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February 18, 2011

A Love Letter to the Jersey Shore

by Diane Chamberlain

Do you love a place (or a person or a thing) that has become an object of derision? I do, and it's time to publicly proclaim my adoration. So here goes:

Dear Jersey Shore,

There is no place on earth that can make my heart ache with longing the way you do. Not Paris or Maui or Greece. Maybe the North Carolina coast, but that's only because it reminds me of you. I remember you from long before I was born. Grandpop Chamberlain spotted a little piece of sandy land covered with scrubby reeds and blueberry bushes on an unfinished canal in Point Pleasant, and he decided to build a little summer bungalow there. He named it Su-Nan-To after his wife (Susan), himself (Tom) and their young daughter Nan, who would become my mother (the young girl in the photo).In the weeds 
Did he know that little dead-end of a canal would one day be dredged to become a two mile stretch of the intracoastal waterway, New Jersey? I don't know if he was that prescient, but the bungalow soon sat on a busy waterway. By the time I came along, a few other houses had sprung up around Su-Nan-To, but the area was still primarily undeveloped and beautiful.

   Mom,jo,dibungalow copy

That's my sister Joann, me, and Mom (the seamstress).

Old Bay Head Shores house on the canal-- setting for BAY AT MIDNIGHT copy

Our big porch fronted the canal and daytime hours were filled with the excitement of boats of all sizes fighting the canal’s strong currents,


but the nights were quiet, the only sound the water lapping against the bulkhead. On very still nights, we could hear the ocean in the distance.  

 When I was a teenager, my girlfriends and I sat on the bulkhead waving to the boys who passed by in their boats. They’d often stop to ask if we wanted a ride. My mother nearly always let us go. Somehow climbing into boats with strangers seemed far safer to her than climbing into cars with boys we didn't know, maybe because she had done so much of it herself as a girl. We could get around by boat long before we could drive. We'd pick up my friend, Jon, at his house on the river, me, on the canal, Sam on the marina and Lynn on the bay, then boat over to the movie theater where we'd make out in the back row.

Which brings me to the boardwalk. We’d hang out at one of your boardwalks nearly every other night, Jersey Shore. Maybe we'd get a slice of pizza (the best in the world, thin crusted and greasy and delicious) and birch beer, but our plan was always to get under the boardwalk as soon as possible. The ‘Underwood Motel’, we called it.

Oh, yeah.

Thank you for the boardwalks, Jersey. For the cheesesteaks and the frozen custard and the rippled fries. For the wild rides and the barkers and the never-ending sound of the surf.


Seaside Heights boardwalk, circa '68

Your beaches were always insanely crowded and we had to pay to use them. I still remember forking over my quarter and receiving a scrap of fabric on a safety pin to attach to my bathing suit, the print of that day’s fabric proof that I had paid. But your beaches were also broad enough to accommodate the crowds and you welcomed one and all.


My heart broke, Jersey Shore, when my parents sold Su-Nan-To. I was eighteen. Finances necessitated that sale and netted my family a measly ten thousand dollars. I don’t want to think about it, JS. You might still be a part of my life if that had never happened.  

I still managed to spend the final two summers of my teen years--and my last two years as a Jersey Girl--down the shore after the sale of Su-Nan-To. The summer after high school graduation, my best friend, Little Zan, and I rented a cheap room with one double bed in Seaside Heights, now the home of that TV abomination which dares to call itself by the sacred name "Jersey Shore". Seaside was just starting to get a tad seedy back then and I loved it for its underbelly atmosphere—tattoos, wife beater t-shirts, the scent of sausage and onion sandwiches in the air, the screams coming from the Himalaya on one pier and the music of the beautiful vintage carousel on the other. It was so alive. Zan and I waitressed, discovered pot and lost our virginity. I mean, Jersey, what more could two kids ask for? (I'm the one on the right).

Z d 

Then, abruptly, I became a Californian and you were lost to me.

I remember one day—I must have been in San Diego about ten years by then--lying across my bed in tears, the ache of homesickness for you tearing me apart. That's when I decided to change the setting of the novel I was writing--my very first. I'd set it in upstate New York and it just wasn't coming together. I changed it to you, JS. Suddenly, magic! And yes, a tax deductible research trip back to the land I loved.

 When I moved to Virginia and then to North Carolina, I felt closer to you. I could always visit. On one trip, I learned that the bungalow was for sale and I fantasized about buying it even though I was a contented southerner by then. I called the Realtor and inquired about the price, and the first thing out of her mouth was "It's waterfront, you know." Effing bitch. Yes, I know. Asking price? $600,000. Oh well. Another little chip out of my heart.

