Writing Contest Entries
GOOD MORNING, STONE HARBOR, GOOD NIGHT.
Stone Harbor is home to some spectacular sunrises and sunsets. I’ve been enjoying them for nearly 25 years, as long I’ve been visiting my in-laws on this island.
I’ve been sheltering at my in-laws’ in Stone Harbor since mid-March. It’s a quiet time to be in south Jersey. It’s cold here. Windy. You’re reminded why most people don’t come year-round.
And yet. There’s something special about the island on the off-season, maybe particularly so during self-quarantine. As long as I could, every day, no matter how cold, windy, or wet, I walked on the beaches, until they closed. The beach has been especially cold and windy, and for my first few weeks here it was mostly just me and a lot of seagulls and some horseshoe crabs. Occasionally another person or two, bundled up, waving, from a distance. My long walks from the Windrift to Nuns’ Beach, even in harsh conditions, have offered the rare, necessary daily respite from an otherwise very isolated 24/7 shelter with my family members.
The days and nights, the weeks now turning to months, all run together now. There’s little noise—the occasional neighbor’s car engine, a landscaper’s power mower, a fierce wind, a flock of gulls. No shuffle of footsteps across the sidewalks toward the beach. No children’s laughter, nor tears, no neighbors bidding good day with the sun beaming down. No Fudgie Wudgy cart with its teenage driver shouting ICE CREEEEAAAAAAMMMM. No blare of sirens at 12 noon alerting beachgoers that it’s time for lunch or a fresh sunscreen application.
The hours have become a blur and without my iPhone or FitBit on hand, I guess at the time. Except time has become a concept that feels internal. I know it’s morning when the sun rises, and, if not too cloudy a day, the light from the west enters the bedroom window where I am sleeping. Good morning, Stone Harbor. On days I have insomnia, awoken with gnawing existential angst, the wonder of what this day will bring different from the previous, I watch the sunrise. I take iPhone photos when I get to witness this magic. They don’t capture the colors I can take in from the upper deck of the house. Orange. Yellow. Pink. Rose. Colors that don’t even have names I know. Azure? Periwinkle? The sunrise here is one I’ve witnessed hundreds if not thousands of times, and it still feels like a hopeful new start every time. Sometimes I wake in the middle of the night, wondering if the world has changed while we sleep. I look out the window over the deck, to a midnight blue sky that looks like I could be at the Planetarium, or lost in a painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I practice yoga here, alone. My mat is set up facing the ocean view where the sun rises so I can do literal sun salutations in the mornings.
The sunsets are even more colorful. Every night I try to walk the four blocks across the island to the bay to watch it. Maybe once or twice there’s been one other person, at least 6 to 10 feet away, observing the scene as well. Mostly it’s just my wife and me, maybe our son or daughter if we can cajole them to leave the house after dinner. And the seagulls and other birds that have gathered to call out to each other. Cacaw! Cacaw! Were they always this loud or is it that I’ve been deprived of noise for so many weeks now that my hearing is more heightened to the voices? It’s windy, cold, solitary on the bay in March. Maybe like how the birds experience the sunset, but from far above. Most nights, the colors are similar to the night before and yet somehow entirely new too. I don’t need to look at the clock to know that when the sun finally disappears, it’s oh, about 7:28? Like the birds, I know the night has begun. Without the atmospheric noise that marks high-season Stone Harbor in July and August, the island’s quiet landscapes have taken center stage.
I wave to the neighbors who pass by, those sheltering here on the island with us for these weeks and weeks. I know few of them by name but recognize their faces, giving a mutual nod hello as if we are in a secret club trying to survive this wild unprecedented time together. Maybe I’ll meet them again here, later this year. At Springer’s or Fred’s. Building sand castles or eyeing the waves. Maybe they too are watching every sunrise and sunset religiously, doing their own sun salutations, acknowledging quiet certainties among such vast unknowns.
