Down the Shore
Marisa Guerin, PhD – July 23, 2021
If you are like many people who grew up in the Philadelphia area or in New Jersey, especially those from Irish or Italian clans, then your family probably has its favorite “shore town.” By favorite, I mean, you ALWAYS go there, you NEVER go anywhere else, and ever it has been thus!
In my case, my grandfather John Guerin, who was born when Lincoln was President, established himself as a successful business person in Philadelphia in the early 1900’s. I am not sure how he came to pick Wildwood Crest, NJ, as his beach town… he himself grew up in New York. Perhaps it was an influence of his first wife, Jenny, who died after they had six kids together. (Someone in my enormous Guerin clan probably knows the answer.) My grandfather remarried, to Marie, my grandmother, and they had three more children. My father, the youngest, was born in 1926. Already an uncle when he was born, his nickname was “Unc.”
What I am sure of is that the Guerins of South Broad Street would rent a roomy house somewhere in Wildwood Crest each year. My grandmother and the smaller children would decamp to the shore for the entire summer, and my grandfather and his young adult working-age kids would come down for the weekends. The oldest children of my grandfather were already married and brought their families to their own rented houses at the shore, too.
There are family pictures of my father as a blond toddler, playing with his cousins and his same-age nieces and nephews on the beach. He would tell us stories of those years, when children just ran down to the beach to play for the day, with or without adults, and most certainly without chairs, umbrellas, or sunscreen. If they thought about it, they might remember to bring a towel. Apparently, if lots of people were in the water on an especially hot day, the kids would surreptitiously “borrow” the shade of an unoccupied umbrella until the owners returned from their swim and chased them away. Perhaps the only thing protecting these kids from eventual skin cancers was their short attention spans, keeping them on the go rather than sunbathing.
When he had a family of his own, my Dad with my Mom kept up the tradition, except the rental in Wildwood Crest was for a week, not a whole summer. The nine members of our family somehow fit into a station wagon packed to the roofline for the vacation expedition, with Mom making bologna sandwiches in the front seat and passing them back with cups of lemonade to the hungry crowd in the back seats. As we drove through the New Jersey Pine Barrens, we’d sniff the air until someone would yell, “I smell the ocean!” – which was unlikely to be true, but fun anyway.
And now that Dad and Mom have passed on, my seven siblings and I – or as many of us as can manage it – keep up the tradition by picking a week during the summer (we call it “Beach Week”) when each household will rent an apartment or motel unit on the same Wildwood Crest street, so that we can park ourselves on the beach during the day, and hang out at one or the other place in the evenings, especially if gin and tonics are served. Now that he is retired, my husband Mike even joins me there… he likes socializing over G and T’s as well as the next person, but he could do without beaches that have a lot of people on them. (He’s not from here.) Such a good sport he is!
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of my nieces and nephews keep up the tradition in the years to come – those summer days at the beach are filled with so many wonderful memories, the stories that get told and retold, the touch points that keep us connected over distance and years. My family’s tradition is not unusual for folks from this area, either…I have many good friends who are into their third or even fourth generations of the tradition of getting out of hot Philadelphia for some magical family time at a New Jersey shore town. There isn’t anything elegant or fancy about this, just the heady and relaxing combination of sea air, lounging on (or in) the sand chatting, napping, or doing crossword puzzles communally, cooking, eating and drinking with a special kind of gusto, and taking long walk-and-talks with the people you love.
(And by the way, for those of you who aren’t in on the lingo: If you are from around here and you are planning to go whichever town at the shore for a vacation - the Wildwoods, or Ocean City, or Avalon, or Sea Isle, or wherever - then you are planning to go “down the shore.” If someone asks your neighbor where your family is, the neighbor will said, “they’re down the shore.” However, once you actually arrive at this shore town, and you decide to leave the house and go down to the water edge, then you are going “to the beach.” The shore is the whole town by the sea. The beach is the specific stretch of sand between the town and the ocean. Got that? Good! You pass the latest lesson in Delco dialect.)
If anyone asks where I am, I’m “down the shore” next week, keeping the tradition of more than 100 years of Guerins vacationing in Wildwood Crest, New Jersey. I’ll be back to blogging the first week of August. Be well!