My sister and I recently returned from eight days (11 for her) revisiting the summers of our childhood in Southern New Jersey. We never took these experiences for granted– we always knew that being at the Shore and going crabbing with our grandfather and eating sweet corn and Jersey peaches at the height of ripeness was special.
As adults, it was especially great to drop down into the lives of our Uncle Eddie and Aunt Kathie and their children who still live in the “Pinelands”/Pine Barrens area right on the coast. We couldn’t see the ocean from their house, but we could smell it. And it was clear to see everywhere the way storms shape that place– particularly Superstorm Sandy, “The Storm.” My relatives should have evacuated but didn’t, and the water, or the surge, came right up to their door or into their garages. My aunt and uncle didn’t sustain any damage to their house– just a boat blown onshore and stacked with a bunch of other large boats at the marina. But even a few houses away they say 8-10 feet of water came into the houses. Now all the small houses are being raised up on pylons or rebuilt on raised platforms. It took me a while to hear “raised” instead of “razed” since my perspective is informed by growing up in tornado country.
This house, not my grandfather’s (which has gone through many changes) but on his street, most closely resembles the house we visited as kids. It backs up to a lagoon (which always made me think of “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” especially at night) that is just a water road for boats.
That road leads to the channels, with a shadowy view of Atlantic City in the background, always pointed out to us, like the Emerald City on a far shore. The channels are where we put down our strings with large fish pieces, “lunkers,” on the end, and waited for crabs to pick at them. Once we felt the tug, we’d pull it up the two feet or so from the bottom, slowly but surely, until someone would dip in a net and capture the crab. This is what we did again, in those beautiful channels that smell of mud and fish, attacked of course by stinging greenheads (aka salt marsh flies or horse flies). It’s a singular experience and I do feel sorry for those who never get to do it. We caught 36 crabs that met the minimum size requirement of 4.5 inches (though there were some disputes about that later).
We ate them as part of a seafood feast– first picking the crab meat out with crackers and picks (associated with nuts in my everyday life!) and eating corn/cucumber salsa. Then came clams on the half-shell and 200 steamed little neck clams. And then, the main course, Jersey sweet corn on the cob, “Bubba Gump Shrimp” (a baked dish of shrimp, butter, onion and lemon), and an incredible number of scallops for my Midwestern self to see in one place. Once we’d downed all that seafood, we dug into the pie, hot that morning when we bought it, peach and apple.
The vacation continued down the Shore where my sister and I shared a converted garage air bnb a mile from the beach in Cape May, and where we and our parents and sundry relatives on my mother’s side buzzed around a giant Victorian hotel at the beach, sitting on the rocking chairs, changing in the restrooms, visiting at the pool, and accessing the beach. There were breaks for seafood at regular intervals, and a final dinner of hot fudge sundae. I also feel sad for anyone who has not sat under a beach umbrella at 4 p.m. with their feet in the sand and the waves crashing and the luxurious sea breeze on your skin. (Oh, and especially when the lifeguards walk by, making their final rounds…)
When I got home, Steve had kept up eating the cucumbers and tomatoes (though he had not picked the zucchini!). He told me he had heard a wonderful interview with Garrison Keillor, where Keillor was expressing his love of the Minnesota garden tomato. What a world to live in where there are tomatoes like this. Just think of the people who never get to eat ripe tomatoes! While I’d been gone, the prairie had changed its clothes. It was coated with a thick blanket of grey-headed coneflowers, the Queen of the Prairie. And yes, I thought, what a special life I have and what a beautiful time to live.