with prayers for Sandy’s victims, both the people and the places they love
Every other summer or so, we head down the shore in Jersey. It’s never just my family and me, but always a caravan of friends and relatives traveling along the Parkway toward the shore points — car after car packed with children and boxes of pasta, gallons of homemade wine, loaves of Italian bread fresh from Arthur Avenue, pounds of prosciutto and mortadella wrapped in white butcher paper, batons of homemade salami, and hunks of provolone that were toted in pocketbooks from Italy through customs in New York City.
I live among grown ups who give to relaxation the same vigor they give to work. They put everything they have into both. For most of them, trouble and struggle are the fixed points of their days, and these good times are the little break of light in the clouds. They reach for the light like plants stuck in dark pots, and they’ll curse anything or anyone that tries to get between them and the light; this includes cops, hotel proprietors, and their own children.
A block of kitchenette-equipped rooms at a hotel in Seaside Heights has been reserved. Our caravan rolls in like an invading army. I am one in a squad of some twenty children, disembarking from station wagons, tearing into the warm salt air, screeching with liberation after the near two-hour car ride. While the teenagers step out of the cars more coolly, slowly, than us children, aviator sunglasses hiding their eyes, fingers running through hair feathered and teased. They help unload brown bags of groceries and luggage. Each family sets up camp in its own room; but every room is everyone’s room, all doors are open to me. In every photo I’m in on these trips, I am in the arms of someone different — in the arms of mothers who are not mine, of teenage siblings who are not my siblings: But they are my mothers and they are my brothers and sisters.
After the sun goes down, we move in a pack toward the boardwalk. Its mechanical clanks, its neon and high-wattage-bulb lights create a carnival facade across the air above the thrashing ocean, making the water, all tangled with the moon’s great tug upon it, seem less menacing. I can already smell the sweet white powder sifted atop the funnel cake my daddy will buy me; I can hear the ding of the game stands, anticipate the balloon atop the clown’s head growing and growing as I shoot the water gun into its mouth, vying for my stuffed bear. But the grown-ups walk leisurely in their sandals and summer shorts, agonizingly slow for us children who flutter around them like wings, hoping to propel them faster toward the great fluorescent merry-go-round, the shivering roller coaster, the dizzying teacups. Finally, we reach those wooden planks and pound across the boardwalk, mixing into the stream of sunburned people, the parade of people holding ice cream cones and slices of cheesy oily pizza, with the barkers hollering two plays for a dollar always a winner step right up…
On one corner of the pier, my siblings and I hand our tiny paper tickets over to ride the Log Floom, which hovers over the Atlantic, and from the top of the tracks I can see the dark waves slapping against the beams of the boardwalk way below us, and how wild the ocean really is, how deep, how dark; just before the log-shaped car we sit in launches us rollercoaster-style into a pool of chlorinated water below, I look down and see my parents standing beneath the starry sky, the Himalaya behind them spinning its little cars in a blurring circle while the DJ blasts record after record of dance songs and warns everyone to hold on. My father has his arm around my mother, his left hand on her right shoulder; my mother holds the bear my daddy shelled out dollar after dollar for me to win, and I feel giddy and loved, feel summer and the magic of the shore flitter in my belly as my big sister grabs my little hands from the metal safety bar and yells, “Hold them up over your head!” And our log floom car sails down the ramp, through the ocean wind; our screams just another high-pitched note in the chorus of boardwalk music.
The next evening, at the hotel, the grown ups take it upon themselves to drag all the patio tables together to make a long, unified table at which all of us can sit to eat, because our mothers have cooked some five pounds of spaghetti and the grill has enough meat on it to feed all of Jersey. The adults stay up long past the point when we children, sun struck, well-fed, collapse onto laps or pullout sofas. They drink wine, then espresso, then limonata and Sambuca; they eat pasta, then steak, then salad, then nuts fresh from cracked shells; they smoke cigarettes, laugh laughter of howls, and tease each other with double entendres until the early hours of the next day dawn.
When we wake in the morning, the owner of the hotel, a middle-aged American woman who lives with her reticent husband, is angry because all the furniture is rearranged and because the other guests (there are other guests?) are complaining.
“You can’t just go taking over the place!” the hotel owner says to the grown-ups. “Don’t you know how to behave?” she asks. “You can’t just move things around to suit you!”
This is how they know to behave — eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
And they can, actually, they believe, in their infinite stubbornness and pride, transform with their own two hands any damn place on God’s green earth they set their feet upon.
When the hotel owner, not mollified, stomps away, hollering that we’re not welcomed to stay in her place again, my father sighs, says, “What does she understand? She has no family.”