A mid morning diner counter brings that bit of quiet, inviting conversation. The breakfast crowd gone, the lunch folks have yet to arrive. It’s rare the counter at Mary’s offers this kind of silence. The woman seated beside me offers a warm hello as the server is re-filling both our cups with fresh Joe. Her hands are timeworn and wrinkled from the years. Her voice contrasts bright and cheerful. She notices the museum logo on my shirt and asks what it’s all about.
Stories, I tell her. We’re trying to save stories from old Virginia Beach.
She remembers so many things about the beach. Her memories flow in such a refreshing current. I’m so impressed her waters still, after all these years, remain unpolluted by melancholy or re-interpretation. She shares facts, simple and clean; the color of her Dad’s Ford, the bread that cost two-bits, seeing Lena Horn in Stormy Weather. It’s chit-chat to her, but to me, it’s oral history. The kind of history that needs to be preserved, that doesn’t get told enough.
She mentions the oceanfront cottages; the little cottages, the ones that housed the sailors getting ready to go to war. She had photos of the train, but lost them long ago. Wishes her family still had them. I wish she still had them, too. And she speaks of how nice the Cavalier looked on the hill. Such a grand place. She wasn’t able to go there, of course, but she liked to look at it sometimes and think about going. They didn’t walk the boardwalk much. They weren’t very welcome along the oceanfront, she remembers.
She doesn’t speak again of the places she couldn’t go. She doesn’t mention the segregated world in which she grew. She talks a bit of family, of their work, of the places they played. “See you at Seaview”, she shares as a popular phrase back in the day.
“There was even a story in Life Magazine.”
She’s right, of course. Life ran a feature in 1947 describing Seaview as “Virginia’s best-known Negro resort.” Ten-thousand people a weekend would line the famous beach.
There’s a little complaining about how the kids today don’t dance anymore. Dancing was important then. It’s too bad, she laments, that it’s gone away.
Our time is too short.
Her son comes back from bringing around the car and it’s time for her to go. He very politely rejects my invitation for them to share their memories for our Oral History Project. I am disappointed, of course, but do understand the foundations of his reluctance, and perhaps, mistrust.
I finish my time at the counter realizing how many stories are being lost, each and every day, as our generations shift. I’m hoping that this year, through the museum’s work, at least a few pieces of personal history might be preserved. We have so much material regarding the overall history the area, but those personal tales, those every day descriptions, those are the details that help others make lasting connections to our past.
Out of respect to her son’s wishes, I won’t share that wonderful woman’s name. I’ll simply say thank you, and for purposes of this blog, call her