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.
Something unsettling happened to me this year–I cried on the Fourth of July. I’ve never done that before. As a child of the sixties, I’ve never been too sentimental about my country. Sure, I couldn’t wait to get home to the good ole USA after months of backpacking through Europe, but that was more about orange juice and ice cubes than national pride.
I suppose my generation has taken this country for granted which is exactly why I was surprised to find myself moved by a flag ceremony during a parade in Brattleboro, Vermont.
My family and I had arrived late to town that morning. The kids and I jumped out of the car and ran ahead to the parade route while my husband searched for the one parking spot that the other thousand people passed by.
I remember the wheels of the stroller bouncing down the hill toward Main Street, and the sound of the dirt and gravel flying up as we rolled to the edge of the curb.
It was a hundred and seven degrees that day (in Vermont!), and all the shady spots had long been taken by people who thought to bring folding chairs.
The parade was just underway, and right across from us, a huge American flag hung from the extended ladder of a fire truck; its height competing with that of the church steeple behind it. Beneath this flag was a memorial wall with names painted across it. And then it began…
Before I could catch my breath, bagpipes were playing, firefighters were standing at attention, and my eyes had begun to tear up inexplicably. I held on tightly to the arms of the stroller. Maybe it was the heat.
By the time my husband arrived, my face was awash with tears, as I began to comprehend what this ceremony was all about: these were rescue workers from all over New England, gathered to honor their comrades who lost their lives on September 11th.
9/11 hits home for me. World War I & II, Korea, Vietnam Nam, the Persian Gulf–these are the stuff of history books or television. But I lost someone I knew on September 11th. He had two kids and a wife. We grew up in the same small coastal town on the southern tip of New Jersey, took ski trips together to Vermont when we were kids. Our fathers still practice at the same county hospital.
I remember the agony I felt hoping that he was alive that Tuesday (the eleventh of September 2001) and that Wednesday, and Thursday; praying that somehow he had made it out.
But Andy worked on the 105th floor, for Cantor Fitzgerald… no one made it out.
September 11th shook me in a way that nothing has before. Suddenly I’d lost my lifelong travel bug. I didn’t even want to leave the state. On that tragic day, I had been 300 miles away from my husband and my six-year old son. They were still in Vermont while I had traveled with the baby to New Jersey to be with my siblings on the one-year anniversary of our mother’s passing. When the news first came in about the towers, I was afraid I might never see my husband and son again. The bridges and roads out of New Jersey were closed and I got a tiny taste of what it feels like to be caught up in a war zone, separated from your loved ones. I never want to feel that again.
That morning began gorgeously, and my sisters and I decided to head to the county zoo with our little ones. Just as we got into our cars, the news came over the radio: a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers. On our drive out to the park, reports shifted from “accident” to possible “assault” and by the time we arrived, another plane had hit; while several more were suspected to be in the air with unknown targets.
In the parking lot of the Cape May County Zoo, parents sat motionless in their cars: doors open, one-leg out, a hand frozen on the ignition–while the radio repeated the horrors, and children whined from back seats to be let out. Families proceeded trance-like toward the entrance, unable to do anything but follow through with promises to visit the monkeys.
It was strange, but no one really spoke to each other about what was going on–no doubt numbed by more information than any of us were capable of feeling or understanding. This was too big for “Can you believe that!” or even “Isn’t that terrible;” and yet a deep sense of connection was suddenly palpable. As we passed through the zoo gates, we held our children closely and wondered just how much our world might be changed by the time we left the zoo.
It was outside the reptile house that we got the news of the Pentagon and of the President’s evacuation; and so my sisters and I gathered together to pray while the children played around us. Ours was a motley prayer group: two fundamentalist Christians and two New-agers, but we stood in a circle with our arms around each other and prayed for the remaining planes, that they would be diverted from their targets.
As we put the little ones back into strollers, my sister Robin and I both admitted to each other (and to ourselves) that we were “ready” if our lives were about to end.
By the time we left the zoo, news of the collapse of one of the trade centers was announced. With tears in our eyes, my sisters and I said bewildered goodbyes and went our separate ways: some to church, others to gather with friends in front of televisions.
I went with the baby to the place that has always brought me comfort-–the grocery store.
Wandering aimlessly down the aisles, I picked up some jugs of water and some non-perishables, just in case. Surprisingly few others had this same thought because this large market, usually bustling with mothers and babies at this time of day, was eerily empty.
