I have told you a little bit about Frances, my nana. When I was a girl I would spend weeks every summer with her. Instead of summer camp, my brother and I (and whichever cousins happened to be around) would spend every day at Jones Beach with her. She was an active woman up until her late 90′s. and would drag my brother and I with her on walks up and down the beach collecting shells, along the boardwalk to bring up the sun, to the West Bathouse where she’d swim endless laps. Everything was so far, and it took so long.
This is much of how I remembered it. Long. Far. Endless. The parking lot was vast–hotfooting it to the bathrooms was a major annoyance. The ocean was miles away from where we planted our beach chairs at the top of the beach. Walking the boardwalk from Field 6 (where Nana always parked) to Filed 2 (the end of the line) took hours and hours.
I suppose I’ve been back to Jones Beach since I was a child. I’ve definitely been there for concerts (Rush, Dave Matthews Band, Steely Dan, The Doobie Brothers, Tears for Fears, The Fray, Blues Traveler, the list goes on). But when I went to Jones Beach this Labor Day to lay on Field 6, it seemd like the first time I’d been back in 25 years.
The nostalgia was so powerful, I wept.
I drove my Nana’s car. I took the Meadowbrook State Parkway. I drove thought those aqua toll booths that were made famous in The Godfather. I remembered nights spent dancing to New Wave with my high school friends at Malibu dance club (the exit sign to Lido Beach was what reminded me). My heart swelled with joy and homecoming as I sailed over the bridge. Then, the pencil! (If you don’ tknow what the pencil is then you definitely did not grow up on Long Island.) I remembered how Nana would keep me and my brother occupied in the predawn hours as we drove to the beach, looking in the grass next to the highway for Josephs (ducks) and Marias (rabbits). Oh, the rituals. The food, the friends, the walking, swimming, poppylols*, tanning, eating, more walking, then heading home before the rush. We never sat in beach traffic, I didn’t even know what that was until I was in high school and started going to Robert Moses with my friends.
Nana would back her car right up to the sand. She got there early enough to easily park in the first row. Field 6 is special in that you can literally use your trunk as your “office” if you put your chairs and umbrella down right there. So, I did the same thing on Labor Day (except I walked down the beach to lay closer to the water). Nana used to put her car keys on her car tire for safekeeping! For a girl who loved the beach, I hated sand on me. I was constantly at the faucet to rinse off my feet, and clean out the crotch of my one-piece after jumping around in the ocean.
My nana was an early-adopter of sunblock. She was slathering it on my and my brother before anyone was fretting about skin cancer. She was a wizard with a can of Solarcaine, too, because sometimes my brother and I got lazy (and burned).
So as I walked along the boardwalk–noticing how quickly I got from the car, to the bathrooms, to the boardwalk, to Field 4–I cried. I cried for who I had been as a girl, before I was pushed around by my classmates, by my 20′s, by my 30′s. I cried for Jones Beach, which had apparently spent the last quarter century shrinking. I cried for Nana, who was so vivacious, so active and fun to me. She had such a way with children. It may be her greatest gift, the way she can engage and love children. There was a time in my life during which she must have been my one true love: she held my attention and esteem, and all I could see was her burnish and her delightful unconventionality.
It was a little awkward, all the crying. I mean, the beach wasn’t crowded (it was windy and not so hot) but there were enough people there that my solitary walk with tears was a little, shall we say, out of season. More suited for January. Despite that, it felt good to emote for a while, in a place so comforting and familiar.
Lately, I’ve been carrying this kind of pre-grief around with me. I am sad for my friend Dan, who has greatly deteriorated from his Parkinsons Disease and is now in hospice (though not the palliative care ward yet, thank god). I’ve missed him for a while, as PD has taken him from us bit by bit. I visited him a month ago. While being near him was a relief and a joy, I was heartbroken to see how greatly he was diminished. And my Nana, who can still be sharp as a tack when she is interested, is not the same either. She’s in better shape than Dan, but it’s a wrench to see this once proud woman struggle with dentures, with drool, with all of the indignities that come with extraold age.
I walked along the boardwalk, I smelled the friend food from the concessions, I stood online at the bathrooms, I cooed over the trashcans stenciled with the classic crabs. Also, I felt superior. Superior to everyone else on that beach–that’s how sure I was that I was the only woman there with this unique, poignant, significant experience of Jones Beach.
That’s a crock. The supeior part, I mean. I have no doubt that my experience of Jones Beach is truly and solely mine.
When I was born, Nana drove to Jones Beach and praised God as she watched the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean. This is one of the very, very few things she and my dad have ever agreed upon: apparently, the sunrise that day was one of the most beautiful to have ever happened in the history of the world. How’s that for some love.
When Nana leaves me to carry on her life in some other dimension, I will have to come to Jones Beach to bid her proper goodbye. Even though she hasn’t been the queen of Field Six in decades, it’s her place. More precisely: it is our place.