Our first stop is Bay Head. To shore ourselves up for the journey (the pun is entirely unintentional).
Before we had touched down in Newark for our annual summer sojourn to reconnect with the homeland, my cousin Samm — who lives in Ocean County, in the middle of where Sandy made landfall last year — and I had notionally talked about taking a drive down “The Barrier Island Route,” that stretch of road that traverses at least half of the narrow twenty mile long Barnegat Barrier Peninsula separating the bay from the Atlantic Ocean. Wikipedia calls it a “summer colony.” As a child, I only ever referred to it as Normandy Beach (one of the communities along the coastal line of the island) or more often, “Nana’s house.”
It felt like something I should do, something meaningful. I felt like I had lived a lot of important childhood moments there, a lot of growing up, a lot of sandcastle building, swinging, tag playing with waves, sitting by my Nana’s side for beach card games (they use elastic bands to make the cards stay in place. trust me. it works), secret passage exploring and boogie-boarding, ice-cream cone eating and crabbing, running against the wind of the sea with carefree, reckless abandon. I had not seen this place around which so many innocent and misty eyed memories were centered since the previous summer, before it had been ravaged by Superstorm Sandy.
It felt like something that would illuminate for me this cloudy shroud of mystery that obscured a significant part of the world for me, that I’d only seen in news reports or in photo albums on Facebook by those determined that people should see and know. Having not been there and having felt powerless and remote, I wanted to hear the echoes of the past, as close to when and where they happened as possible. I suppose I wanted things to have changed as little as possible. I wanted the stories of men and women who worked for emergency services, army engineers, firefighters, paramedics who had risked their lives, people whose homes had been literally shaken to the ground and whose lives and community has been rent into shreds; I think I wanted those stories to be the exception and perhaps even a slight exaggeration.
I suppose I wanted some sense of closure.
But now that it came to it, now that we were in Mueller’s Bakery in Bay Head, about to embark on our journey, I must confess, I’m feeling a little nervous. Unsure of what lies ahead, I see that Mueller’s has put up photos, one of the town of Bay Head, completely submerged. So. No exaggeration. No sensationalism in the disaster movie-like footage from Sandy. This was real.
Nothing prepares me for the island though. We pass plot after plot, some with gaping holes, some half-way in the process of reconstruction, some with warning tape stretching round them, some with barely skeletal foundations and a “for sale” sign added with bitter irony. A stunning landscape in which pieces have fallen away, as from a jigsaw, leaving gaping holes in my memory and the horizon. Where once it felt thriving and joyful, as we pass Mantoloking and Chadwick, finally slowing in Normandy Beach, things seem desolate and abandoned. We come to a stop on fifth avenue, a minute away from the bay where a swingset has succumbed to being tossed forever into the depths and the roads have recently been flooded. The place seems strangely calm. Houses seemed oddly together. Things have been reconstructed. Just. We sit with the engine idling in front of what used to be my grandmother’s house, sold years ago, and yet, still the psychological space of all those precious moments, still the heart of this area for me. My cousin and I pass commentary here and there on little differences, adjustments the current owners have made. The car settles into reflective silence. I turn to my son, sitting in the back and say, “Do you see that? That’s the house where your great-grandmother used to live.”
I think he tries to accept this knowledge with gravity before sighing heavily and saying, “Can we go to a park now?”
I laugh. We laugh. Gladly. If Jersey is reconstructing, it is to preserve that childlike innocence and joy of life, and to create space for new memories, new precious moments, new joys. In our Jerseyan “Spirit of the Blitz”, our steely eyed determination to rebuild, we rebuild so that our children can once again associate the shore with the kind of memories that make us treasure it so dearly in our hearts.
There are still many suffering the after effects of reconstruction or the inability to make efforts towards it. I rounded up a few stories about it here, an invitation here, and something here about the frustration individuals still feel in rebuilding, including the lovely and generous lady who provided the photographs for this post, Diane Hoffman, my grandmother’s neighbour for all those years when I was a slip of a youth, enjoying the seaside, and who only this week, a year after their storm savaged house blew away, are getting occupancy certificates.
