Although I currently live in southern Virginia, I’m a Jersey Girl, a “tag” I give myself after spending my growing years in the Garden State, then raising my own family there. I love Jersey in many, many ways. But what I love most (aside from family and friends) are her beaches – 127 miles of Atlantic Ocean coastline stretching from Sandy Hook in the north to Cape May in the south.
From the time I was about 6 years old until 16, I spent every nice summer day in Sea Bright, a sliver of land between the ocean and river. In the winter, the town was battered by cold winds turned arctic in their flight over the Atlantic, making its citizens hunker down in their winterized homes. But in the summer, Sea Bright transformed into a Rockwell-esque vacation mecca for those of us who lived a few miles inland. We joined her beach clubs, ate at her pizza joints and shopped for bathing suits and records at the stores along Ocean Avenue. We had a ball in that picture-perfect little town.
It takes only a few minutes to bring back the memories, and once again I'm back in my mom's old Buick, making the 5-mile trek from home. Stuck in traffic on the drawbridge, I wonder how I can actually see the heat waves coming off the concrete. At the top of the bridge we catch our first glimpse of the water ahead…beyond the buildings lining the shore: The Atlantic, glistening brilliant shades of blue and silver-white in the mid-morning light, stretching for miles and miles and miles, all the way to the other half of the world.
Mom drops my sister and me off and heads to work, and we make the short trip to the tiny locker we have for the summer. We load up our arms with our blankets and towels and bags of suntan lotion and books (always books) and other paraphernalia, and we lumber toward the sand to the symphony of gulls calling insults to each other as they dive-bomb for dropped crumbs in the parking lot.
We reach the beach, kick off our flip-flops, and start the trek across sand that sinks under each step. The sand is hot – so hot we can nearly smell the soles of our feet singeing, so we drop towels to use as stepping stones. On our journey, we pass sun-bathers who’ve foolishly slathered themselves with baby oil and lotion intended to intensify the rays instead of block them. Some are reading, their eyes squinting against the sun’s glare, some are chatting, some are listening to the AM radio tuned to a Top 40 station, and some are sleeping, lulled by the heat of the day and the music of the sea.
We find a spot, spread our blanket, then sit to layer on our own suntan lotion, giving ourselves Mother Nature's body scrub from the mixed-in sand. I smell like the beach, and I don’t care.Wind rushes on shore, and I taste the brine in the air while I try to brush sand from my now sticky fingers.
We lean back, pretend to sleep, but keep an eye out for the young tanned and toned lifeguards running drills up and down the harder-packed shoreline. Those on guard scold bathers who’ve gone too far, their whistles shrill and sharp against the wind buffeting our ears. Waves crash against the beach, dumping laughing (and tumbling) wave-riders in their wake.
Lovers stroll the shoreline, their hands joined, and I dream of some day having that. Moms and dads stand sentry while little ones play in the surf, and suddenly I'm too hot. I jump up to get my toes wet, then brave the chilled but bracing water and fight the tides forward. I make it past the break line and go weightless with each wave that rolls by on its way to shore.
A big one is cresting ahead, and with the under-toe sucking me forward, I race to meet it before it can break and knock me down.
Footnote: The tiny village of Sea Bright was nearly obliterated by Hurricane Sandy, and so many of the businesses I remember are gone. But I’m happy to report the town is coming back strong. Businesses are rebuilding and the beaches are open, ready to make more perfect memories.