By Elizabeth Wallace, Adult (In Chronological Age Anyway)
By Dennis Mc Guckin
Like me, a Guinness starts its life rebelling down below
Angry adolescent demons fighting in the snow
Troubled bubbles battling restraints and spurned ambition
Stop the dreaming, grow up boy, assume a safe position
Swirling clouds like childhood dreams some cling there still within
Alas, the others rise escaping ‘fore they e’en begin!
Life is in the dreaming. So, my Guinness and I do
Watching all life’s tears and cheers boiling in the brew
Eventually, we settle and accept God’s plan for us
Two old rebels dressed for work and waiting for the bus
In the glass just look. You’ll see the similarity
The Guinness wearing its black suit and white on top.
The Keeper of Memories
We knew Mom was dying. The Cancer doctor told us last summer’s Stone Harbor vacation would be her last so my sister and I did it up big. We stayed for two weeks in July in the house we had been renting for years near the Bird Sanctuary. The grandchildren came and we took lots of pictures, made a video and went to all her special places; Polly’s, the point, town and crabbing. We cooked with Mom and documented everything so we could make a cook book, and we did. We said yes when the realtor asked if we wanted the place again next year just because we always said yes.
Back home, the year was terrible as we watched mom’s health quickly decline but as July approached she was still with us. There were no more treatments to try. She was only a shell of herself by this point. There was just one more thing she wanted before she died. She wanted to go to Stone Harbor. Everyone said it was a bad idea for various, sensible reasons. My sister and I decided to do it anyway.
The three hour drive to get there was difficult but my sister did it. I rented a wheel chair in Cape May Courthouse so we could take her for walks and get her to the beach. I even found wheel chair accessible beaches which I didn’t know Stone Harbor had. Every early evening we took her for walks through the courts because that was where she went as a child and I think it brought her happy memories. The side walks were too bumpy and caused too much pain so we pushed that wheel chair on the street. Some mornings were spent sitting on the pier jutting out towards the ocean nibbling on a Donna’s donut.
This may sound like it was a wonderful, last vacation. It wasn’t! Mom was awful! She complained and grumbled about everything and we just couldn’t do anything to please her. The pain was taking over. We didn’t know what to do so we decided to take her home early.
Once the decision to leave was made, a huge weight was lifted from everyone. Our sense of humor reappeared and we even found ourselves laughing at some of Mom’s bizarre comments and behaviors. Mom even laughed at herself. To this day, my sister and I still laugh when we think back to that last Stone Harbor trip. We made it back to PA and she left us soon after that.
Eight years later, I think of my mom a lot but it’s when I return to Stone Harbor that I feel she is really with me. When I hear my son tell his daughter the best time to go to the Point or when they all come back stinking of bunker from crabbing, I feel her presence. Stone Harbor is more than a nice vacation town. It’s a keeper of memories. Family memories that are often forgotten until you return each year. My sister and I still go every year with our kids and grandkids. We stay in different houses and Stone Harbor has changed a lot. Polly’s and Hennys are gone as is my mom but the old memories are there and the new ones are yet to be made.
The Grand Old Lady of the Shore
My great grandfather built a cottage on 86th, one of the first hundred on the island. It was a two story Victorian with a basement, walk-in attic and a porch around three sides of the house. On that block were only this house, the sister cottage next door, and the famous cement house.
His descendants enjoyed annual visits, including my grandmother, and as of 1932, my father. The drive from Norristown to Stone Harbor was frustration for my father, with infinite stops at roadside stands seeking Jersey corn, Jersey tomatoes, Jersey cantaloupes, Jersey everything. Eventually Uncle Charlie’s Model A would rattle into Stone Harbor. The photos are remarkable. Uncle Charlie clowning on the beach in his black “union” bathing suit. The adult women after they removed their bathing caps revealing wildly curled, bleached hair. Young cousins piled together, sand clinging to their skin, windswept hair, sunburned raccoon cheeks, and smiles. There is nobody else on the beach.