And a special thank you to my cousin Samm, who I have mentioned before in connection with helping the recovery effort through Backpacks for Brick, for putting the APB out for photos.
I feel confident in saying I grew up on the Jersey Shore. I don’t mean that in the way that many would nor do I mean to offend proper Jerseyans. Anyone who has read this blog much at all knows that I am a de facto Pennsylvanian.
But most and the best of my summer childhood memories are rooted firmly in that area of America. I was born in Northern New Jersey and spent my childhood there. My mother used to take us down to the shore for a couple weeks every summer, leaving my father alone with his annual fortnight of peace to do the tax returns. So we’d stay with my grandmother in an affluent (I perceived it as affluent then and still do) little town called Normandy Beach with a sweet little bay not more than two minutes away and a vast expanse of beach just three or four blocks in the opposite direction from the bay. I learned to associate the salty smell of the sea air as we passed The Amboys on the Parkway with the anticipation of long sunny days spent lazily frolicking through waves, collecting shells, and cautiously avoiding jellyfish (I went through some very cautious phases).
Sucking the marrow from life doesn’t quite capture it for me and The Shore. I learned to swim with and against the waves there. I came home with my belly raw-red from the friction of awkwardly attempting to ride my cousin’s boogie-board as long as my skinny little body could manage with teeth chattering and skin pruny by the end of the day. I learned how to play Spite and Malice with my grandmother and heard many tales of the Irish side of the family at her house down the shore. I played skee ball in Point Pleasant and Lavallete, stayed up nights with bloodshot eyes watching my cousins play family reunion Monopoly and spent mornings eating bagels and reading discarded sections of The Asbury Park Press. I envied extended family that lived on the coast for their regular proximity to a place that, to my imagination, seemed to embody paradise.
So it is great horror and no adequate articulation that I have watched events unfold over the last week.
As a seven year old child, I lived through Hurricane Gloria. My memories of that storm, destructive though it was, are tinged with a sort of romantic nostalgia. Our power went out, we gathered candles, we sat on our lawns with our neighbors and other neighborhood kids, we played cards and we had power restored soon after. It felt like an adventure with no tangible sense of impending danger. Of course, time plays with memory and you imagine that nature can do damage when it wants to, but — and this goes without saying — nothing prepares you for the destructive force of nature when it hits hard close to home.
Much intelligent thought has been published about the aftermath and the lessons of Sandy. Scott Erb’s Blog does a good job of summarizing what way forward for the elections and the flawlessly non-partisan job that Governor Christie has done in the wake of the disaster. Naomi Klein has posted several articles, as you might expect, that are well worth a read about disaster/venture capitalists vampirically profiting from all of this.
And I’m tempted to ponder platitudinously and quote from Melville and Jack London about the awesome power of nature and our infinitesimally small position standing against it. I certainly think discussion, not silence, is the best way forward.
But here and now, when things are raw, when my cousins have been without power for a week and my parents are cooking with a propane tank and a Coleman portable grill even high up in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, I mourn. My heart goes out to those suffering and I mourn for that place of childhood sunshine and wish it a good and steady recovery in the coming months.
All the best, Jersey. I am thinking of you.
Under Any Other Business (for now)…
Even in times of crisis, and maybe especially, working for good causes is of great importance. I raised over £200 for Movember last year, all of which went on research and awareness of men’s health issues, especially prostate and testicular cancer. I hope to more than double last year’s result by the end of the month. In order to do that, I need your help. Please take a couple minutes to donate to a fantastic cause. Even the smallest donation can make the biggest difference and it doesn’t take much time or money to make that difference. Follow the link below to give to my Movember page.
And follow the progress of my facial hair growth through Movember here. I’ll take requests if it helps you to donate!