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What I Found When I Finally Went Home

Every year writer Lauren DePino tells her mother she'll visit the shore town of her childhoodbefore Labor Day. This summer she actually did.

By Lauren DePino

I can spy the yellow-white glow of the Ferris wheel the moment my parents’ Honda launches us over the 9th Street Bridge. The sky is periwinkle, the day waning. 

I am not a child anymore; I am far from it. But from the backseat of the car, my mother and father at the helm, I feel a youthful exuberance again.

The older we get, the harder it is to leave behind our busy lives and return to our former ones — especially if you’ve moved away, like I have. But every summer, my mother tries to lure me back to Ocean City, New Jersey. She coaxes me with poetry; she recites John Masefield’s “Sea Fever” on the phone (“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky”). Even though I live in Los Angeles, where beaches abound, my mother knows I know it is not the same. Ocean city was my second home. (It was really; I lived there three months out of the year). 

Because my parents were teachers, we were lucky to spend all summer there. But Labor Day was always tinged with sadness. “It will be here before you know it,” my mother would say. My heart would plunge. If my first sight of the glittering big wheel evokes all my bright summers at once, with kaleidoscopic vision, the thought of Labor Day conjures the opposite — a dreary end. Even though I worked full time on the boardwalk as a teenager, I could relax in a way that I couldn’t during the long school year. Once I clocked out, I could let everything go. Not every endeavor needed to be future — or achievement — oriented. It was summer; we were at the beach. 

I could watch the clouds part before a storm and really see them — dark charcoal to one side, peach sherbet on the other. I could bite into a warm cake donut and really taste it, the powdered sugar melting like icing. I could hear the sounds around me and nothing else: the ocean’s rhythmic breathing, my little cousins’ laughs. Decades later, those adult cousins now speak in low-pitched tones, whether they’re joking with each other or saying wedding vows. But I still know their sweet toddler voices. 

On social media, I witness a chorus of lamentations — especially from parents — regarding the unstoppable velocity of time: a persistent pleading to slow down. We don’t want to age, we don’t want to change, we don’t want to go back to school or work and miss any of our aliveness. In summer we give ourselves permission to be present enough — to reflect on who we love, what we love, who we are. To consider what we long for. It takes a certain frame of mind, one that the lull of the ocean and the sheen of prolonged daylight brings. Labor Day sobers us. We must do what we must, which includes growing older. 

Typically, my mother will remind me I should visit the shore while everything is open, when everyone is there — before another season shuts down. I always tell her I will, like I've told her I would for the past three years. But I haven't kept my promise. My fiancé’s work as a cinematographer transports us to somewhere unusual every summer: Chile, Malaysia, and now New Orleans. And since I work remotely, I choose exoticism over familiarity, newer family over old, because, according to my naïve thinking, summers with those who’ve known me longest will always be there when I want them. 

“Come to the shore,” my middle sister texts. She found a last-minute deal for a rental near my parents’ one-bedroom condo. Her son, my 7-year-old nephew, wants me to share a bunk bed with him. His teen sister and brother will come too. 

I text my other sister, the oldest, who cancels her plans to join us, and I book a cheap flight home. The next evening, I arrive at the Atlantic City train station and see my parents’ Honda waiting for me, their silhouettes ageless from where I stand. “I can’t believe you’re here,” my mother says, close up. We drive past street signs — names on a Monopoly board — and my parents retell the story of their weekend honeymoon in Atlantic City, 56 years ago. They shared a plate of spaghetti because that was what they could afford. Meanwhile, they dreamed of buying a summer home in nearby Ocean City, a quaint shore town my father had discovered when he worked for a laundry delivery service.

Fourteen years later in 1977, spaghetti would sustain them again (at my Sicilian grandmother’s home) so they, high-school teachers pursuing higher degrees, could afford their second mortgage for an Ocean City apartment with a mirror that reflects the ocean. 

That first night, I stay with my parents. And even though I’m 37, my father, 80, insists he make the pullout bed for me. He lifts the sheets like parachutes and lets them float slowly down, an image familiar from my childhood. Even though I didn’t pursue a conventional career path like he had hoped, he tells me he’s proud of me — and he means it. I don’t take my parents’ pride in me for granted. I let it wash over me when I need it, like warm ocean water in August.

From the next morning on, everything is prismatic: I see multiple memories in one memory-in-the-making. When my little nephew and I sprint in flip-flops to watch the storm clouds sail over the ocean, I point out the rental house with the circular porch where my beloved grandmother sat. He never met her, but he continues to get to know her. A part of me can feel her on the porch, smiling at us. I catch a glimpse of my 4o-something father pedaling past. I’m strapped in the back seat, the kiss of sea wind on my face. 

On this trip, I mourn some of the changes: no more bookstores on the boardwalk, the jewelry store I worked in is now a candy store. Betty and Jack, who hosted an annual Labor Day party into their 80s and 90s, who led a shy pre-teen me by the hand to the stage to sing “Unforgettable” are long gone. The kids I babysat have kids, but I still recognize their child faces. Everyone tells everyone they look the same, but it isn’t always true. 

I ache with questions I can’t answer. How did I get to be the age my father was when he bought our apartment? How did my youngest nephew, my father’s mini twin, suddenly turn 7? Where will that fleeting little boy go?

On the day my parents drive me back to the Atlantic City train station, I think about what didn’t change. The sun dies behind the big wheel, and it rises above the sea. The wheel shines bigger the closer we move toward it; it grows smaller as we go. Grown sisters fight and make up. The seagulls hover by our French fries. 

And that little girl who used to chase the vermillion moon in the cool night sand, fruitlessly trying to capture its magnificence in a photo? She’s still there. She’s still here. And so are all her bright summers at once.

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