The kids were sent to the beach after breakfast. They returned with the noon whistle for lunch, and soon after were back on the beach. Rainy days meant games of Monopoly. On days when the black flies or green heads were bad, they wore pajamas to the beach, sometimes reduced to ducking beneath the waves to evade them. Great Aunt Elizabeth, a Quaker, insisted on formal language at the table. “Wouldst thou pass the salt?” Years later, she witnessed a tidal wave from the house. She said there was a boardwalk, then a wave came over it, and the boardwalk was gone. She died in the early 1960’s, before my birth, but sometimes I would stand in that bedroom, looking out the same window, imagining a boardwalk, a wave, and a terrible storm.
There are generations of front porch photos with kids shielding their eyes from the sun. The “keep your eyes closed until I count to three” trick was futile; the sun would blaze through eyelids. “One, two three, WINCE!”
The house was a time capsule with a musty, warm-wood scent. Tables, chairs, woven reed rugs, a vacuum-tube radio that didn’t work, beds, dishware, pictures on the wall; all original, all in their original locations. The clawfoot tub, stove, sinks, lighting fixtures, window shades, outdoor shower, and basement changing rooms were all original as well.
An aunt planted Bunny Ear cactus in the yard. They spread. Decades after her death, clusters could be spotted in neighboring yards. In 2019, we found one at my parents’ place across the street. It lives on, unkillable, on our kitchen counter.
The family cottage was simple, and without adornment, but the First Avenue Victorian homes were grand structures, with elaborate ornamentation. One by one these Grand Old Ladies of the Shore fell. Charming homes, razed to the naked sand in a day, are the ghosts of an era. Surviving photographs show imposing, imperial structures, absent any warmth, stilting the bright memories their walls held.
Eventually, in the 1990’s, the family cottage was sold. We knew it would be reduced to sand, front porch and all. My parents by then owned a cottage within sight of the family cottage. If there are photos of the razing I don’t want to see them. I feel them. I envision the bucket of an excavator tearing through the attic. The peak crumbles, the window shatters, and the interior is unnaturally exposed. I never see beyond that.
I spent my summer youth there, playing with boats and rubbing my chest raw catching waves on an inflatable raft. My grandmother taught me how to make ball castles; a sand mound with a spiral path for a ball to go round and round. Her shovel? A clamshell. Years later, I made them with my family. My children are teenagers now, but ball castles draw the attention of little ones, so as long as I have a shovel or a shell, I have playmates on the beach.
Memories continue to be formed, and extend beyond buildings. Over the years, loved ones have been lost, and added, and annual Stone Harbor treks continue. When I first visit the beach, I allow the water to touch only my toes, and in that moment I connect generationally. 86th Street water….86th Street sand. Before me, an ocean unending, behind me, change. The same view my ancestors had. My children, fifth generation visitors, never saw the family cottage. But they can build a ball castle. They played with their grandparents on the beach. They know the feel of sand in their hair, a crashing wave, a drying sun, and the wonderful stiffness of wind-dried clothing. They know raccoon-cheek sunburns, beach smiles, and whether they sense it or not, they connect, in all those simple experiences, to their ancestors.
(16 and UP!)
A MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE (A Memoir)
Stone Harbor has been a part of my life even before I was born. I first journeyed to Stone Harbor when my mother was pregnant with me in 1972. We have visited every year since without fail and now as property owners my children have the joy of experiencing the shore as I did growing up. The beach has always been a destination of joy, a source of peace, and as it turns out, a magical place that brought two families together.
In the summer of 1980, just before I turned 8-years old, my older brother and I each wrote notes, put them in bottles and threw them into the Stone Harbor surf. Each note included our address in Hershey, Pennsylvania and entitled the finder to “one free Hershey bar.” We will never know exactly how it happened, but my bottle stayed in the ocean a couple of days and then washed ashore a few miles away in Avalon. As fate would have it, my bottle was picked up by a retiree named Elynor from Philadelphia and a friendship of 30 years was born.
