I want to capture what it is to leave an elevation of seventeen hundred feet– thickly forested, steep, snow bound… and arrive at the ocean’s floor. It’s mile marker 63 when it hits me. Suddenly the world is flat. I feel it on the inside first. There is a shift in my internal wake, a settling– like sediment to the bottom of a glass; and even if I’ve been snoozing with the kids, I know we’ve arrived–not quite to our destination– but to sea level.
With a great exhale, I release my preoccupation with the unending Parkway, and begin to take in my surroundings. Names like Tuckerton, Beesley’s Point, Great Egg Harbor appear and I wonder how it is that I never noticed these characters before– settings for some great work of fiction, tickling my tongue and imagination.
By mile marker 30, the smell of the marsh has found its way to me through the cold air and through the tight seal of the car windows. As we pass the exit for Sea Isle City, my own tides steady to balancing point– like the bubble inside a level. Does the body know? Do the cells swell with recognition at the place of one’s birth?
A hundred and sixty-nine monotonous miles of the Garden State, suddenly warp speed. Dropping into the teens, a surge inside me rises to meet the sea. “Hello, again old friend. It’s me, Kelly. Kelly Brown from out of town.” That’s how my grandparent’s neighbors greeted me each summer of my return.
This tide recedes as we move into the single digits. Racing through Cape May Court House, I struggle to remain afloat in the onslaught of memory… the light at Stone Harbor Boulevard, the Repici’s roadside motel, the chapel where James and Lynn were married, the road toward my dear friend’s house.
Pulling back like a wave from the shore, I am almost swept up into a sea of grief, just as my youngest rustles beside me in the slumber party of our back seat. Buoyed on each side by a son, my husband at the helm of this homecoming ship, I steady myself amidst life’s debris.
The boys have their own internal compass for the journey. At exit 6 when we turn off the Parkway and head east onto the strip of land that carries us to the island, they begin to stir like the tiny clams in the sand after a hundred miles of sound sleep.
I can’t drive this stretch of road, past the sewage plant, without the smell of fresh lipstick and cigarettes– my mother’s, as she takes a brush to our sleep-tangled hair and rubs her spit roughly against our cheeks– early lessons in the importance of appearance as we’d approach my father’s childhood home.
Once over the draw bridge, Past and Present collide, lifting me into the lap of my soul, tossing me like a conch to the shore. Shells fly from under the tires as we bounce over the salt-weary roads of “home.” The grocery store where I pawned pennies for bubble gum has finally had a face lift– six years too late for my mother who shopped there even when the rest of us called it the “Beirut Acme,” and took our business off shore.
We cruise into the island town of Wildwood Crest, deep in winter hibernation. Pulling up to an abandoned curb, the man I love slips out from behind the wheel and opens the gate to his childhood home. On my right, is the bay; and on my left, the sea. Straight ahead, just two blocks, is the house where my own mother would be waiting at her late night perch over a bottomless cup of black coffee. Like some sailor’s wife, her voice floods with an undercurrent of longing as she looks up and greets my return. “Hi, Kel,” she’d say.
Only now, she speaks in whispers that the ocean brings to me.
“You can move away, but you can’t get the sand out of your shoes,” a dockside barkeep used to tease whenever I talked of leaving. I laughed at his warnings, like the one about pizza and my hips. Jim’s gone now too, but was once very pleased to know that I couldn’t get pizza delivered to my mountain home.
He appears to me now, an apparition, leaning too far across the bar to pour my drink, a jester-like grin lifting thick Caselle frames from his sun-creased face.
The grains of his words rub between my toes, as the salt and the sea rise up… in me.