We were only ever a couple of hours away - a big bridge and a few small ones. My father drove the back roads, through farm country. We kept our windows down. We smelled ripening peaches and reddening tomatoes and kerneled corn long before we smelled the salt of the sea.
Do white pebble lawns have a smell? How about the shallow wells of seaside miniature-golf courses or the clogged heads of outside shower stalls or the tall grass that survives the sway of the dunes? I was sure that they did, and I was the first to call, "I smell it! Stone Harbor! We're here!"
The big events: Digging for clams with our toes and tossing the thick meat to the sudden stuttering of gulls above. Inflating the rafts until our faces were red. Lying on our backs in tidal pools, collecting freckles. Trapping crabs in the bay. Walking the froth line of the beach with our favorite uncle, who would come for one day, his trousers rolled to just below his knees. Choosing restaurants on the nights my mother didn't cook, and standing at the edge of the kitchen in the rented bungalow on the nights that she did, praying the newly imprisoned crabs (their claws in a rictus) would not escape their boiling pots.
On rented bikes with clanging baskets we would make our way to town to spy on the hermit creatures with painted shells in the T-shirt store. In the morning, the sand of sleep still in our eyes, we'd wake to the doughnuts my father had scouted - two glazed with a touch of cream for me.
When it rained, we'd play games and listen to the pebbled yards washing clean. When the sun was too hot, we cinched in beneath the Kephart umbrella and half-slept, half-dreamed. On the best night of the whole two weeks, we'd climb back into our car and drive to the bright lights and carousel cries of Ocean City. Am I the only one who remembers the caterpillar ride? The only one who remembers winning so big at Skee Ball that I emerged as a Springsteen-worthy queen?
Writing this now, I sorely miss then. It was sun before we suspected sun's poison, and sweets before we felt the need to punish ourselves for delicious things. At Stone Harbor, we did what we wanted to do, explored or swam or walked or carved - this was my brother's specialty - mathematically precise sculptures in the sand. I don't suppose we learned a thing we'd later use in school, but we were never learning at the beach. We were storing up particles of our future selves. We were conjuring then so we'd have then for now.
And isn't that the point, indeed, when we find our mythic second home, anywhere to which we longingly return in our imaginations until we can return for real? My Stone Harbor in August is, perhaps, his Poconos at dawn, or her rooftop beneath a sheet of stars, or his neighborhood pool after the dinner hour, when all but the most sweetly chlorinated have gone home. My Stone Harbor, a composite of small sensory details, is my nostalgia. Outside of me, deep inside of me, like all true fairy tales, it lives.
After my teenage years - when I married, became a mother - the Jersey Shore was lost to me. My Salvadoran husband preferred the high kick of the Pacific Ocean, and my father's beach had moved south, to the Carolinas. My brother is the one who brought Stone Harbor back - who began to rent a house just off 96th Street as the summer wound down to its end. "Come for the day," he'd say, and I would, driving the highways because I couldn't find my father's back roads, and singing radio songs with my son.
In my middle age, I do not own buckets, rafts, beach chairs, or traps. I've forgotten how to dig clams with my toes. I stink at miniature golf, and my Skee Ball skills are rusty. But my brother and nephew have taught me the magic of beach bocce, and my niece talks about the books she reads, and my sister-in-law allows her feet to be dug around and in between when they get in the way of a sand sculpture. In Stone Harbor, the summer ends, and I sit shielding my hair, face, and knees from the sun. I walk the frothy shore with my son. I take a book, but I dream instead.
At night, finally, we head to Springer's Homemade Ice Cream over on Third Avenue and stand in line with the peeling crowd. I read every sumptuous flavor slowly - Almond Amaretto, Butterscotch Brickle, Cease & Desist, Mor*e*o, Prohibition Tradition, Springer Chip, Teaberry - and then I place my order. "A double scoop of black raspberry," I'll say. No one's surprised. Some fairy tales do not tolerate deviations.
Beth Kephart blogs daily at http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com.