 Shortly before Mom died, my sister and I visited her in her Chatham, New Jersey nursing home. "We want to take you out," we said. We knew this could well be her last outing. "Anyplace you'd like to go."

 "Su-Nan-To," she said. We were not surprised.

So my sister and I ‘kidnaped’ my mother from the nursing home, and with her wheelchair and my sister’s mobility scooter crammed into the back of my sister’s van, we set out on our adventure. Di,jo,mom wharfside

We had lunch at our favorite restaurant, the Lobster Shanty, then visited the Point Pleasant inlet where we used to watch the boats go out and the storms roll in. We drove past the little beach on the bay where all three of us had gotten sunburned and flirted with boys. And we sat on the quiet little road in front of Su-Nan-To, letting the memories wash over us.


Su-Nan-To today

My mother asked me to knock on the door to see if anyone would come out to talk to us. I did, but no one was home, so I tip-toed around to the backyard to take this picture so my mother and sister, neither of whom were able to walk, would be able to see ‘our canal.’


After Mom died, I did get Su-Nan-To back in a way--by setting a book in the bungalow. In The Bay at Midnight I revisited every nook and cranny of that wonderful house and its evocative setting, and though the story was not my family's story, every inch of the setting belonged to us.  


The Bay at Daylight the beach where it all happens!

Me, on a research trip to the shore as I wrote The Bay at Midnight. This is Barnegat Bay, where I swam as a kid. I'm standing right where the body is found. Heh heh. 

I feel cleansed writing to you, Jersey Shore. You are so much more than Snooki and the Situation. Don’t let them get you down. People who really know you recognize your beauty, your intrigue, your history and your power to evoke emotion and memory. You will always have a place in my heart.  









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Beautiful, Diane.
And I do hve a place like that.
Billerica, Massachusetts.

I spent the first ten summers of my life at Bay Head and Mantaloking, on both the ocean side and the bay side. Nothing smells the same as the Jersey Shore, and I've checked a lot of other beaches.

I feel like suing Snooki et al. for defamation of character. Class action suit, anyone?

This is a beautifal post! The pictures taking me through your story. And the last trip with your sister and mom...brought a tear to my eye.

Our family has a place. We all call it "up north". I hope my kids have great memories and stories to pass on about our JS.

oh, Diane. I love this.
You've made me get a little teary and you've made me homesick.
I didn't spend as much time on the Jersey Shore as you did - my childhood beach was Ocean City, MD - which we'll be visiting this summer.
I think these memories of ours might be a clue as to why we now crave those visits to the NC coast, huh?


My mother grew up on the Lake Erie shore. She was shocked when she saw Lake of the Ozarks. She didn't really get how you could get worked up boating on a lake when you could see the other side. Her summers were similar to yours except with fresh water and winery. My cousins grew up on the same beaches, getting boat rides from the children of previous generations beach goers. Now the next generation, the twenty somethings party on the same beaches their parents and grand parents did. Oh, and going to Cedar Point, about two hours away.

Karen, ever been to Put-In-Bay? I think I can get you a deal on a bike rental.

OH, my goodness..tears are in my eyes, how lovely and nostalgic and beautiful and perfect. Outside, right now, there are sirens and horns and all kinds of urban chaos..it's so lovely to read your words...

Tears here, too. I grew up in Walnut Creek, a bedroom community east of San Francisco. We couldn't afford regular summer getaways and I always envied my friends who did, who had those homes-away-from-home that were shared by extended families over many years.

Now, though, looking back, it's Walnut Creek itself that I miss. I miss the old downtown (before it got all fancy); the hills that were foggy and green in the winter and dusty brown in the summer; and the annual Walnut Festival carnival with its corn dogs, cotton candy, and fudge. I miss the old fake wood-sided station wagons parked in the driveways and riding my bike for miles through the interconnected housing developments. I miss the Lollipop Palace and the "fancy" restaurant where we got to show off our "fancy" manners.

Sigh. I wonder what my daughter will miss?

What a wonderful post. I live outside of Philly now, and many people I know here spent (or still spend) their summers, or at least part of it, "down the shore". Many times there are houses in the family such as you describe, and which they could probably sell for a lot of money, but they would never do so if they didn't have to. I am so sorry the part of the world which is unfamiliar with the Jersey Shore now equates it with the likes of Snooki and The Situation.

