Midnight Mile-Marker 63

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.

Summer at the Jersey Shore

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!

Wildwood Crest, NJ

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.

Kelly Salasin

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