Watermelons in the Front Yard

I was attending a swank cocktail party over in The Acres the other weekend, in a former du Pont house, no less. The wine and the conversation were flowing, and I was chatting with this handsome couple who’d seen me out in front of my house earlier in the day waving a hose around.

“I was tending my watermelons.”

The nellier of the two gasped and bit his lip.

I nodded and leaned in closer. “I’ve got three Sugar Babies on the vine.”

Well, from the look these two gave me, you’d have thought I’d offered a cigarette to a child. That I’m weaving a watermelon vine in and among my boxwoods and pink and orange zinnias in a very Jeffersonian-inspired garden design didn’t impress. Nor did hearing that Delaware ranks tenth in the country in watermelon production. The couple was clearly disturbed by my revelation and moved away rather quickly. An older queen, queued up for a cocktail and overhearing the conversation, spun around and scrutinized me up and down, like he was Michael Kors on “Project Runway.” Luckily, I was nattily attired in crisp seersucker shorts and white Lacoste shirt.

Is it so outrageous, I want to know, to grow watermelons in your front yard?

Some of my earliest beach memories revolve around watermelons. On Alligator Point, a tiny Florida peninsula jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico, watermelons were part of the day’ ritual. After a supper of fresh fish, shrimp, or crabs, we’d crack open the melon that had been chillin’ all day in its special cooler. Back then it was seeded variety, a classic Southern watermelon. I learned to eat ‘em with a knife.

Growing a watermelon to me seems sort of Provençal, you know, relaxed with a heightened awareness of nature, light, food, senses, and colors. It’s symbolic of a way of living that too many people in Rehoboth forsake inside their hermetically-sealed million dollar homes with Palladian windows, plastic fences, and Jacuzzi hot tubs in their back yard.

My definition of outrageous is climbing into a hot tub when its 90 degrees outside.

Watermelons or hot tubs. Fresh air or air conditioning. More and more I can’t help but notice two competing philosophies in Rehoboth. One aspires to newness and luxury, recreating suburbia in “beachy” colors and motifs. This philosophy worships air conditioning and SubZero refrigerators and uses “summer” as a noun. The other philosophy is more romantic and masculine, in that Teddy Roosevelt sense, embracing the outdoors and shedding the straight-jacket routine of city living. This group uses “summer” as a verb.

In case you’re wondering, I tend towards the latter, and I’ll admit to being a tad snobby about it. But, hey, some of my best friends have granite countertops. And I confess that one of life’s great luxuries is really really cold air conditioning on an extremely hot day. Just not all the time. As summer the noun draws to a close, I want to share 10 tips for thinking about summer as a verb. Cut them out and put them on your refrigerator for next year.

1.Use less air conditioning. Open your windows and doors. Invest in some good fans, bug spray with at least 30% DEET, and an old fashioned fly swatter. It’s worth it to hear the crickets at night and smell the evening air. It’s okay to sweat a little bit, remember, you’re at the beach, not in a townhouse in Bethesda, Maryland.

2. Put in an outdoor shower. If you haven’t come off the beach all sunburned and salty and then showered outside in the sunshine and the fresh air, you don’t know what you’re missing. It’s liberating, invigorating, and arousing. It’s important to use a good soap, preferably one with lemons, lavender, pine, or honey. Invite a friend.

3. Eat in. Take a drive out Route 24 towards Millsboro, hang a right onto Indian Mission Road and you’ll see Holiday Chicken on the left, a pink cinderblock joint serving up the best fried chicken in coastal Sussex. Buy what you need and then make some homemade potato salad. Serve with fresh sliced tomatoes and a cold French Muscadet. I promise you, it’s better than any $35 dinner you’ll get in this town.

4. Set a TV out on the porch and spend a cloudy Sunday sipping Bloodies and watching political talk shows and football games.

5. String up a clothesline. Shirts, towels, and shirts dried in the sunshine and fresh air feel and smell marvelous. “Snuggle” should never be a masculine scent.

6. Grow your own flowers. Consider old fashioned “downstate” cutting favorites like zinnias, daisies, Black Eyed Susans, and snapdragons. They’re not temperamental and they last a long time. When putting together an arrangement for a party, go ahead and sneak in a common weed or two, just to add a sense of humor and to see if people notice. I call such arrangements “pokeweed bouquets.”

7. Snoop though old cottages slated for the wrecking ball. Look around and see how people used to think about beach houses. They’re not pristine, fussy showplaces. They’re places where you can imagine going barefoot and sitting around drinking and playing cards in a bathing suit. The windows open and you can breathe the salt air. They’re imperfect, stoic, and quiet, much like men.

8. Visit during a storm. Have you ever felt the salt spray in your face and listened to the rhythms of the pounding surf? Rehoboth during a big storm is a sensual treat. Buy a yellow slicker and wander the Boardwalk when everyone else is hunkering down indoors. Celebrate the power of nature and then slip into the Blue Moon for a cocktail. Ignore the stares – it’s okay, they just don’t understand.

9. Go to the beach in the late afternoon. There’s something peaceful about the beach after the 4:30 exodus. People nap, read, and talk quietly in small groups. The intensity is ratcheted way down and everything is bathed in a soothing gold and silver light.

10. Plant a watermelon vine in your front yard. Go ahead, try it. It’ll remind you not to take yourself too serious and to think seriously about why you’re at the beach.