By the Sea, by the Beautiful Sea

by Barb, at the Jersey shore

What is it about the connection between human beings and bodies of water? Why do so many of us find a quality of peace and relaxation when staring at the ocean, or a favorite lake, that we find nowhere else? What is it about a rushing trout stream on a spring day that carries our troubles away with it? Is it because we’ve depended on the water for millennia for food, transport, cooling on hot days? Is it because our bodies are 60% water and we need it to live? Is it because we came from the oceans originally and that memory is somewhere buried deep in our primitive brains?

Our personal histories play into it, too. When I was growing up, both sets of my grandparents had places near the ocean, my mother’s parents in Sea Girt, New Jersey, and my father’s parents in Water Mill, Long Island.

My grandmother Ross would pick my brother and me up on the last day of school every year, and drive us out to the end of Long Island. We knew all the landmarks along the way, the strawberry fields, the windmills, the building shaped like a giant duck that was a market that sold, well, duck, what else? My grandmother’s father would visit her for the same two weeks, so I grew up knowing my great-grandfather well. His hobby was painting tiles and he would let my brother and I paint them, too and then we would take them to be fired. My grandparents belonged to a beach club on Flying Point Road and a part of every day was spent there. Then we’d stop at a friend’s pool on the way home, diving for pennies my grandmother threw in the deep end. Whatever we retrieved we kept to spend at the Penny Candy Store on the way home. I can still taste the Squirrel Nut Zippers.

Later in the summer, my mother would deliver us for two weeks with her parents in Sea Girt. The Jersey shore was a different sort of place, more organized and built up in those days, with a boardwalk. In the mornings my grandmother did household chores while my brother and I agitated for the beach. If the day was overcast she would say, “Go out on the lawn and look up. If you see enough blue to make a Dutchman’s pants, we’ll go.” I’ve never heard the expression since, and I wonder if it is a New Jersey thing, vaguely insulting to the original settlers? My grandmother shared a rental umbrella and two lounge chairs with her friend, Rose Bigley, which would be set up by lifeguards with white zinc oxide on their noses while we waited. Rose and my grandmother would sit in the chairs and talk of grown-up things while my brother and I played in the sand and the ocean.

My parents started the tradition of renting a house for a week in Stone Harbor. It was their way of corralling a family that was spread out, of making sure the cousins grew up together. We evolved our traditions, of mini-golf and cut-throat Scrabble games, and, of course, daily trips to the beach, often two a day. For years a trip to Cape May kicked off my annual Christmas shopping. We did it for a decade and then the kids grew up, had summer jobs and the tradition ended.

When my mother died, my sister-in-law had only one request. “I want to go back to the beach.” And so we have, indoctrinating new in-laws and a new generation of grandchildren along the way.

From this experience, maybe, decades from now, when my granddaughter looks at the ocean, she’ll feel at peace. Or maybe that’s already inside her.

Readers: Do you have a location by a body of water that’s special to you?

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47 thoughts on “By the Sea, by the Beautiful Sea

  1. I grew up on the Gulf Coast, so trips to the beach at Grand Isle (where Kate Chopin set The Awakening) was a regular event in my childhood. Sunday day trips–riding in the back of my father’s pick-up truck with my brothers, no seatbelts, standing up when we rode over the bridge, excited for the first glimpse of water when we hit the crest–unforgettable moments. Now the shore is eroding and the island of Grand Isle is a tiny slip of land that losses the war against water a bit every year. And, of course, from the Gulf came hurricanes that also define my childhood….As an adult, far away from my childhood home, I go to the Delaware shore, especially Rehoboth Beach, as often as we can get away. The Atlantic is rough and cold, but it’s our new tradition.

    • The Gulf Coast. It sounds so romantic and exotic to me. I remember those days of riding in the back of open pickups, or on the tailgate of old station wagons. How di we survive our childhoods?

  2. What lovely memories, Barb. As a southern Californian, we went to the beach a lot, even though it was a good hour’s drive on freeways to get there. My grandparents also rented a house at the beach for a few weeks, or maybe it was the month of August, and had their three children and families visit, so I got to know my cousins (who all lived in northern California) well. When I lived in Indiana, I thought I would miss the beach so much, but instead we swam at a lake. Now, even though I’m closer to the beach, I don’t go enough. Funny, when I woke up this morning I decided to go to Salisbury Beach this afternoon!

  3. Great post, Barb — and agree totally. Something about the water indeed. We grew up going to the Crystal Coast of North Carolina (Emerald Isle, Atlantic Beach), and we still go back there often—something restorative about it. Our son Dash has started spending some time there too each summer, and hope he’ll have the same great memories, feel the same effect years down the line!

  4. Until I was ten, my family spent part of each summer at Bay Head, New Jersey–which back then still had the fragments of a boardwalk. Not one with rides and vendors, just an elevated walkway for people to stroll along without getting sand in their shoes. My first commercial venture was selling sea shells to some of those strollers, mere feet from the beach where I’d collected them. Visiting grandparents were very supportive! I also loved stormy days, when the ocean went wild.

  5. We did spend time at the beach with relatives. I remember cookouts by the rocks at Hampton Beach. Now there are no cooking signs. We played on the rocks. We were fearless back then, climbing up and down when the tide was out.

    Up from the beach, called the North Beach, there are fantastic houses on the sand. The beach is open to anyone, but limited parking. There was one house that had a cement wave to protect the house from the winter waves. It was cool looking. The wide open verandas with their sweeping views of the ocean made me wistful.

