I grew up on the South Shore of Boston, in Scituate, a lovely town on the ocean with an excellent harbor and numerous sandy beaches. We occasionally went to Cape Cod when I was young (I had an aunt who lived there), and we had family gatherings for several summers on Martha’s Vineyard when I was an adult, but mostly I didn’t go to “the shore” other than to Scituate. Why go to the ocean when home was the ocean?
When I met David he talked about his family’s tradition of going to “the shore.” The New Jersey shore? Like in Atlantic City? Why would anyone go to the beach in New Jersey?(Yes, I was ridiculously ignorant about where millions of people on the East Coast go to the beach.)
When I first met David’s parents, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, they talked lovingly of their home on the shore, telling me I would have to come visit there the next summer. Which I did and realized for the first time that the New Jersey coast is a long series of barrier islands with beautiful beaches and long bays with wide sweeps of marshland and creeks behind the islands.
David and I are here for a week, along with our kids, in the house his parents bought in the 1960’s. It’s not fancy, but it’s on the bay side of the island that’s divided between Avalon and Stone Harbor and sits right on the water. From the deck you look out across “the basin,” an inlet of water from the bay, the bay itself, and then the marshes, with the mainland in the distance.
My first summer here I sat with Betty, David’s mother, one afternoon when the rest of the visiting family was out doing errands or at the beach, three blocks across the island on the ocean side.
“Oh, forget about time,” Betty said that day. I was talking about an outing from years before, trying to remember how many years. “Time is out there and I’m here,” Betty said. “I’ve given up on being fact actual.” Betty had been suffering from dementia for years when I met her, but could be amazingly lucid and insightful at times.
I was reading Jane Hirshfield’s Nine Gates, Entering the Mind of Poetry. “Do you do any reading?” I asked Betty, knowing she didn’t. She sat in a chair most of the time, going through magazines and catalogues and piles of paper, clipping coupons and flipping pages, over and over.
“Oh yes,” Betty said. “But I have no book now.”
“Here’s what I’m reading,” I said, and picked up my book. “Want to hear a poem?” I read her Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” She laughed in delight.
“Well isn’t that the perfect poem for here,” she said, and I read the last stanza again, with its lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore.
“The water is language,” Betty said. “If you don’t watch the water here you miss the whole thing.”
I stopped reading and watched the water.