modest than the majestic structure that I had built up in my memory.  As we drove up the hill, I worried that The Ocean House would prove to be the same disappointment.

I needn’t have worried.  As I walked into the magnificent lobby, I felt like I was that kid again.  I looked out one window, and there was the putting green.  Across the way was the croquet field.  And in the distance were the waves of the beautiful Atlantic.  This was the hotel I remembered.

Only it wasn’t.  To our shock, we learned that the Ocean House that we knew was closed in 2003 and demolished in 2005.  What we were standing in was a glorious replication of the old hotel, opened in 2010 and brought up to safety code and modern standards.  As my sister and I walked through the various rooms and halls, we marveled at how much this new Ocean House matched our memories.

Yet, as Katie and I finished with a lobster roll lunch on the hotel’s veranda, we began to realize that, as wonderful as our memories of the (old and new) Ocean House are, what makes them treasured is that this hotel was merely the site of our family bonding on our only vacation away.  It was that memory of coming together that we treasured and is one that will never go away.

It was such an improbability — a beloved childhood memory that has proven to be even better 50 years later.

How often does that happen?