    A house on the beach AND an apartment in a skyscraper with a huuuuge balcony over looking the city. The original Beauty and the Beast had a balcony that I wanted or the balcony on Pretty Woman. Not a picket fence person. 🙂

    My first story is about a multi-generational immigrant family who becomes wealthy and powerful. They have clan gatherings at Long Island near Water Mill. Water Mill brings back fond memories of researching. I wrote some on the story on the Long Island Railroad Train on a table in the business car. I looked at small villages ( on the internet) to place the story, though I would have loved to visit the Hamptons.

    An author who critiqued it for a class said the beach scenes sounded like memories. That was a really cool observation, though it wasn’t from memory, it was all made up. Probably what I wished had been true. 🙂

    Fond memories of times past.

    • I haven’t been back to Water Mill since the eighties. My brother and I were just talking about it. I’m kind of afraid to see how built up it’s become.

      I love writing on trains!

  6. Loved your summer-at-the-shore stories! I grew up in the Finger Lakes, upstate NY, and I moved back here after many years in the Boston area. A bonus of my high-on-a-windy-hill apartment is a 6-month-a-year view of Canandaigua Lake. (There’s a reason this town was called “The Beautiful Spot” by its first residents!) The summer months, I have a tiny window through an aging maple tree just large enough for me to see what color the water is today. This morning I noticed the window is a tiny bit larger; leaves are falling. 🙂

  7. My mother said it would clear up if you could see enough blue to make a pair of Dutchman’s britches. She was from land-locked Oklahoma, and her family was from Missouri. No idea where the expression came from, but I still use it. It usually works!

  8. Growing up in the East, “going down the shore” was a staple for a day or for a week. Thanks for bringing back those memories of family times and of probably why, if you let me look at a body of water, I’m quickly at peace and can happily churn out words.

  9. Even thought I grew up only a couple of miles from Lake Erie, we rarely went. The kids complained about the seaweed that would wash up and the shore was very rocky as you waded out. And for years, the water was too polluted by the steel mills to be safe.

    But I love looking at the water and the lake breeze was a joy in the summer. One of my first dates with The Hubby was sailing on the lake.

  10. I grew up In Davenport, Iowa on the Mississippi River. We didn’t swim in it but I loved to watch the water move slowly by. I still love it and when I fly across country I love to catch glimpses of it. The Mississippi feels like home to me. We couldn’t afford a vacation every year so my first glimpse of an ocean was in third grade when we took a road trip to California.

  11. My favorite body of water isn’t an ocean but a small river about 20 feet wide (maybe I should call it a creek) that flowed behind Bland Park Amusement Park (now named DelGrosso Park) near the Tyrone/Tipton area of Pennsylvania. At the beginning of summer, our church had a picnic there. Instead of going on the park rides, I would spend hours wading through the crystal clear water of the shallow river with its large, smooth river rocks. Towering trees on both sides of the river shaded the area and made it the perfect place to spent the day. Recently, over fifty years since the last time I was there, my husband and I visited the park and the only thing I wanted to see was the river. Sadly, a chain-linked fence separated the park area from the river. But we could see it, just as appealing as ever.

  12. What absolutely lovely memories. Thanks for sharing.

    So what is it about kids throwing rocks into the water? I loved to do that as a kid. I have a fascination with water as well, especially love getting to swim in it. Any body of water works for me, even a pool.

    • Pools work for me, too. And skipping rocks across a pond. How wonderful to be young enough, in fact or in heart, to love watching ripples radiating out after throwing a good rock into the water.

  13. I live in Queen Anne’s County, across the Chester River from Chestertown, which is the County Seat for Kent County. I enjoy catching a glimpse of the Chester River as I cross the bridge on my almost daily trips into Chestertown.

  14. I should add that while I was big fan of the ocean since I was about two, my daughter, born in the SF Bay area, hated it on sight and still isn’t sure she likes it. I’m pretty sure we’re related, so where did I go wrong?

  15. Diving for pennies! And just like that I was back with my grandparents in their back yard pool.
    We never lived far from the beach (Long Island Sound) but my parents weren’t huge beach lovers so I mostly went with friends or other family members. Crabbing, swimming, searching for seaglass and shells, bonfires on the beach, catching shiners – so much fun (except for the sunburns).
    I’m glad you’ll be able to share all that with your granddaughter (except the sunburns).

  16. Thanks for sharing all those great memories, Barbara.

    I grew up in northeastern Indiana where there are hundreds of puddles all called “The Lake”. That’s what people did in the summer, go to The Lake. My parents and I went one year for a week and stayed with cousins. Never cared for it. I actually have an irrational fear of water. Maybe it isn’t so irrational given I nearly drowned twice(!) as a child. I’m better about getting into water now than I used to be, but still wouldn’t care if I never went in again. I do love looking at rivers and streams. I grew up near a small stream that ran through the park our house was near. I, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, would spend hours along the stream, hopping across on rocks, playing under the RR bridge, skating on it in the winter, occasionally falling in. And as a grew older, a great place to walk with a boyfriend at night. I still love looking at any little stream and, fortunately, there are loads of them near where I live now in Lancaster, PA.

  17. Being from a small town in north Texas, I had only been around the small local lakes until about 7-8 years ago. It was then that I made my first trip down to Galveston Island. Standing on the shoreline as the waves rolled at my feet – I was in awe. There is something about being at the water’s edge like that- nothing compares. It has left me wanting to travel to any and every place possible to experience the ocean along all coasts…

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