The first time my family vacationed in Wildwood, New Jersey, we stayed at a three-story motel on East Lavender Road. Its blinking neon sign greeted us each night as we trudged up from the beach, weary from hours spent in the water. “Vacancy” was usually glowing bright. The room was small, with two double beds, a TV, microwave and mini fridge. But space wasn’t an issue. We spent the majority of the week outside—swimming in the ocean and digging into the sand by day, eating ice cream and dodging the train cars on the boardwalk by night.
It was the summer of 2000, and I was 10 years old. We had driven up to Canada two years earlier to see Niagara Falls, but this was our first real vacation, complete with sunshine and warm weather, since we had moved to the States from Israel three years earlier. We made the nearly three-hour drive from North Jersey in our bright red 1990 Dodge sedan. I sat on the floor of the backseat, drumming on top of a cooler the entire ride.
We loved it at Wildwood, and after that first week, immediately decided to make it an annual trip. So last year, at the start of the week I now look forward to each year, I found myself in the backseat again as we sped down the Garden State parkway, this time in a silver 2001 Honda Accord. My dad was behind the wheel, with his hands locked in the ten and two o’clock position and his eyes on the highway ahead, like always. My mom, next to him, was asleep with a book open in her hands. My sister, who always sits to the right of me, was dozing off, too, her bare feet propped up on the console in the middle of the car.
But something else, I realized, had creeped into the familiar scene: change. My parents’ hair had grayed since that first drive, and tiny wrinkles had sprouted in the corners of their eyes and lips, products of years of laughing. In a few months, my sister would be engaged. I was a college graduate.
These differences felt funny at Wildwood, a place where everything stays the same. For a brief moment after we arrived, I wondered if we still belonged there. But that’s my favorite thing about the town: It lets us pick up right where we left off like nothing—and no one—changed. We return to our favorite restaurant booths, burn our feet on the hot sand all over again, order the same slices of pie.
After that first trip, my family upgraded to a larger hotel in North Wildwood right on the boardwalk, a 1.8-mile creaky, wooden walkway. This time, there was separate bedroom, a kitchen, living room and balcony. We’ve stayed there every year since. The entire building is painted bright yellow, and it’s visible the second you turn right onto 18th Avenue and head toward the sea.
I’m not sure anything’s been fixed up since our first stay there, and we usually make several calls to the front office about a missing hairdryer or broken air vent on the day we check in. Because it’s right on the boardwalk, the hotel can get away with a number of things: slightly rickety elevators with musty smells, peeling paint, bum TV remotes, tacky framed paintings of sand dunes and beach chairs on white-washed walls. We’ve grown too close to this hotel though to do more than complain, though. I may wish the springs in the mattress didn’t jut out too much, but the hotel has never judged me, even when I arrived one season with a bad haircut.
My memories of that hotel, and the vacation in general, are some of my most sensory-driven. In the off-season, I can always summon in my mind the sound of the door lock clicking open as my parents return from an early morning walk along the beach. The pinging sound of a triangle, struck by the man who drives up fresh fruit in his truck on the sidewalk below. The national anthem crackling over the boardwalk speakers, a morning tradition since 9/11. The booming voice of the ice cream man pushing his treat-filled cooler along the sand echoes in my mind. I hear that trademark warning to watch the train car, please, and wonder if it’s really tram car, and I’ve been making fun of it all wrong all these years. Year after year, they’ll be there: the fruit guy, the ice cream man, the disgruntled train car driver.
My family’s routine at the shore hasn’t changed year to year, either. Every day, my parents leave the hotel at six in the morning to walk up and down the coast. Once they’re back and I’m up, my mom shows me the seashells she found and my dad tells me about the dolphins they spotted, not too far out from where the waves break. I never find seashells as beautiful when I’m out in the afternoon, nor do I see any dolphins, but it’s tough to wake early when the cottony hotel pillows are so welcoming.
Breakfast is toast and cereal we’d brought with us from home, or hearty, cheesy omelets from Pompeo’s Restaurant next door. After coating ourselves head to toe in sunscreen, we head for the sand, always carrying too much. When I was young, I would carry with me a small backpack full of toys and paperbacks from my summer reading list, while my parents and sister lugged the chairs and towels. These days, we share the burden of armrests poking our sides and bag straps digging into our shoulders.
Once we find a spot to set up the blankets and chairs, we stay until nearly sunset, taking turns going for a long swim or quick dunks. One person has to stay with our things at all times—Dad’s rule. Then it’s back to the hotel for a quick nap and a seafood dinner at a time-tested restaurant on the boardwalk. We always eat until we’re too full, and most nights are spent walking off those food comas along the boardwalk. I’ve never played one of the games there, nor purchased a neon pink T-shirt proclaiming I’m a Jersey girl. I’ve never ridden the roller coasters either. Hermit crabs scare me, so I move away from their cages that peek out of storefronts. But I always stop into the Fudge Kitchen for a free sample of vanilla nut, and buy a Wildwood mug at one of the gift shops. Most of the mugs at my parents’ house bear the town’s name, and usually illustrations of dolphins. When I’m lying in bed, I can feel the ocean waves swaying me back and forth, and they rock me to sleep.
Last summer, we arrived at Wildwood with aching backs from sitting too long at desks and dark circles from sleeping too little. While our favorite vacation spot remains the same, we—the people visiting this place—don’t. At 10, my only interest was in plunging headfirst into the waves and digging the deepest hole I could. I didn’t have anything else to worry about. At 15, I smiled back at the boys who smiled at me on the boardwalk, and felt uneasy in my bathing suit as I waded into the water. I didn’t have anything to worry about then either, but try telling that to an angsty teen. Now, in my twenties, in between fudge samples and seafood platters, I worry about my career, why I get sleepy by 10, my parents’ health.
But whenever I become too panicked about where all the years have gone, and why nobody warned me I was growing up, I remember something comforting. None of that matters in the quiet stillness of Wildwood, one punctured only by the sounds of cawing seagulls or the ring of a high striker’s bell. Here, I can step outside the passage of time, and stop worrying about all that’s changing or not going my way.
Every year as we check out, I leave feeling reassured by the beach town’s sameness. The memories that go back with me will, when I need them, help drown out my worries in life outside of Wildwood. They stay with me, like each year’s new set of freckles on my shoulders from that unwavering, coastline sun.