The day the car broke down en route to Long Beach Island.
We’d leave at midnight every year: one, then two, then three little girls asleep in the back of the station wagon, the luggage on the roof, as we made our way to “the beach.” I can’t remember the first time I saw Long Beach Island — I was too little. It’s always been part of my life. The most exciting thing was to wake up in the car, look out the window and see sand along the edges of the Jersey Turnpike, the air beginning to smell like the ocean. We were there.
We’ wake up every morning and look out the window and there would be my dad, walking. He loved the solitude; just him and the occasional shoreline fisherman in a junky beach chair, a bucket of bait at his side, and the gulls and the sandpipers. Every beach memory I have starts with him – even those from the years after he was gone. The first year we went back after he died, we’d drive around a corner or walk over to the bakery and suddenly, the intensity of early mourning would return. It was as if, until I mourned him there, I wasn’t ready to take on the world without him.
The memories aren’t remarkable: strong arms around me as I learned to love the surf, sand castles and holes where, as the poem says “the sea came up, ’til it could come no more,” gathering sea shells and beach glass, beach dinners and picnics and rainy day art projects my mom invented. And then, the privilege of passing them on to our own kids.
The first time we took our children to Long Beach Island there was just one, 6 months old, the first grandchild and so a family celebrity. There are hilarious pictures of my sisters hovering over him, thrilled. Our second son’s debut at 10 months saw him happy on the beach in a teeny blow-up wading pool, under an umbrella. One summer he wore out an entire ‘Annie’ tape there. The summer when I was pregnant with him was the year of “The Rainbow Connection” and his big brother and I wore it out, a theme song for the last year before we were four instead of three. One summer my husband taught that big brother multiplication tables by providing a miniature golf outing every time he learned a new level.
They grew up on night time beach walks and slow mastery of life in the water, their own beach art projects, finding a real live starfish, and hours of lying in bed, falling asleep to the sounds of the surf.
Now it’s all gone. I’m shocked at my grief - the knowledge that the sticky bun bakery, restaurants and boogie board stores I went to, my kids went to, the drugstore where we always bought the Sunday Times, the island zoned almost entirely for houses and only a few hotels, the island that was almost exactly as it was when my parents took me there — where we spent my husband’s 60th birthday and so many 4th of Julys and family gatherings — all that history is gone, brutally erased by the force of a single storm.
The first time I heard Jersey Girl I was in a car on Long Beach Boulevard, mother of two, and I started to cry. “Down the shore everything’s alright”¯ may never mean the same thing to so many of us who share these memories of a simple Jersey beach town where you never put on anything but a bathing suit or shorts or jeans and a sweatshirt. It’s just really sad, not only for me and those who share wonderful memories of these old beach refuges, but also for those, coming now, who will never know them.
Here’s a little memory treat:
Photo from Cynthia Samuels