by Lisa Romeo
I have been to the Jersey Shore about 25 times, and since I am 53 years old, was born in New Jersey, and have lived here for all but five years, that's not a lot.
I'm not, strictly speaking, a shore girl.
So why, on October 29, 2012, when coastal New Jersey buckled beneath the brutal winds and steep sea surge of Hurricane Sandy, did I weep and turn away from the television screen?
I was not bereft over a shore house I feared was destroyed, nor mourning the desecration of a particular beloved beach town where I'd spent summers. I had not lost my virginity, fallen in love, or watched babies nap under an umbrella on a Jersey beach. The Shore was not where my family gathered to laugh and bicker, where I hung out with high school friends, or where I escaped when life closed in on me in swarming, hectic, Essex County 90 miles to the north.
My reaction to losing the Jersey Shore that existed before Sandy was more like losing something that for too long in my life had remained out of reach, was too-late appreciated, a place of promise, more meaningful to me as idea than destination.
When I was about eight, I sashayed about my living room, empty Coke bottle in hand, singing along to the Drifters' sixties classic Under the Boardwalk. I hoped and wondered if I'd be kissed on a warm blanket in the slatted shade, people walking above. Eventually, I was that girl, or at least a version of her, though the kissing all took place right on the Boardwalk: some stringy blond boy whose name I'd forget, a high school boyfriend, my fiancé.
But before any of that, and even during some of that, I was a shore snob.
My parents were to blame -- if showing your child the world beyond one's home state has anything to do with blame. When my father, an early polyester manufacturer, wanted to get away, he meant an airplane ride and five-star resort, where the beach was just one of 18 amenities. Boardwalk games, un-air conditioned rentals, motel pools, and waffles and ice cream were something other kids told me about.
For me a beach vacation meant Miami Beach, Bermuda, the French Riviera, San Juan, St. Thomas, Mexico, California. It was all perfectly wonderful. But I wanted to toss towels and magazines and chip bags in a car trunk on a Friday afternoon and shoot down the Parkway, walk barefoot on splintery boardwalks, ride a roller coaster above the surf. When I asked my mother why we never went down the shore like everyone else, she asked why I'd want to do what everyone else did. Once a poverty child during the Depression, she could not understand why a rich kid in a solid middle class suburb would long to do only what her less fortunate peers could manage. But I longed for normal, and normal meant going down the shore.
There were trips to the shore for me, blips. My best friend's family took me along crabbing in Barnegat Bay and to an Elks' convention in Wildwood. Two high school boyfriends showed off boardwalk game skills in Asbury Park and Seaside. Once my mother and I spent an entire day at my aunt's rented shore house somewhere but only because Mom said Aunt Ida shouldn't be alone that day.
By adulthood, the shore for me was something other people did; I was spoiled by then by what I assumed were better beaches, lovelier locales. I absorbed my share of ribbing about not being a Shore lover, but decided a gal could still be genuine Jersey, loving Bruce Springsteen and knowing the answer to "what exit?" without shore cred.
My husband, however, had a thing for the shore, and his sister always had a shore rental, so we went; I was simultaneously eager and wary to see if I could discover the famous magic, late as I was. The charms of the shore, I found, were still on offer. It was not too late. I hadn't, after all, been shut out of a secret only accessible in youth. I did not immediately become a shore lover, but a shore liker, slowly discerning its spell. If slathering on soap under the dimming sun in an outdoor shower for the first time at age 26 could bring out a secret wildness in me, what else might happen between me and the shore?
When our boys were preschoolers, we purposely began spending time at the shore—once for 10 days in a clean workmanlike motel blocks from the beach. There were scattered long weekends at friends' rented houses, but most often, we'd take over the extra bedrooms at our cousin Sharon's year-round home a half-mile from a gorgeous beach, where, if I closed my eyes and listened, and let the sand touch my skin, I could almost rewrite history, me as that girl, that Jersey girl at home at the shore.
I should not have been surprised to come to enjoy if not quite love the Jersey Shore, but I was. Even before I understood the appeal, if anyone had asked me about New Jersey's good and beautiful things, right after mentioning the horse farms of Hunterdon County, I would have said the Jersey Shore. Because of course, it was. It is.