I was in the last aisle, comparing protein bars, when it finally occurred to me how out of place I was. The store music was interrupted with the latest news: banks were closing–even in this town more than a hundred miles from New York City. This last development pushed me past the edge of my fear, and I made a dash for the bathroom at the back of the store. After I emptied myself of panic, I crumpled on the floor with the baby in my arms.
When I came out, I discovered a line of silent customers in the liquor department.
The next day, the bridges were reopened, and I fled for Vermont, holding my breath as I crossed the Tappanzee, from where I could see the smoke where the trade centers once were. When I finally made it into the mountains of New England, I let out a huge sigh of relief. No matter what happened now, I’d be home.
Vermont was as peaceful as ever-–as if nothing changed. The sky was a beautiful blue and there was a hint of fall in the air. The joy of my homecoming soon disintegrated however because I couldn’t bear to be so far away from what was happening. It seemed wrong not to be suffering more.
In penance, I became obsessed with the tragedies. I filled myself up with newspapers, magazines, and every posting at the town office. I spent hours on the internet, and on the phone with my sisters (Robin was still stranded in New Jersey, unable to get a flight back to Florida.) I stayed up late talking to my husband, writing, drawing, crying.
And then, I gave up. Taking long walks with the baby, watching autumn unfold, I emptied all of it. With each step on the dirt roads, with each smell of pine and apple, with the healing textures and colors of old barns and red maples, my anxieties slipped away.
But what I found I could not shed was my grief over this country’s response: from the President’s call for retaliation; to the Congressmen and women breaking out in “God Bless America;” to Billy Graham at the National Prayer Service preaching about good and evil and demanding justice; to the American flags EVERYwhere; and most significantly to the sentiment that as a country we had been united as a result of this tragedy.
I didn’t feel “united.” I felt undone.
Listening to the call-in shows on the radio left me ready to relocate (to another country!) Who were these people who were prouder than ever to be “an American” and were ready to kick some butt?
More than ever, I became acutely aware of how differently I felt than my President, my Congress, and my fellow citizens. It’s not that I didn’t have deep appreciation and respect for the rescue workers or that I didn’t have moments of hatred toward the murderers. But what I felt most deeply was a profound sadness and disgust with where I saw us heading.
I had thought and hoped and prayed that we were moving past the kind of world where we respond to problems with more violence and killing. I had imagined that we were moving beyond the sentiment of God Bless ‘America’ to the larger, more inclusive spirit of God Bless the ‘World.
In one last futile attempt to understand my country, I turned on the television. It had been exactly a week from the attack, said the announcer, “three minutes” from the time the first plane hit. Whitney Houston belt out the National Anthem while images of destruction and agony flooded the screen; coupled with images evoking national pride: flags, rescue workers, families, and the like.
I sat down in my livingroom and cried. I cried for all that had happened and for all those who had been hurt, but I also cried for myself. Because I realized in that moment, that I had very little national pride.
I don’t remember when I lost it. I must have felt it when I was a kid. I said the Pledge of Allegiance every day and sang “God Bless America” in music class; and I still spontaneously break out in “America the Beautiful” when faced with some outstanding feat of beauty of which our land is infinitely blessed.
But somewhere along the line of growing up, my feelings of national pride were eroded, and replaced by a growing sense of shame, and a desire to distance myself from so much of what my country was all about.
Maybe it began with politics? Yes, I’m certain it did.
A series of events flashes in my mind:
—the assassination of JFK–just two weeks before I was born;
–Vietnam Nam and Watergate–sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen watching the President resign;
–the film “Soldier Blue” which I secretly viewed from the back seat at the drive-in (my heart torn open as I witnessed the brutal slaying of Indian women and children;)
–the television series “Roots,” and the hatred I felt for myself because I was a white American;
–the little paperback “Hiroshima” which left me in utter disgust with the horrors that we could inflict on other human beings;
–and finally, the perpetual scandals that permeated our government, the military, the corporations and even the religious orders.
From the Pledge of Allegiance to the National Anthem, it all had begun to seem phony.
…And yet, standing there under that hot sun on the Fourth of July, 2002, as uniformed men and women stood sweating at attention, and bag pipes loosed the strings of my heart, I cried for love of this country!
I had come to see the United States of America as some kind of big bully, some unruly and precocious giant; But when it was hurt, when it was brought to its knees, I felt only tenderness and compassion.
I saw our wide-eyed innocence and I cried that it had been stolen away. I cried for everything we lost, and for everything we now knew we had.
Kelly Salasin, 2002
In memory of Andy Alameno who died in the Twin Towers on 9/11/01 and in memory of his father, Dr. Alameno, who passed away in 2009.