By: Catherine Lynch
I spent my summers at a single-family home two blocks from a beach in Sea Isle City, NJ. The house was unique—the only single-story house on the block. My grandfather had bought the property for cheap in the seventies with the intention of having a place where his children and grandchildren could escape the drone of daily life. Most of the other houses on the block were bought up over the years and turned into massive side-by-side homes. They were then sold at ridiculous prices because of the proximity to the beach. Our 70’s style house wasn’t cookie cutter like the other homes and for that reason, I loved it.
The first day that we arrived every summer was like a modern-day Hunger Games to see who would get which bedroom—a game almost as competitive as who got the front seat on the way down and who got it on the way back. It was by either hopeless tradition or rigid consistency that I was shoved into the twin bedroom where mustard colored comforters welcomed me and unknown chubby children played in the sand smiled from pictures on the walls. I never won the claiming games, mostly because one of my fingers would get slammed in either the car door or the front screen door during the dash to obtain the best room.
By the end of the game, my brother Andrew and I were stuck sharing suitcases, living in the small room. Neither of us risked putting our clothes in the dusty old dresser that looked like it was about to teeter over with a single touch. We reminded each other with a quick glance towards the undusted top that dust was dirt and people’s dead skin, and we didn’t want it on our clothes.
The closet was another story.
Andrew and I had vowed to keep the closet shut after the first time we investigated it and saw the small space and endless darkness. Thinking back to The Lost Tapes episode where a vampire climbed out of a closet, all too similar to the one in our shore house bedroom, to suck the blood of a young boy, we were far from willing to look inside again. Still, as children under ten do, we continued to scare each other at night by speaking of vampires crawling out and daring each other to open the door.
“Why not try it?” we’d taunt each other. “If you’re not scared and believe there’s nothing in there, then open it up.”
The closet was the reason I spent most of my time in the largest room in the house, an open plan consisting of a living room, dining room, and kitchen. Most of our family adventures were spent in this room whether it was watching Wipe Out on the small TV or trying not to hit our heads on the air conditioning unit when we sat down on the shell-printed couch.
That house was tiny. It was completely open concept, consisting of essentially five rooms in total. With seven people and eventually a dog shoved inside, we always made excuses to get out of the house and away from each other.
Every year when my mother got sick of us, my father would take the three eldest children out for a crabbing expedition. As I got older, I learned to go to the bathroom right before walking out on that crabbing boat for eight hours. Sure, it was easy for the guys to go, but I was less than comfortable with hopping in the murky waters of the bay to relieve myself where the crabs could pinch my feet. After crabbing for eight hours we would bring our catches home— making sure that none of the crabs that we took were pregnant or babies. Then it was into the pot they went, supplying the meat for our crab and spaghetti dinners that lasted for two days. By the time all the prepared food had been eaten, our stomachs revolted at the thought of eating more crab.
There were traditions we had besides crabbing that we had kept throughout the years. There were the two nights of amusement park rides that held their own set of traditions. When we went to the Ocean City park rides, we stopped at a McDonalds along the way and challenged each other not to throw up on the rides. There were more spinning rides at the Ocean City amusement park than there were at Wildwood. When we went to the Wildwood amusement park, we got midnight pizza on the way back if our stomachs could handle it. The rollercoasters tended to kick all the appetite out of us.
My parents would bring us to the beach to exhaust us. We would grab our boogie boards from the collapse in the backyard shed and take a shortcut across our neighbor’s yard to get to the beach quicker. My mother would remind us to stay near the lifeguard and we would tend to let the current “drift us away.” Or, at least, that was the excuse we gave her when we returned on land. We’d then bury each other in the sand, packing it down with water so we couldn’t escape. My father wouldn’t come out in the sand as much as he grew older. He’d remind us of his Melanoma scare about thirty-thousand times before lathering us in so much sunscreen that our eyebrows disappeared in the white face he’d painted on.
The threat of cancer wasn’t the only aspect of summer my father warned us about. The second threat, named by the community as “greenheads,” were the most imminent threat every summer. We never knew which summer they would be there. There were some summers where we never saw a single greenhead and others where we would walk outside onto the small wooden deck behind the house and get bitten so many times. We’d forget to watch our feet on the rough wood and wound up with splinters in our toes.
When our feet weren’t impaled with woodchips, we were playing whiffle ball in the green grass behind our house. We were the only family in the neighborhood that hadn’t replaced it with stone. The other children asked to play sometimes when they were renting the neighbor’s house and we’d let them, expressing our pity that they didn’t have a backyard to challenge one another in.
Still, the stone brought another challenge, when the ball went over into someone else’s yard we’d dash across those stones, barefoot, to save a home run from occurring. Often, our heroic game-changing saves had our feet cut and mother yelling at us to get in the outdoor shower to wash the dirt out of our cuts. She was a nurse so her favorite weapons for destroying germs were hot water and Neosporin.
The outdoor shower was one of my favorite parts of that house. Wood paneled on a small slab of concrete the shower was perfect for rinsing off the sleep from our eyes or the sand from our bodies. The only worry then became whether my brothers would rattle the door to scare me or how many greenheads were drawn to the warm showers.
Those insignificant worries return to me now as fond memories. Even after my grandmother stole and sold the house from us four years ago, I can still smell the newly painted white fence and the freshly cut lawn. I can hear the screams of excitement and terror from the ride-goers and the whirl of the air-conditioning unit that we dodged under walking down the alley beside the house. I can see Sal waving the children over to his hot dog cart on the beach and the planes that would drag their messages with phone numbers over the ocean.
Three years ago, the realtors knocked the house down, tore up the grass, replaced it with stone, and erected a three-story side-by-side home that was reminiscent of every other house on the block.
I remembered how we rushed to go check on the house after Hurricane Sandy had taken our own electricity in Pennsylvania and flooded our basement. We couldn’t have asked for more than to just have our house still standing. If the shore house was there then the damage could be fixed later. I closed my eyes as we drove around the block and down our street. I didn’t want to crack them open to see nothing but the foundation of our shore house with no roof and everything in pieces. When we neared the house, I heard my father laugh and shake his head exclaiming, “No way!” Our house was untouched, safe from the little bit of water that entered the house. The shore house, which was slightly raised, was just above inches of water that drowned the lawn. There wasn’t another house on the street that survived better than ours.
To this day I think it’s amazing that our shore house could survive major hurricanes like Hurricane Andrew and Hurricane Sandy with just a little water damage, but it couldn’t surpass my grandmother’s decision to sell. In the end, it wasn’t a major storm that ripped the shore house from our fingers, but the ink of a pen on paper as it signed a secret contract.