Signing a Legacy
by Kate Walter
I wondered if I was crazy to be taking the train from Penn Station to Bay Head that Friday when a Nor’easter was predicted for the Jersey Shore, but last year was the 20th anniversary of Bonnie’s sunrise brunch. I’d already committed to attending. Bonnie was our neighbor in Ocean Beach and my favorite yoga teacher. When I took her class during the summer, we paused if dolphins swam past. I felt obligated to attend this event in memory of my mother who never missed it.
This end of season tradition took place every October. When the weather was good, people gathered around a driftwood bonfire to watch the sunrise and take photos.
I knew there wouldn’t be a sunrise this time. But there would still be a sumptuous brunch at Claire’s house. Bonnie and Claire were close friends, new age types, and year round dwellers on Barnegat Island. Claire’s spacious house had a great layout for a crowd: big living room and sun porch off the kitchen.
I hadn’t gone to this party in ages due to my work schedule, but now I was retired and missed the banter of my colleagues. This year, with the Nor’easter, the weather reminded me of the time I attended with my Mom who was propping me up through a bad break up. It was very stormy that weekend too, with no sunrise. Except now I was here alone.
The summer after my lesbian partner dumped me after 26 years, I retreated to the beach house to get comforted by my Irish Catholic mother who totally got it. “It’s just like getting a divorce” she said, worried about my emotional state.
When I’d first come out decades ago, my parents were not happy, but Mom had become more open and accepting after my father died. She told me that reading helped her get through Dad’s death. So we read, sitting together on the beach with our novels or curled into our favorite chairs at night. That fall we went to this same party in a storm, so this weekend felt like deju vu.
On Saturday morning, I put on a rain jacket and walked out of our bungalow into 60 mph wind. Garbage cans were rolling across the road. Chairs were knocked over. I cut across a yard and dashed up the next street to my neighbor’s house. Bonnie and Claire were delighted to see me and introduced me to people I didn’t know.
As a child and teenager, I loved spending summers in Ocean Beach, yet as an adult I felt a bit estranged from the neighbors. Most were married with kids and grand kids and lived in suburban New Jersey. I was gay, single, child free and lived in Greenwich Village.
While I settled on the sofa with a plate of scrambled eggs and fruit salad, I spied the guest book for the annual sunrise brunch. I flipped back to 2017, the year my mother died. Someone wrote “We miss you Agnes and your lemon poppy seed coffee cake.” I got choked up.
I knew Mom always baked a loaf cake but I didn’t remember what kind. This year I’d wanted to bring something authentic from New York City that they couldn’t easily find at the Jersey Shore. I’d bought rugelah from a Jewish bakery on Second Avenue. The pastries went fast. Everyone loved them, declaring the real thing much better than the Walmart version.
I flashed back to another time I was at this party, when I was 57, sitting in the living room with a group of older women, my mother’s friends, in their 80s and 90s. Mom said, “Why don’t you go sit on the porch with all the young people?” To her, I was still young then.
I enjoyed chatting with Claire’s mother, who remembered me as a kid. She said she felt ancient hearing the Ocean Beach residents she knew as children were now retired. She and my mother used to attend Bonnie’s chair yoga class for seniors. With my mother gone, Claire’s mother was the only one left from that first generation of homeowners who settled here in the 1950s. Now my brother and sister and I were the owners of my parents’ beach bungalow.
Feeling nostalgic, I flipped further into the guest book. I found my mother’s signature and her comment in her small pinched hand writing: “I had a wonderful time.” I saw the names of other women from her generation who had passed, including her friend who coincidentally died on the same date, July 26, but years earlier. Both widows, they used to take day trips to Atlantic City together to have dinner and play the slot machines.
I was glad the visitor log had survived Hurricane Sandy, which had devastated our barrier island. The book must have been stored on Bonnie’s second floor because her first floor was under water.
As I signed my name on the page for 2018, I remembered that I used to think these books were corny. But now I realized their value. The guest list became a tribute to my mother and our neighbors who built this community. I raised my coffee cup in their memory.
This August, my lifelong friend from the beach community died after a long illness. Sue and I were the same age (70) and planned plan to spend more time together after we retired. She had been super supportive the summer my mother died. Now my generation was going too. This year, I’ll look for Sue’s name in the guest book.
Kate Walter is a freelance writer in Manhattan and the author of the memoir Looking for a Kiss: a Chronicle of Downtown Heartbreak and Healing