In my hometown of the “Wildwoods,” Memorial Day Weekend KICKS down the door to summer in a single thrust. The population of this barrier island off the southern coast of New Jersey swells from 5,600 to 250,000 in a single weekend as summer homeowners and weekend vacationers literally POUR onto the shore over three waterway bridges.
In the 1950s, Wildwood was a hot spot for entertainment. It was there that Dick Clark broadcasted from the Starlight Ballroom and Chubby Checker performed “The Twist” for the first time! Other club acts included Louis Prima, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald and the Andrew Sisters.
Known for its powdery soft sand and expansive beaches, Wildwood’s esteemed visitors also included Shirley Temple, the Miss America Pageant, the Hindenburg, and the Mickey Mouse Club!
My grandfather grew up in nearby Atlantic City and after a tour with the Army, moved his family to the island during its heyday. My parents worked and fell in love at Lucky’s Soda Shop on Pacific Avenue and twenty years later returned to the Wildwoods with their own family–at about the same time my husband’s family arrived there from New York.
Casey and I were both enrolled at Wildwood Catholic High School in the late seventies, but didn’t officially meet until a handful of years later when Casey was among a dozen new employees arriving at the Two Mile Crab House to be trained for opening night. Four years later we celebrated our wedding there on May 19, 1990.
Since relocating to the Green Mountains of Vermont 15 years ago, Memorial Day Weekend has never felt the same for us. For years we were uncomfortable enjoying barbecues at the pond while all the relatives and friends we left in NJ were working their tails off. With the news of Casey’s father’s passing, we find ourselves returning to our hometown on this particular weekend for the first time since we left.
Born on Valentines Day in 1921, Casey’s father moved to New York City to pursue a career in the music industry. It was there that he met his young wife and started a family. They often visited the Jersey shore where they were easily absorbed into the “Russo” clan–a large Italian restaurant family whose circle of friends included my own grandparents.
Casey’s father’s music continues to be recorded to this day. Just a decade ago,Visa/Mastercard used his “The Man in my Little Girl’s Life”, a song that was made popular by Mike Douglass; while “Teardrops Will Fall” has been covered by Wilson Pickett, Ry Cooder, Linda Ronstadt, and most recently by John Mellencamp on his Trouble No More CD and later on his Greatest Hits CD as well live on DVD.
My own physician father called last night to share the news of Casey’s father’s passing. It was 1:45 am. Before deciding to ring my husband, who was in Boston on a school field trip, I woke both boys to give them the news–figuring it was the closest we could get to being near their grandfather at this special time.
Needless to say we were all groggy this morning as we tried to assimilate it all. While my 12 year old son Lloyd and I prepared breakfasts and lunches in the kitchen, I could hear Aidan, my 7 year old, upstairs singing.
“You sound nice, Aidan, but I need you to hurry,” I yelled up to him.
“I was singing Music in My Mother’s House,” he explained when he joined us in the kitchen, “But I changed the words.”
Aidan had been listening to me rehearse that song all month for a Mother’s Day concert with the Brattleboro Women’s Chorus.
“Now I’m singing, Music in My ‘Father’s’ House, for Daddy and Papa,” he explained.
As we stepped outside to the cool temperatures of this Vermont spring morning, Aidan offered something more, something he must have heard at school. In the sweetness and simplicity of these words, we were comforted in our grief:
“Don’t Fear, Summer is Near.”
Summer IS near–because, in fact, we are chasing after it, as we head south to the seaside to bid farewell to a man whose zest for life, I see in my own little sky-eyed guy, day after day.
“How would you like a Blue Whale, Kelly?” my father-in-law would ask when we’d arrive for dinner.
There was always a new cocktail he’d been exploring; while the smell of garlic and olive oil would lure us to the kitchen where his famous clams and linguini would be simmering on the stove. Some new cd would be playing over the sound system i while a massive collection of vinyl lined the walls.
“I’ve always wondered what Grandma would be like without Papa,” says Lloyd as he ponders Wildwood–and the world–without his grandfather.