“Tilt it a little more to the right,” said my mother, as I rehung a painting in our family summer cottage in Ocean Beach, New Jersey. It was a lighthouse scene, a corny paint by numbers that my older sister did as a kid. This relic hung in the living room for over half a century. We were finally back after Sandy flooded the bungalow. The water- from Barnegat Bay- came up to the beds, and the cottage had to be gutted and restored.
My Dad loved our little house, which my parents bought in 1949 from the original developer. From the start, my father made it clear that we would never rent this place- it was our home. When my father died almost 15 years ago, my mother produced a pail of sand at the grave site and we each tossed in a handful. “From the top of our walkway,” Mom tearfully explained, “Ocean Beach sand.”
From infancy until I graduated college, I spent entire seasons there, escaping the inner city where we lived the rest of the year. Down the shore, I had more freedom. My first boyfriend was a summer romance. (Who knew then that we were both gay?) My first job was at Martin’s Department Store in Lavallette. Like every local teen, I cruised the boardwalk in Seaside Heights eating pizza, hanging in arcades, listening to The Ronnettes on the juke box.
As an adult, I visited and caught up with people I’ve known since high school. I hung out on the beach with my large family, our chairs spread out to commandeer space. My great nephews trekked in and out of the house with sand and surfboards. My mother, the matriarch of four generations, prepared dinner on Sunday. At night we played Scrabble at the kitchen counter.
After Sandy, when my sister told me about the damage, and wondered if the bungalow would have to be razed, I cried. Here I was living in Greenwich Village in a huge building flooded by the Hudson River. I had no electricity, no heat, no running water, but this news smacked me harder.
My first night back at Ocean Beach, we opened boxes with wall hangings and pictures that were saved. My 91-year-old mother showed me a black and white photo- she was kneeling by her tomato plants, smiling. My niece took it two decades before Mom’s knee replacements.
“Sometimes I can’t believe I’m so old,” she said.
“But your mind is very sharp,” I said, thankful for my good genes. “That’s what counts.”
Friends from our block dropped by to hug my mother and welcome her home. The next town was celebrating Founder’s Day with a dazzling fireworks display. As we stood in the street with our neighbors watching the sky light up, I felt this was in honor of our return- a light show tribute to my mother’s resilience.
The original target date to move back was July 1 but an electrical fire in June caused more damage. As the summer wore on, I felt an aching, an incredible longing. By August, I felt bereft. I missed this place, the repository of my history where I reconnect with my roots and get my “family fix”. I was honored to be the first person, after my mother, to sleep in the restored house, right after Labor Day.
My childhood bedroom was exactly as I remembered it, only the knotty pine paneling was more burnished. As I sat in bed reading, I felt the presence of my father who carefully installed the woodwork that my mother insisted my brother restore. My Dad, an English teacher, was not very handy, so this feat amazed us kids as he finished one room each summer. My mother treasured this connection to her husband of 57 years.
Restoring this was a complicated job: each panel was marked as it was removed, the wood was treated to prevent mold, a rented storage shed held the sections while the house was repaired. The two-man crew did such a good job that when I went to rehang things, I found the original nail holes.
My steely Irish Catholic mother epitomized “Jersey Strong.” When a crew of relatives tossed out furniture, rugs, and appliances, my mother donned rubber boots and supervised. One winter night, stressed from dealing with insurance people and confusing messages from FEMA, she sighed, “I wish your father was here. He was good at this stuff.” We all reassured her she was doing a great job. Thankfully, she had flood insurance and our house was not condemned.
During the summer, my mother stayed at my sister’s bungalow, a few blocks away, while she supervised the repairs. She joked that it was nice having someone cook for her, but I’m sure she longed to be back in her own kitchen. My sister took my mother shopping for new furniture and my brother scoured garage sales. Rather than replacing the wall to wall carpeting (which would have delayed the return), the rooms now have throw rugs on the stone floor, like when we first settled in the early 1950s.
In September, as I rode my bike through harder hit neighboring areas, like Ortley Beach, I saw destruction everywhere. I felt overwhelmed and grateful our house was spared. Although I’ve lived in Manhattan almost 40 years, I’ve never felt more like a Jersey girl.