You Can’t Go Back

June 19, 2013

I decided to visit my grandmother and my Aunt Holly in Lewes, Delaware before I made the big move. While I was there my grandmother took Holly and me on a day trip to visit Cape May, New Jersey. I hadn’t been there ever since my great-grandmother who lived in New Jersey died, about ten years ago.

To get to Cape May from Lewes you take the Cape May-Lewes ferry. We took the 9:15 am boat and settled into seats on the first deck for the ninety-minute trip. It was just as I remembered: seagulls, plastic-looking soft-baked pretzels, humid salt air, the captain announcing a sighting of dolphins over the loudspeaker.

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The Delaware Bay prides itself on its restrained scenery.

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In Cape May, the town where the ferry arrives, we visited all the tourist attractions I remembered (or tried to remember) from many a childhood vacation.

First stop, Sunset Beach, home of the famous Cape May Diamonds and a fragment of a ship just off the shore, stuck there since 1925.

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I read later that day in a children’s book at a local gift shop that the Cape May Diamond is quartz from Appalachia, washed into the bay by the Delaware River. The so-called diamonds are small stones that almost resemble sea glass. Tourists bend at the waist for hours on the beach, sifting through millions of mundane pebbles.

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Then onto the shopping. I strained my brain trying to remember the streets of gifts shops in Cape May, but I couldn’t. I just recalled, nauseatingly, waiting for my grandmother to be done shopping while listening to Nickelback on a walkman. (No one is allowed to make fun of me. That hurt to admit.)

Cape May today mostly features benches packed with old people eating ice cream.

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And people deciding whether they ought to purchase fudge.

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Neighborhoods surrounding the shopping districts brim with Victorian houses. This is the Sea Mist rental property, built in the late 19th century and featured in many a watercolor sold in the local gift shops.

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Our next stop was nearby Wildwood Crest, the town where my grandmother grew up. I used to go there with my mother and grandmother almost every summer. My great-grandmother lived there in a house by the bay until she passed away, when I was 16 and she was almost 100. Shortly after she died, my great-grandmother’s neighbors bought her property and tore down her house.

5906 Park Boulevard, the property where my grandmother spent most of her childhood, had a back porch that sat directly on the bay. My grandmother’s sister, Marybeth, lived with my great-grandmother, serving as a caretaker and entertaining an endless rotation of visiting children, grandchildren, and grand-nieces and nephews.

The house was brown. It had shaggy, 70’s carpet, in that particular shade of 70’s orange. Knick-knacks covered every shelf. It always smelled like wet dogs and antique furniture. During my lifetime, my great-grandmother lived on the top floor, in a small apartment accessible from an outside staircase that led to the upper deck. Downstairs, Marybeth and her husband, Charlie, had their own apartment. They kept a mixed-up melange of little plastic figurines for the kids to play with – Snow White and the Seven Miami Dolphins.

There were always cocktails on the deck. Cousins put fish heads in crab traps and rode around on jet skis. I sat on furniture in my wet bathing suit, despite repeated protests. I was a clueless, chubby child. During one summer visit, I think when I was ten, I ate an entire pizza while my grandmother and Marybeth looked on in horror. The memory still fills me with shame.

There were always a lot of people there in the summer and we were all sad when the house went. Here is a picture of the new house built in its place, a green monstrosity I require everyone to dislike:

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After we had gawked at the new house long enough, we went to the famous Lobster House restaurant for lunch. Our waiter’s name was Shane. “There used to not be any black waiters,” my grandmother explained once he was out of earshot. “There used to only be women.” All the waitresses wore little sailor dresses.

And mermaids on the walls gave Nazi salutes.

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The Lobster House has been in operation as long as my grandmother can remember, burning down twice before its current incarnation. My great grandmother used to come to the Lobster House every Saturday, even after she started to forget who she was.

My grandmother ate some of the complimentary bread, in spite of her recent commitment to the gluten free cause. “Bread makes me sneeze,” she explained. Before we left, she wrapped up the crackers that came with our entrees in a napkin, storing them in her purse for safekeeping.

Then we went to visit Marybeth in her new house in Rio Grande, a few miles from Wildwood Crest. We had merlot and Party Mix on the back porch.

My Mom-mom and Marybeth light up. “I only smoke around my bad sister,” I recall her saying the first time I caught her puffing away, at the wedding of a cousin.

Seen here attempting to not be photographed smoking.

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My distant relatives quizzed me as to what my plan for Austin. I am encouraged to reconsider law school. As the conversation turned to writing and it came out that my family tree is littered with unpublished novelists. My great grandfather, my mother’s cousin, one of my other aunts. Later that day, Holly told me my father used to have most of a novel written, a pile of loose sheets in a box.

I asked my dad about his novel the day I returned to Maryland, over curry at Old Siam, my family’s favorite Thai restaurant. “I lost it.” “No you didn’t! Show it to me.” “I’m afraid I won’t be understood.” He paused, and then added, “Or rather, I’m afraid I’ll be understood perfectly.”

When we had almost finished eating our waitress told us Old Siam would be closing at the end of the month. We had been loyal customers, so she wanted us to sign an album and take our picture.  We debated over what to write.

“Thanks for the memories!”

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