It started out with a simple letter and small return package with the promised Hershey bar, but it didn’t end there. For the next four years the correspondence continued with Christmas cards and letters. Then in 1984, after 4 years of writing, we finally had the opportunity to meet in person. Despite being avid beach goers, neither family happened to be on Seven Mile Island at the same time. Instead, Elynor and her family came to Hershey and visited us. We spent time touring Hershey and even took Elynor through the Hershey plant where my dad was working as the plant manager. The employee newspaper, “The Chocolate Press,” even featured an article on our connection and included a photo of us with the Chairman of the Board and President of the Hershey Company.
PHOTO FROM THE CHOCOLATE PRESS
From this point forward, the correspondence continued and even expanded to include my sister, brother, parents, and their respective families. Over the years we learned many interesting facts about our message-in-a-bottle recipient. Elynor worked for the Federal Government for 25 years. She was crowned “Ms. Senior Pennsylvania” in 1983 and was 1st runner up in the regional competition held in Atlantic City in 1984.
Over the next 20 years as life took its twists and turns one thing remained constant – we stayed in touch with Elynor; Christmas cards, notes about our families, graduation and wedding announcements, and even one of Elynor’s favorite chocolate cake recipes made its way between our post boxes. Over this period we never met again in person. Having lived away from the East Coast for some time (but never missing summer in Stone Harbor) I decided it was time to visit our good friend. On our way home from Stone Harbor in 2005, 25 years after sending my message in a bottle, my wife and I brought our 1-year-old son to meet Elynor at her home in New Jersey. We spent an afternoon catching up and upon leaving I marveled at the path that brought us together.
ELYNOR & SHANE IN 2005
In 2010 Elynor passed away at the age of 92. Not long after, a package arrived in the mail from Elynor’s family. It was an album that contained every bit of correspondence we had ever sent her: pictures, Christmas cards, letters, and even a copy of the newspaper article from 1984. We added the items we had saved from Elynor and completed the album that represented 30 years of friendship all born out of a message-in-a-bottle that was tossed into the surf in Stone Harbor, New Jersey by a hopeful young boy.
In case you were wondering what happened to my brother’s bottle. In December 1980, 5 months after throwing the bottle in the ocean, my brother received a letter postmarked from Germany. The response acknowledged the note in the bottle, but contained no return address (or request for a Hershey bar) and was simply signed “Father Christmas.”
Mark Brace (Adult)
Do you Remember?
As school season rapidly approaches, I thought I’d write this post befitting of a tribute to what has become a staple for over 100 years. THE most revered writing implement of it’s time was and still is, The Ticonderoga Number 2 pencil.
It has its origin in New Jersey, by the way.
Do you remember the school supplies purchased for you every year ? The new box of pencils your mother bought you signified the end of summer and the start of school work. Mixed feelings, prevailed, for sure. The first day of school with a new teacher and some trepidation, you sat in your desk as you rapidly cracked open a virgin box of pencils. Enthusiastically, you hurried to the blackboard as the pencil sharpener was attached to the wall adjacent to it. As you inserted the pencil into the sharpener and quickly turned the crank, the smell of machined wood started filling the air. Oh how glorious that smell as I have now taken you back and cued your olfactory senses from the past !! Your memory ‘smiles’ as you read this post. You never dared sharpen that pencil too much ! You take the pencil out of the sharpener and check the tip. A bit more, you think, so the lead tip has a nice sharp point on it. The hexagonal shape of the pencil enabled you to grip it against the resistance of the sharpening gears in the pencil sharpener.
As I write this, I can’t help but think how The Ticonderoga Number 2 Pencil is a lot like life. It starts out with long usefulness ahead of it. As it is used and time goes on, the tip dulls and has to be re-tooled and resharpened… just like our skill sets have to be resharpened from time to time throughout our lives. This takes place repeatedly as more life is behind than in front of it. At the end of its useful life cycle its remainder is recycled back to earth.
As another life force, a tree, gave it purpose, so do our lives get our purpose from another life force. We too perform until which time we cannot as mitochondria ceases and we too get recycled back to earth.
So……do you remember ? The feel of the hexagonal pencil, the smell of wood shavings, the anxiety of the first day of school ?
Jersey Boy, Author