My heart is in Jersey this week. It’s the place of my birth and the roots of both my adopted and biological family trees intertwine in the soils there. Since learning of the storm’s destruction, my mind has agitated down the roads of my childhood, as if the churning energies of Sandy unearthed more than trees and structures. So I give up my agenda for this week. I am going to tell you instead some bits and pieces from the Jersey shore I remember.
Starting first with Long Beach Island, where my PopPop built a cottage for my Nana on the bay side of Essex Avenue in Beach Haven. Nana had been a teacher there, waiting nine years to marry him until he saved enough money to buy her a house and the furniture to go in it. This house at the beach was their vacation home, a summer retreat where PopPop could fish and his boys could take summer jobs as life guards.
Me, I remember the way the floor grate between the living room and the bedrooms would dig into my feet. And I can see PopPop in the black and white picture that always hung in the kitchen, rowing a boat through the flooded streets of town after the Ash Wednesday storm of 1962, probably headed to Buckalew’s for a pint of fortitude for the long clean-up ahead. I can hear him telling how during that storm he and others watched as an ocean front house walked out to sea. “Got right up on her four legs and waddled out there,” he’d say.
It was in Barnegat Bay that I first learned to sail, my father, my sister and me ducking the boon in a little rented sunfish. Same bay where PopPop captained his ship, The Rumarjo. And it was there right at the edge of that bay I caught my first sand shark. Yup, sure did. My Uncle John will back me up too.
I spent time as well on 4th Avenue in Normandy Beach, visiting the birdhouse of a home owned by my mom’s folks. I’m hoping its unusual structure, with the kitchen, living room and bedrooms perched on tall columns a full story above a semi-finished garage will mean it’s survived. But I hear tell that in Normandy Beach the ocean met the bay, so who knows?
I remember mornings in the loft bedroom waking to the smell of grandpa’s famous popovers. I’d rush to beat my cousins to the table and be the first to slather one with butter. We sat at that long table often. For lunch we ate fresh tomato sandwiches, made from big, juicy, red orbs grown along the side of the house and paired with bread and chips kept fresh from the salt air in an ancient breadbox. For dinner we ate grilled chicken and Jersey corn with mushy yellow squash. I remember also toast with rhubarb jelly and hairy handfuls of bean sprouts Grandpa grew in a glass jar on the windowsill. Crumb cake from Mueller’s bakery in Bay Head. Ribs from the joint in Point Pleasant. All served on the finest Fiestaware.
Funny that in both places what I remember least is the beach. Oh, sure, I can picture my Grammy’s crazy beach hats clear as day, my crotch still stings with the sand that would lodge in my swimsuit’s lining, and I can feel the bite of a crab on my toes. But mostly it’s the houses I remember, and the times spent in them with Grandparents, Aunts and Uncles, Cousins. Down the shore you were never alone.
Rainy days at both houses were the best. We’d play endless games. In Beach Haven it was Monopoly, played on the coffee table PopPop crafted from the wooden hatch cover of an old ship. In Normandy Beach it was Rummy Royal. As the rain beat on the bank of windows surrounding the living room, we’d anti-up and play out our hands, again and again. I will never forget the genuine joy in my Grammy’s voice when we’d win big. She’d clap her hands together and say: “Well look at you!”
Perhaps it isn’t so out of step after all to revisit my roots at this dusky twilight time of year when the veils between the worlds have thinned, and we can better hear the voices of those who have passed on.
I find great strength in revisiting the moments sustained by my grandparents and I must trust that whatever has happened to the landscape of my youth, my memories are enough for me to go on. After all, the real strength isn’t in the buildings, but rather, in the builders. And what they built has sustained and will sustain. It’s Jersey.
© Jennifer S. and harvestliberty.net, 2012.