Long before I was a village wise woman, long before I was a witch, a Master Gardener, or a wife or mom, I was a beach bum. From the age of 8 months until my late teens, I spent every summer, all summer, at the Jersey shore in Wildwood Crest, New Jersey. This came at the privilege of being the daughter of a teacher and a stay-at-home mom and having a longtime family summer residence. With Memorial Day just passing and with the fast-approaching end of the school year and Summer Solstice, I have been traveling down memory lane often, longing for those Wildwood days again. (Before I continue, I must ask you, my reader, to please excuse me should my writing take on a stream-of-consciousness style. Wildwood does that to me sometimes.)
It started the Friday morning before Memorial Day on my way to work. As I got to the Wawa for my morning coffee, there were the cars loaded up with bags, beach chairs, boogie boards, and smiling people wearing sunglasses, sun hats and flip-flops, all ready for the long summer-opening weekend at the beach. Completely jealous, I muttered under my breath, "Bastards!" and threw open the store door. And the flood of memories began, in snap shots and slow motion film in my head.
Packing up the car at an unheard of 4:00 in the morning, Locking up our little row home for the summer and checking the door what seemed like a million times before leaving. My parents, me and my then only younger sister piling into the small yellow Toyota Corolla and getting on the road before the sun rose on the eastern horizon. Traveling exactly at or under the speed limit, back roads only because my dad could never tolerate the main highways to the shore. My mother passing orange slices to me and my sister in the back seat and lighting my dad's pipe for him because he had to concentrate on the road. Giggling with my sister as quietly as we could so as not to distract Dad. More orange slices from Mom to keep us quiet. Stopping along the way, several times, so my mom could pick some reeds and wildflowers from back bay marshes or so my dad could could check out an odd gravestone jutting out at the roadside where my mom would place a wildflower. Oh what a strange trip it always was and a very long one at that!
We would arrive at the family seaside residence somewhere in the mid-morning. Oh that old beautiful house! It was built by my paternal great-grandfather and other relatives, I believe, in the 1920's. Six bedrooms, one and a half baths. A huge side lot full of plants and mimosa trees. Open front porch, screened back porch. Small laundry room. Outside shower. An old wooden garage that, as I recall, only housed cars in the event of a tropical storm or hurricane and served mainly as my dad's study during the summer as well as containing all the beach gear, the bikes, and the garden tools. And there we would stay, from the last day of school until Labor Day. Hours upon hours on the beach, playing in the sand, splashing around in the ocean, eating bologna sandwiches and sipping warm iced tea from a thermos. Nights either on the porches or under the mimosa trees in the yard or taking long walks along the bay to see the boats go out for night fishing and to watch the sun go down over Sunset Lake. Rainy days were spent at the library or in Cape May, going from antique store to book store to the lighthouse at the Point.
Weekends were most always a full house. On Fridays, my great Aunt Elanor and Great uncle Salvie, would arrive for the weekend, car packed with bags from what they called the American Store (in today's lingo - the Acme). My sis and I would help haul the bags inside where we would unload the canned tomatoes, olive oil, paper goods and meats from the butcher. Uncle Salvie would take us to the fish market to get the flounder for the Friday evening meal (because in those days you could not eat meat in Fridays if you were Catholic which they all were). Then, later in the day, my great Aunt would arrive on the express bus from Philadelphia, She always had treats - jellied fruit slices and chocolates - for me and my sister, We'd shove what we could into our mouths before anyone noticed and help her get bags settled in her room. Friends of my parents would drop by. Eleanor and Salvie's son, and my dad's cousin, Fran, often came. It was a weekend of fun, family and good food. There were afternoon gin and tonics on the porches for the adults before dinner while my sis and I played in the yard after the beach.
And this went on, day in, day out, week after week, until Labor Day. It was life at the shore. Okay, it wasn't all good. There was arguing, there were frustrations, there was chaos sometimes. But we were at the shore. The sand, the sea, the sun, the salt air. Ah, yes, the shore! Confession: I cry every time Bruce sings that line, " 'Coz down the shore everything's all right".
Years later, when my parents divorced, job situations changed, and my great aunts and uncles passed away, the house passed, by way of screwed up last wills and testaments, to Fran and that was the end of those idyllic summers in Wildwood Crest. Although my dad's mom, who died when he was 5, was once part owner of the house, a portion of ownership never passed into my dad's hands. He still went to the house though, spending about six weeks every summer with his new wife. By then I was dating my later-to-be husband and he and I would pack up the car every Friday night after work and speed down the Atlantic City Expressway and the Garden State Parkway in a 1980 V8 Ford Thunderbird, taking an amazing 70 minutes even in all that weekend traffic to get there, spend the weekend sitting on the beach and frolicking in the ocean, only to race back to the city in crazy traffic on Sunday evenings. My husband proposed to me at Sunset Lake. My son went there for the first few years of his life, every weekend of the summer. Life got in the way, life changed, circumstances changed, and we stopped going.
That house in the Crest was my dad's peace and solace. It was the place he went every summer of his life from birth to the year before he died. It was the last place he saw his mother alive. It was where he met my mom, where he met my stepmom. It was part of his very being, part of his life. It was his life. The night my dad passed away, I knew where he wanted to be, where he needed to go. As he took his last breaths, I told him to go there, that his mother waited for him there. And that is where I know he is now, spending every second of eternity at the Jersey Shore in Wildwood Crest. That house is his Summerland.
I haven't been in Wildwood for a while now. It's just a bit too hard for me still. I'll get there eventually. But, when I want to feel like my old beach bum self, like I did over the Memorial Day weekend, I just put on some suntan lotion so the scent of coconut, sand and salt envelops me, throw on my tankini under my favorite broken-in denim jeans or capris with a tank top and my oldest pair of flip-flops so I feel like I am at the beach, sip a gin and tonic outside on the patio pretending that I am under a mimosa tree or on that front porch, close my eyes, and imagine I hear the roar of the ocean, the boat horns sounding on departure, and the call of the gulls in the distance. I am transported back to the magic of those Wildwood days.