In Avalon and Ortley, and at Sea Isle and Long Beach Island, Brigantine and Point Pleasant, in Stone Harbor and Lavalette, our small young family built sand castles, biked beachfront paths, played mini-golf, raced go-karts, rode coasters, ordered the same dinner three nights in a row because once we found a restaurant we all loved, it was ours. What I loved was seeing my husband see his boys loving the Jersey Shore he had always loved, and on each return visit, I noticed again that here was a place of solace and surge, grit and a kind of glitz, a composed wildness.
When they outgrew sandcastles, the older son took root beside me under an umbrella with a book, while Frank and the younger boy plunged far out in the tumbling surf. I read and worried and after about two hours, I walked. Up and down the beach at water's edge. For miles along paved paths or boarded walkways where I could hear and smell and see the ocean or the quietly lapping baywaters on one side, houses or lunch places and surf shops on the other. I'd pretend a multi-million dollar beachfront vacation house was mine, imagine a diminutive rowed cottage had been in my family for generations, fantasize I lived there year-round, protected by dunes, the deep beach, the stalwart boats in the bay, even the towering coasters a kind of protective bulwark.
On a blowsy day in Manasquan six years ago, I was especially buoyant, and lingered longer than usual on the beach, before leaving to walk the town, to stop in random shops for no reason. In the bookstore, what leapt to my hands was a memoir of an uneven suburban girlhood told in poetry and I stood there in my sarong pinned by the arresting narrative, especially the parts about longing for a father's love. I bought it, crossed the street to a café.
I ordered something and settled myself to read in the speckled shade when my cell phone jangled; my father had just had a stroke. I was needed, in Las Vegas. We packed haphazardly, the boys silent and sandy. On the airplane the next morning, every time I closed my eyes, what I saw was Sharon's guestroom, a decade's worth of old beach badges displayed in a milk glass dish, white chenille bedspread, broom-swept floors, and the words on the pages of that memoir about another Jersey girl who missed her dad. What I heard were my husband's and sons' voices against the music of waves, and the sound of my feet walking the hard-packed sand at water’s edge. I was homesick, in so many ways.
Late in August of 2012, Frank and I and our sons—one leaving the next week for college, the other ready for high school—could only manage two nights at Sharon's. We ate in the restaurant we'd discovered 10 years before. In 48 hours, there was biking and the beach, and as for me, I walked, eventually, inevitably, to the bookstore. By then, I'd met the author of the poetry memoir, and my father had been dead for six years. I sat at the same café, my phone silent. The year before, we'd spent a week in California, and while I loved Laguna Beach and Malibu, I couldn't fight a feeling I had there, the Santa Monica Mountains and their stilt-built houses so near my back—that I might somehow fall off the face of the earth. Back in Manasquan, I recall feeling somehow sheltered, cosseted—a kind of home.
Eight weeks later, wind and storm surge leveled the dunes I'd walked beside. The calming baywaters screamed over roads, merging with the tumbling ocean. Some of the houses I imagined living in—well, a friend checking on her Lavalette bungalow told me she saw a beachfront house in the middle of a road a quarter mile inland, lying upside down.
In the first 24 hours after the storm, TV images changed from taciturn Staten Islanders whose only homes were swept from their foundations, to Jerseyans crying over shore houses. I momentarily thought, "It's only a vacation house, get over it." But soon I realized they were not mourning ruined floors and furniture, things that can be tossed and replaced, but grieving things impossible to replicate, things that are not things: ways of being, the seasonal swell of community, a feeling and a place, smells and sounds that surge and merge into one inexplicable something known as The Shore.
In a Springsteen song, "everything's all right at the shore," and he'll be right about that again, one day. But now, the Jersey Shore is more wrecked than the characters on that awful television show of the same name. The Jersey Shore I once longed for and didn't understand, the one I held at arm's length but came to tentatively embrace and feel at once protective of and protected by, that shore exists now only in collective memory, and I feel about it as I might a favorite aging aunt who I did not visit often enough, just to glow in her presence.