If you need any more proof that I’m a man married to the places and routines of the past (as if the knowledge that I’m still living in my hometown in my grandparent’s house isn’t evidence enough), it’s the fact that I continue to return to Sea Isle City, this beautiful, often-times overcrowded, overgrown sand bar off the South Jersey coast. I’ve been coming here since I was thirteen. Our rental that year was a tiny bungalow that crammed six into the same square footage of your average one-car garage. That cottage has since disappeared under thirty year years of development and exists only in fogbanks of memory.
The property I rented this year, up the street from the place we stayed three decades ago, housed a fraternity. I can still remember those mystical looking Greek letters hanging on the old asbestos siding, and the leering, drunken frat-boys who crowded the porch who would hoot and holler at my step-aunt – a young woman who was only two years older than me and the subject of my unknown affection that entire, painful summer. As our vacation progressed, I would quietly seethe at their comments, imagining all manners of revenge against these older boys with their pack confidence and knowing smiles.
It’s the nature of these memories that most draw me. Because they happened only once a year, they remain frozen in a specific place and time like Polaroid snapshots. Snap. I’m thirteen, small and skinny, have yet to kiss a girl, and pine for love unrequited. Snap. I’m fifteen, older, more mature, not only have I kissed a girl (not my Aunt – don’t worry), I’ve passed one tentative hand across her chest and thought that I had nearly touched divinity itself. Snap. I’m seventeen and know everything about everything and can drive my old Plymouth Valiant down to sit on the rocks and stare at the sea whenever I feel melancholy and want to look like some tragic, romantic poet. Snap. I’m a young father and watching my babies as they joyously leap the waves and dig into the warm sand. Snap, I’m 43 and know now I never actually knew anything; my little girls are teenagers and able to go off and find their own fun, and I’m left with the quiet, constant sound of the ocean a few blocks away.
The shore has been the backdrop for almost all the key moments in my life. The unceasing sea bore witness the first time Maureen said she loved me. I bent the knee and asked her to be my wife on the rocks in Cape May An old jetty in Sea Isle, winter waves crashing around me, was where I decided to drop out of college and strike out on my own at nineteen; and the never-ending, April beach in Wildwood was the setting when I decided it was time to return to school three years later.
And as much as the shore has provided memories of laughter and light, it’s also a place that harbors some regret. After I graduated High School, I had the opportunity to spend the summer working at my stepfather’s bike shop. An opportunity wasted putting unnecessary miles on my old Valiant visiting a girl I no longer loved, hung up on feelings of guilt and misplaced obligation. The outcome of that summer: hundreds of dollars in phone bills and a blistering case of ringworm from sleeping on the bike shop floor. It’s a huge wayback machine moment, second only to that damn elevator in Westchester.
And a more general regret. Regret that I did not think to come down here more as a very young man with all the freedoms and joys that age offers. Regret for not understanding that youth is transient and those years disappear faster than the beach after a winter storm. I wish I had added to those mental snapshots, but hope that my girls will learn from me and be sure to live life to its fullest as they bloom into young adulthood.
Ultimately, the shore is a place of renewal, of change. The sea is timeless and holds no regret. The waves take away old sand and replace it with new just as the duplexes of one era come down to be replaced by the multiplexes of today, which will in turn be replaced by the MultiMegaPlexes of tomorrow. Memories grow softer around the edge like the sea turning glass into gems of wonder glowing in the summer light. It is a place where all times exist at once. I stand on my porch and suddenly it’s 1982 and I’m a frat boy laughing down at the skinny 13 year old protecting the honor of his aunt; I stop at the 7-11 on Landis and it’s 1986 and Mallons across the street becomes Jim’s Bike and Sport and I’m hanging onto the phone with my girlfriend, bemoaning the good fortune of living rent free in a young man’s paradise. I walk through the inlet and it’s 2006 and I’m watching my little ones excitedly gather shells and splash in the surf. It is today, and I’m hugging my oldest as she leaves to start her first day of college; and I hope that we will always come back here, to find renewal , to reflect, to dump the year’s regrets and petty little stresses into the ever-moving waves, and to build those mental snapshots that last a lifetime.