The New Jersey Shore holds a special and complicated place in my heart. When I was a child, our family would drive to “The Shore” for a week nearly every year, graduating from a shared motel room to staying in “efficiency apartments” as I got older. On the ride down, I would stare out the windows at the other cars on the Garden State Parkway, wondering where they were going, and how their lives differed from ours. I would make up stories about some that caught my attention, and quietly entertain myself with plot lines and characters whenever there was a lull in conversation in the car. We would snack on sandwiches or chicken on the drive, and eat the leftovers out of the cooler until they were gone. It was like having a moving picnic in our car and then our room.
It didn’t occur to me when I was a child, but which town you go to at the shore depends a lot on your socio-economic status. We weren’t poor, as evidenced by the fact that we could afford to stay at the shore for an entire week in a rental, but we certainly weren’t rich. Places like Stone Harbor and Long Beach Island were out of our reach, so we stayed in Point Pleasant, where they had a boardwalk and some rides for the evening’s activities, but the rentals were less expensive and the folks were all lower middle-class, like us.
I loved going to the souvenir shops and spending what little money I had saved up on sea shells and trinkets of all sorts. I could spend hours looking through those little shops, marveling at all of the buckets of shells from exotic beaches, and little pelicans and ships made of shells glued together. Picking out special souvenirs for friends and relatives took up the majority of the shopping trips, and I carefully thought over which gifts were most appropriate for each person.
The beach itself has always been a love/hate situation. Having the fairest skin this side of Casper, I learned from some early bouts of sun poisoning and awful sunburns that sunscreen was a necessity not to be taken lightly. I was jealous of the people who could bound onto the beach with nothing but a towel, when we had to lug chairs, umbrellas, lotions, towels, drinks – everything but power tools. But the thrill of learning how to ride the waves, getting in just beyond the line where the waves broke, and of not completely drowning when getting knocked back to the beach by a huge one – all sand and salt in the eyes – was worth the downside.
I loved to look for intact shells, especially prizing any one with a spiral shape. The sandpipers, piping plovers and sanderlings darting in and out of the very edge of the water were fascinating to watch. The salt air seems to be healthy, clearing out the lungs and pulling out the stress. Being able to choose what fun or relaxing thing to do with your time, and having all day in which to do it, was the best feeling ever.
My poor father – even on vacation, he had to do a ton of work just for a little bit of “relaxation”. I have no idea how much actual relaxation he actually got when we went on these trips, because they seem to have been an orgy of major troop movements and money flying out the window to restaurants and boardwalk carnies. Once, when I was a teenager, he expressed as much to me, and from that point forward, I have not thought of our family vacations without a huge dollop of guilt over how much work they actually were for my overworked father.
As an adult, I yearn for time at the shore, even if only for a day. I need to hear the waves crashing, the seagulls crying, the smell of salty air and the feel of sand beneath my feet. As the mornings and evenings grow colder this year, I feel a certain melancholy, because of not having gone to the shore this year. A summer missed, never to be had again, without the familiar touchstone of the Jersey shore that I know and love.