I sometimes tell people that I grew up at the beach.
That's not entirely true (but not entirely false either). For as long as I can remember, my grandparents have owned a house in Ocean City, New Jersey, which we refer to as "the Ocean House." When I was a baby and my parents and I lived in Philadelphia, we were only an hour and a half away and could spend weekends in Ocean City through the end of September. I have memories of seagulls stealing my sandwiches, of getting stung by jellyfish, of turning so red that I matched a fire truck, of coming back from the beach in time to watch reruns of Gilligan's Island, of practicing my violin on the porch in the morning, of racing downstairs at 7am to run across the street as soon as Mallon's Sticky Buns opened (thus ensuring that I got the best donut with the most sprinkles)... this list, like many others, goes on and on. When my best friend moved away the summer before our freshman year of high school, my mom started planning so that I could bring her and the other part of our trio "down the shore" with me the next summer. I have spent way too much money on cheesy silk-screened t-shirts, feeling so cool when I came back to school in the fall with proof that I, Kate Hiller, had gone on vacation (even if I still had to do chores on said vacation, unlike the rest of my friends).
The house on 55th street is truly a home. My grandparents have kept this whole thing up and running for all of us. This house has been their home too, for about 6 months per year, almost every year I've known them, and has been in the family for several generations. A few summers ago, I spent about a month living with my grandparents – the first few weeks packing up their suitcases and organizing the house in northern Ohio, and the last week and a half helping them move out to open the house for the summer season. Our half of the duplex (the right side, with the lights on) has what I consider a "traditional" beach house feel – literally. There is no air conditioning or heat, and having wifi is a relatively new luxury. There is a refrigerator and other modern appliances, but we keep snack food in coolers so that it doesn't get stale because the cabinets are older than I am and don't adequately seal off the salt air, and all dishes have to be hand washed. The shower is outside, and there's only one bathroom in the house. When Hurricane Sandy surged through the East Coast in 2012, the house only ended up with some gunk in the basement and minimal damage, thankfully. Other homes on the north side of the island fared much worse. Despite numerous setbacks and challenges that come with managing a more-than-100-year-old house, generations of my family have kept this house in the best shape possible and have made it more than just a house.
So when I say that I grew up at the beach, I really do mean that. I didn't go to Ocean City High School or live there for months on end, but some big life events (or big to me) happened at the Ocean House.
One of the first times I stayed out late into the evening without a chaperone anywhere nearby was when my sister, one of the neighbor girls, and I went to the Boardwalk by ourselves. We stuffed our faces with Mack and Manco* pizza and Kohr Bro's frozen custard, window shopped, and rode on the ferris wheel at Wonderland Pier. So adult, I know. But at the time, I felt like the coolest kid on the boardwalk, the one whose parents trust her enough to take her little sister and a friend to the boardwalk late at night. I've witnessed at least a dozen weddings on the beach. I've (accidentally) swam with dolphins who found their way into an inlet at the south end of the island. I learned to surf thanks to a surfer dude who called himself "Sheepdog" at the 7th Street Surf Shop. I've gone to bed at 2am after playing round after round of Canasta or Bananagrams or Scrabble and laughing until I almost peed my pants, then have woken up at 5:30am the next morning to try to catch the sunrise on the beach. I have fed seagulls, and have bore witness to an increase of signage discouraging people from doing this because the seagulls have gotten pretty aggressive over the years. I have ordered pizza to be delivered directly to my towel by the surf, even though Sack O Subs Pizza and Pasta is a 2-minute walk from the lifeguard stand (and also across from the house, with free food in it). I have read more books than I can count while burying my feet in the sand, trying to stay warm as the sea breeze cooled the air and the lifeguards packed up their gear. I've climbed on the rocks that you're not supposed to climb on more times than I can count, and I've built drip castles upon drip castles upon drip castles. The summer after I read Holes, I became obsessed with digging a hole 5 feet in diameter and 5 feet deep (I only ever got to about 3.5 feet either way, but when I was about 4 feet tall this was a pretty significant accomplishment). I've gone parasailing and have imagined what would happen if I was floating in the water and just drifted all the way across the Atlantic without dying in the process (I hoped to make it to Spain, though geographically speaking my body would probably end up somewhere off the western coast of Africa). I've been through at least 40 bottles of sunscreen, and I have eaten my weight in salt water taffy and fudge from Shrivers. I watched one of my cousins get married in the church across the street, Union Chapel by the Sea, just a few years ago, and have spent rainy mornings playing Sorry! and munching on Reece's Puffs and Fruit Loops on my neighbor's porch. I learned to drive a surrey long before a car, and my photograph was on the wall at Air Circus for almost a decade after the owner saw me juggling in the store and insisted that we get a photo together.
Experiences like this don't come to everyone. I am incredibly fortunate to have had this place that always welcomed me back, regardless of my grades, my health, the friends I bring with me, and any other factor. But pretty soon it won't be here for me, at least not in the same capacity. We've known for a few years that the time is coming to say goodbye, for a variety of reasons. It's hard to have to break with this place that I have called home for so many years, but at the same time, I'm almost grateful it's happening now. This is a summer of goodbyes, after all.
Even if we keep the house another year (or more), through whatever lovely ripple in the space-time continuum that has allowed me to say goodbye at least twice now, this is my final goodbye. It comes at the perfect time in my life – I have had more than two decades, 23 years to be exact, to grow up here and to experience the exhilaration that comes with smelling the salty air first thing in the morning while driving over the 9th Street Bridge. There is nothing that can replace the feeling that you're arriving home, voice hoarse from sing-shouting "On the Boardwalk (in Atlantic City)" for an hour while driving down the Atlantic City Expressway at sunrise, before most people in Ocean City are even awake. But something does come close, for me. When I flew into Leipzig last November, after spending a whirlwind week in Berlin and a 24-hour turnaround in Stuttgart, I almost choked back tears. The same feeling of coming home, of being so happy and attached to a place, came rushing back. I knew that I was in the next place I would call home (hence why I'm moving there in August for school). That is an amazing feeling, and I hope everyone reading this is able to experience it at least once in their lives.
Because I grew up on the beach, and had the opportunity to experience the magic that is the Ocean House, I am now able to leave, to walk away from my happiest place on earth – smiling and facing the world ahead. My next home awaits, across the Atlantic.
*much to my disbelief, apparently the place that everyone I know has been calling Mack and Manco for years is actually just Manco & Manco... But regardless, they serve an excellent slice of pizza.
This post also appeared on Huffington Post, thanks to my involvement with the College Tourist!