Where I grew up (Syracuse, NY), there were the finger lakes, a couple other lakes, a reservoir, the Thousand Islands/St. Lawrence River, and Lake Ontario within an hour or so drive. In high school, I went with my friend in her tiny Sunfish sailboat on Skaneateles Lake (a finger lake), just the two of us. We would carry the boat from its rack to the water, put up the sail, and go. The water was freezing cold through most of the summer, as the finger lakes are deep and spring-fed. And clear as glass. When I moved to PA almost 15 years ago, we were baffled at the lack of lakes. Where do you people swim?

Thanks for the nostalgia, and the wonderful story.

Your story brought tears to my eyes, Diane. I am from New Jersey, and the times spent in Point Pleasant as a young girl are some of my most treasured memories. Thank you for sharing the fabulous old photos with us. It made my day!

How beautiful! My family and I will be re-locating to Cape Cod this summer and I can not wait! I have always wanted to live in a beach town and am so excited that my two young daughters will be able to experience this (and hopefully make some wonderful memories like the ones you described). Thank you for sharing this!

I can see why you became a successfull writer. what a moving and delicate picture of a magical place that meant so much to so many of us lucky enough to know that area in that time.
As i read your post i could almost taste those crinkly fries in that paper cone cup.
as a kid i loved to watch the salt water taffy machines in the windows. the guys who operated the wheels, where you could never win the big prizes daring people to come and try their luck.
looking through the window of 'the chatterbox to see who was playing there that week.
As I got a little older the attraction of the girls in their bathing suits became an extra added attraction.
i remember the first time I showed up on the boardwalk with my long hair. I enjoyed the attention I was getting from the girls, but ended up running for my life from a group of guys who wanted to kick my ass. I got away that time.
I share your anger at that show that so defames a place so legendary to our past.
thank you for taking me back there for a few minutes

I met my husband on the Jersey Shore 58 years ago. So, I have a very soft spot in my heart for that area. We have visited the shore a couple of times in the last few years. What a wonderful place to remember.

What great memories, Diane. And isn't it a bygone era? It's now almost impossible to access the coast, from northern Maine clear to Key West. My husband was just in New England looking for sea eiders (ducks) to photograph, and he got extremely grumpy trying to find access to a beach from which to take his photos.

Like Kerry, my family did nothing in the summer. We were lucky to manage much except to survive. However, I cherish memories of hanging out on the playground behind our house when I was in grade school, and the pool when I was in high school. It cost a quarter to get into the pool, and even when I had to supervise my younger siblings it was great fun to trudge the mile or two loaded down with beach towels, and to spend time with friends there.

My son-in-law grew up going to Torch Lake in northern Michigan, where his own mother has been spending summers every year since she was three (she's now 80). We all went in together to get a place up there six years ago, and they spend lots of time there. It's pretty far for us, 500 miles, so we don't get there as often as we'd like, but they have friendships in the area that are on the third and fourth generations now. I love that my grandson has friendships with roots that deep.

What a beautiful post, Diane! My husband is a Jersey boy, and my mother in law had a home at the shore in Seaside Heights. We had some great times there. I'm with you. The Jersey Shore is a very special place. Thank you for bringing it to life for people who might otherwise only know the show. I'll pass this along.

Wonderful Story! Thank you for sharing.

Oh my your story about the Jersey Shore brought back many memories and tears in my eyes this afternoon. ALso happened when I read your book-The Bay at Midnight. I spent my summers on LBI from birth to age 50! Then I moved to NC and had to find a replacement for my JS beach. Although I didn't find an exact beach the closest was North Topsail. My grandparents lived in Pt. Pleasant and we would visit them as children and spent many fun times at Asbury Park and Jenkinson's. Loved the chocolate shop in Spring Lake too. Yes, I am a Jersey Girl at heart and will always be. Thanks for the memories.

I have fond memories of the Jersey Shore also. We went there for vacations when I was a kid..

The boardwalk, eating in restaurants..it was all so wonderful!

Thanks for reminding me...

I'm on the road today, driving home from a research trip in Beaufort, NC (yes, on the water, of course!), so right now I'm reading yiur comments in a Bojangles and you're all touching me with your memories. Tomorrow, I'll randomly pick one commenter to win a signed copy of The Bay at Midnight. thanks for sharing.

Oh, you've made me homesick for the little house my daddy and his brothers built. Mom left it to my sister, whose financial difficulties caused her to lose it. I console myself with the fact that it did provide shelter for the raising of their five children and for my mom while she could be there . . . and now it can be a home for someone else.

Oh, Diane, this was so lovely, like reading the most beautiful dream of childhood. I haven't read that particular book of yours and now I must get it immediately! I've long wanted to live on a canal just off the Intracoastal, and your post makes me wish it even more.

I, too, love a place that is the subject of derision, and its name is Kansas.

