reunion at sea | for Jay

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.

ox, Whitney

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i see you | a tribute to mom

In brilliant red hydrangea blooms
In big yellow tulip bulbs
In budding dogwood trees and hosta leaves
.
In August sun and as bright a smile
In strikingly saturated fall foliage hues
In flawless and elaborate Christmas decorations
.
In impeccably tailored, high waisted skirts
In Pinot Noir and crimson colored toes
In everything polished and perfect
.
In unusual landscape art and traditional antiques
In Sinatra’s Fly Me to the Moon and Buffet’s Volcano
In hot fudge and chocolate chip cookies
.
In inspiring self-confidence and strong opinions
In unfailing drive and acknowledged pride
In the vocal, ardent appreciation of all things beautiful
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In an open heart and a warm embrace
In extraordinary strength that overcomes despair
In the deepest depths of love and care
.
I see you there and everywhere
I see you in me
I see you always
.
.
For Mom, who went to a better place on August 29th, 2013.
I love you and miss you terribly. But most of all, I’m thankful you’re whole again.

mother’s day | ode to mom

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I was reading a book on the subway when it came to me.  I suppose it wasn’t completely random considering the passage I was reading was a mother’s loving words to her son.  It was written like a confession in the best form, one that gave away the deep love behind the intention of games she played with him, like tickling his neck just to be able to catch his little boy smell near her.

A memory came flooding back to me then.  A memory I had long since tucked away.  A memory from a much simpler time, a time when the only familiar place in the world was our home on Lasein Drive in our small town of St Joseph, Michigan.  It was a memory of my mother playing a game with my brother and I before bed.  We probably had a name for it which escapes me today, but it was something to the effect of getting kissed so crazily by her all over our necks that we were in fits of uncontrollable laughter.

She loved it, that’s what sticks out about this memory now.  I don’t know how I didn’t notice it before.  Her smile spread across her entire face and she wasn’t even the one getting tickled.  There was something she got out of it that I never knew about, something that could only be rooted in her love for us.  She spent time tucking us in and playing with each of us before we went to sleep.  Long enough to make us forget about the monster in the closet or the cookie we cried about not getting.  And it’s sinking in now, the things that I took for granted about her.  The things I let be overshadowed by more dramatic actions of hers that left deep emotional scars on us too early in life.  She wasn’t a perfect mother, but what woman is?

As the years go by and I find myself in similar sticky spots having made similar mistakes from our similar flaws (darn genes), I’m gaining a better appreciation of who she was at her core.  She was loving.  She still is, in fact, maybe more than ever these days despite the havoc Alzheimer’s has already wreaked on her brain at the age of 58.  She hasn’t lost her ability to love or her ability to be tender; it hasn’t yet gotten to this core of her.

These are the memories to hold on to.  This is what, I believe, we were made for.  Loving each other in small ways and big ways, in every way possible.  Unfortunate things are going to happen, and every single one of us will take fault in them in big and small ways, never grasping the effect our actions and words have on others from our own blind and flawed positions, no matter what our intentions are.  If everyone looked at each other in the light of their mistakes, we’d never see a sunny day.  What a shame it would be to carry such a dark image of my mother around with me the rest of my life.  My mother was scarred and flawed, just like the rest of us.  She made decisions that benefited her in one moment and hurt others for life.  She prioritized the wrong things every day.  She was selfish.  And you and me, we’re just as bad.

My mother was loving.  She gave me good advice, even when she failed to follow it herself.  She was smart and savvy and creative, a perfectionist to the point of OCD.  She gave me my passion for art and travel.  She wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty but always looked polished and classy.  She gave me my confidence by constantly telling me how proud she was of me and how beautiful I am, inside and out.  She was fiercely independent but always, unashamedly, in need of appreciation and love.  She broke down in front of me during her hard times and held me when I broke down in mine.  We cried together in the fears, anger and sadness we shared and somehow came to laughter together in the drying of our tears.  We always lifted each other back up, letting go of whatever was lost.  She taught me how to be unwaveringly positive and how to get down on my knees and pray.  She was, and still is, one of the strongest women I know.

That sounds like a mother to be proud of.  A mother that hasn’t stopped loving her children to this very day, when nearly all of her abilities have been stripped of her.  It’s undeniable in her, the passion and care that pours out when she sees me, whether she can express it or not.  It’s undeniable that we were made for this, we were made to love.  It’s the root of our best memories and the fuel of our strength in the worst.  It’s the motivation behind big gifts and small gestures.  It’s what bonds us (sometimes inexplicably) to our families and what drives us to make the world a better place.  There’s a reason we all search for it and desire to give it.  There’s a reason we make up games to play with our children just to see them smile.  There’s a reason we have odd traditions, take pictures and record stories.  We want to create and hold on to our experiences of love, our best memories.

My mother taught me this.  Not with nicely arranged words or by perfect example.  She taught me this by loving me unconditionally every minute of my life.  For that alone, I am forever thankful to be her daughter.

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My mom and dad in 1981, age 27.

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Mom in her 40s.

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My mom and stepfather, Jay, in 2006.  She’s 52 here, one year after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

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My mom on a walk in August of 2012 when I visited her for her 58th birthday.

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Still sharing laughter on St. Patty’s Day last March, 2013.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

x,

W

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