I originally wrote this with the intention of submitting it for publication in the Cape May Gazette. It’s my version of our family story surrounding a home in Cape May that is very dear to us. Part of the desire to submit the piece to the newspaper was to give my stepfather, Jay, a tangible piece of my heart, to let him know I love him. I wrote it on February 10th, and haven’t yet sent it to the paper. Yesterday, I received the news that he passed away on March 10th.
He was a very accomplished man, who was never void of humor, and never tired of Frank Sinatra. He was 64. Jay, this is for you.
Every August, right around my mother’s birthday, we took a trip to our family home in Cape May, New Jersey. My step father, Jay Smith, purchased the home when he was 26, a fact which he recalls by saying he “had no business buying such a house” at the time.
The Blue House is a true historic relic. It was the first structure built east of the Hotel Cape May (later known as the Christian Admiral) in the now bustling summer destination town. Across the street, on land where we used to hit golf balls and play catch, there is now an impressive array of mansions, and the rows of shops downtown have transformed from quaint and quiet to crowded and lively. The Blue House remained a place of solace still, in the midst of the change and growth.
Built over 100 years ago now, various facts about the house wove their way into our lives and settled in our memories. On my first stay, when I was a young girl, I was told Henry Ford had regularly stayed there in his day. Being the old house that it is, doors had a way of creaking open and shut on their own, especially the front screen door which often swayed with the ocean breeze. “That’s just Henry!” Jay would say to irk me, as if there was a real resident ghost floating around. My young, impressionable self could never decide if I should believe him or not, as he was a bit of a prankster at times. Any fear it instilled in me did nothing to deter me from visiting, however; I fell in love with the place before I’d walked through the front door.
My mother, brother and I and all slept in a large room on the third floor that housed three beds before they were married. On one visit, not long after we turned off the lights one night, we heard a faint speaking voice, muffled and strange in the walls. It was quiet enough to ignore at first, but close and loud enough to know we weren’t imagining it, and my mother soon bolted upright as it grew more pronounced while my brother and I cringed under our sheets. We heard Jay walking around downstairs, and there was no one else there at the time, so the only solution our minds gave us was that we were witnessing a real ghost. We all looked at each other silently for while as the sound went away and returned a few times, our eyes telling each other we weren’t crazy and we were in it together. At one point, my mother had a second of panic and said she felt her bed shake. Eventually, we worked up enough bravery to determine its origin was in the closet, closest to my mother’s bed. We opened the door tentatively to find a jumbled blanket on the upper shelf covering a walkie-talkie, the counterpart of which Jay had downstairs, of course. We should have recognized his expert ghost noises. My mother was furious and embarrassed under her laughter, and refused to believe it was only him, but my brother and I were relieved. He had a knack for knowing just how to get under her skin, and her reaction was too classic for him to resist. If she could speak about the event today, she would still swear she felt the bed shake.
As we all grew up, the house grew in other ways. Every summer, in just the short week we stayed, it became more and more of a home and carved a slightly larger spot for itself in our hearts. It was the backdrop for our relationships with each other, the large group of eight we were. There were still beds to spare, and occasionally we’d get to meet one of our siblings’ girlfriends or boyfriends, or bring extra friends of our own. After a day at the beach, we gathered to shuck corn on the front deck or just sit with a book while we waited our turn to shower before dinner. We had a grand lobster dinner almost every year with newspapers covering the large dining room table where we enjoyed that freshly shucked New Jersey white corn on the cob, which burst upon biting it was so fresh. We shared our various beach stories of the day and got to know things about each other one only finds out in unplanned conversation, so unlike any phone calls or emails we shared. We saw each other go through distinct phases of style choices and maturity levels at noticeable intervals since those trips were the only time of year we saw each other for more than a few hours at once. It was like a growth spurt of family bonding packed into one week, somehow void of any stress and exhaustion you might associate with such a thing, and it was different every summer as we all grew a bit each time.
And yet it felt the same, like going home. What never changed was the calm atmosphere and free-ness of the place. We left the windows open to feel the cool breeze off the water and sleep to the sound of the waves. The smell of the salty sea saturated everything, and I would, from then on, always be brought back to that house in my mind when I caught an ocean breeze anywhere else. On every drive to Cape May, my brother and I would roll down the windows and wait for the moment we could smell that scent, jittering with the anticipation of knowing we were almost there. On the occasional rainy day, we claimed our spots in the living room and gathered around the old TV to watch one of the dusty VHS tapes that permanently lived in the house, so of course, we’d all seen whatever was put on enough times to recite it. Whatever we were doing, no matter how familiar as the years grew or how different as the years changed us, it was a safe place. The morning of departure day was always a quiet one, as we were never ready to leave.
All of the homes we live and grow in become so full of priceless memories, whether it’s an historic beach getaway or a suburban ranch. I’m blessed to know I’ve filled up a handful of houses already, which I owe entirely to the incredible family and friends who shared them with me, most of whom, I’m willing to bet, have no idea how dear to me they are. The Blue House receives praise from passersby and neighbors for its charm, history, and coveted beach location. Those of us who have spent time within its walls, figuring out who we are or just escaping for a while, know that we owe it thanks for so much more.
After my mother passed last August, Jay spread her ashes from a boat just off the shores of Cape May. He recorded the exact coordinates, so he could join her there after his own death. Soon, they will be reunited at sea, as they already are above.