Storytelling: N.J. beach house, memories of dad survived the storm

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My parents were not what you would call "vacation people." We never visited Disney World, skied at fancy resorts or took car trips across multiple states.

When he was inclined to take a rare day off, my dad caught up on some home improvement project or got ahead of the never-ending yard work.

Sure, we took family vacations. They were simple, routine -- three days in Sea Isle City, N.J., maybe four if it had been a good year.

The summer of 1984, we were going to skip the whole thing, but I was being a pest. Call it being a teenager whose friends were going places, or call it intuition, but I was insisting we take our traditional vacation. Come hell or high water, we were going "down the shore," as we say in my native Philadelphia accent.

That August, as we sunbathed on the sandy beaches of New Jersey, my dad spoke to his sister. She and her husband were thinking of buying a beach house not far from where we were sitting.

Tucked between Sea Isle City and the bridge to Ocean City is a tiny blip of a town so small that it rarely makes it onto the maps. It is only identified on those ubiquitous rear-window car ovals with a cautionary "Shhh ..." as a ruse to keep people from discovering its charm.

As children, my dad and Aunt Etta vacationed there in Strathmere with their parents every summer. The place was steeped in tradition for her.

Since we were already near there, Aunt Etta asked my dad to do a drive-by of this potential house and give her his opinion. She trusted her brother, valued his feedback.

Piling into our golden 1973 Pontiac LeMans, we drove a couple dozen blocks to stare at a true fixer-upper. We didn't even get out of the car, didn't allow five minutes to go by before my dad found a pay phone and called his sister, hollering that the place was a dump and that she had to be out of her damn mind to even think about buying that house.

Much later, we would learn that he'd gotten the address wrong. The actual house was several houses farther up the street -- also in not-great condition, but that didn't stop my aunt and uncle from purchasing it.

My dad never made it to the real Strathmere beach house. That family vacation down the shore that I'd pestered my parents for would be our last. Six months after relaxing on the beach, my otherwise perfectly healthy dad would be dead at the age of 44 from a pesky flu virus that attacked his heart.

For most of the 27 summers since, we've been visiting that house, where my aunt and uncle have graciously hosted family and friends alike. We've come also to think of it as "our" house.

Because of my dad, I like to be down the shore on Father's Day weekend. I like being around the sepia-toned photographs in the house of him and my aunt as children, sitting on a dock just a few hundred yards from where the twin grandchildren he would never meet jump in the waves. I like to imagine him still sitting there, watching.

As Hurricane Sandy pounded and decimated the Jersey Shore, my brother sent me a photo of my aunt's Strathmere street. There, the Atlantic Ocean and driving rains had submerged mailboxes, crashed into front doors, swept entire decks into the bay, crept more than halfway up the street signs.

"Not even high tide yet. Things don't look good," my brother texted me.

I sat helplessly a world away here in Pittsburgh, in UPMC Passavant, where my husband had just had surgery. I simultaneously watched the ICU monitors and the storm aftermath on the news. The feeling of loss was too familiar, the surging tide knocking me asunder. I braced for the possibility that we had just spent our last family vacation in Strathmere.

Two days later, as I again sat in my husband's hospital room, my phone buzzed. Another photo from my brother. "Our" house. Still standing. Untouched.

"UNBELIEVABLE!!!!!" my brother wrote. He'd driven down to the house with my uncle, and they found no damage at all.

I stared at the photo, showed my groggy husband. "Look!" I exclaimed. "The Strathmere house is perfectly fine!"

"Thaz niiiice," he slurred.

I sat down, smiled, and stared some more. I made a donation through my tears and survivor's guilt to the American Red Cross and wondered if maybe my Dad -- still the handyman, still the fixer-upper -- did all of us another favor, jotting down the right address this time before stopping by the house to make sure everything was OK.

intelligencer

Melissa M. Firman of Cranberry, a fundraising professional and writer, can be reached at thefirmangroup@gmail.com The PG Portfolio welcomes "Storytelling" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to page2@post-gazette.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.


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