Oh, to be down the shore. Thank you SO much for sharing your memories and experiences - we were never able to go down the shore as much as we would like. However, back in 2009, my brothers took my mom to Wildwood Crest for a few days, and they all had a great time - this past summer (over the Labor Day week) my brothers rented a house in Ocean City and we were there for a week. That was GREAT. Spending time in the Atlantic Books shop on the Boardwalk was my favorite thing to do - LOL - next to spending time on the beach. We got lots of exercise walking all over the place! My son Joseph and I went down there for a day in early July and Joseph took two other day trips there on his own.

We're talking about another day trip there as soon as possible - having breakfast at The Point Diner in Somers Point and then heading to the Boardwalk!

Counting the seconds until then. :-)

OMG! I am sitting here with tears flowing as though I am YOU remembering YOUR life and the nostalgia is so real and overwhelming to me as it sounds very much like MY life here in Wilmington, NC. I spent my summers at "motels under the boardwalk" at Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach and I did a lot of the "other" stuff you did, too! Thank you so much for taking me down memory lane with you so that my own memories could spew forth as did my tears. Beautiful post. Can't wait to meet you as I feel that we are very much alike.

What a beautiful post. I spent my summers 'Down the Shore.' Atlantic City, Margate, Ventnor and Brigantine, even. Loved the Boardwalk, the beach, the Piers. Great memories!

Just wanted to congratulate Hank and Nancy on their Agatha nominations!

I spent the summer of '66 at Seaside Heights, working for Kohr's and living above the frozen custard stand right smackdab on the boardwalk. What a tacky place, and so much fun! I loved it but have never been back. I've spent a week or two for the past 15 years at Ocean City, a completely different town, utterly charming. I've visted several different Jersey shore towns. Each is different, wonderful. No one who has been there could ever laugh at the Jersey Shore. It's a wonderful place. Am eagerly anticipating this summer's visit (with my old college roommates, as usual).

I have tears in my eyes for my youth. You paint such a wonderful picture. My mom and I wore matching dresses, but mostly, our vacation of choice was in the mountains, but I remember the freedom of playing, and riding our bikes. In my adult years, I lived outside of Philadelphia and went to Atlantic City (pre-casino) and camped in Cape May. This country truly has been beautiful for so many of us. And, Nancy, I always wanted to be a Kansas City cheerleader. It always represented a true, and important part of America to me.

Its not New Jersey where my husband spent his early years at the shore but the beaches on Topsail evoke the same memories for me that you describe in your letter to JS. I grew up with my summers on Topsail spent the same way you describe your summers on the JS. When I weave my baskets I always take a good long sniff of the sea grass that is incorporated into them, it always reminds me of the smell of the ocean and it helps my longing for the shore until I can get there each summer.


My intro to the Jersey Shore you speak of so beautifully was in college. Friends who came to school here in WV spoke fondly of going 'down the shore' and one year, a large group of us went to the Memorial Day Bash on the Beach in Asbury Park. I had never before (and never since) seen anything quite like that beach on that day, with its wall to wall people and the Casino looming over us all.

On another visit, we went to a different beach (whose name I've forgotten) which was my first intro to a boardwalk. It was another gorgeous day for the memory banks.

I shudder at the way "Jersey Shore" portrays native New Jersians, as none of my friends from my long-ago college years were anything like that.

Linda, I'll be signing books at Pomegranate in Wilmington, NC on May 6th. I hope we have a chance to meet then!

Diane, thank you for sharing so much of yourself in your love letter to Jersey Shores.

My heart is in a place that I discovered 2 years ago, Sanibel Island, Fla. I found a much needed peace along the Gulf Shore. I go there often in my mind.

Love your story. I love the Jersey shore, I mentioned in the past how much I'm there. In Manasquan. I got a trip down a few weeks ago and ate in Point pleasant.

Beautiful, beautiful.

My special place is Stonybrook, Long Island, where I spent two adolescent summers with my big sister and her husband. Magical. Thank you for the trip down memory lane, Diane. And oh, those beautiful handmade dresses . . . .

I'm a Jersey girl who has the good fortune to be a NC girl now. But, my husband and I went on our first date more than 30 years ago to the Lobster Shanty. Glad to see it is still there. A very sweet ode to the Jersey Shore.

WOW, I read this article and tears started running down my face, for I too remember thistime of my youth.I closed my eyes and I was back in the 60< what fun, For me, it is the mountains of Pa. the poconos, whenever I go back to visit family, my excitement is to see my mountains, At 12 we moved to NJ , but pa in the fall is where I go in my memories of warm fuzzies. thank you for sharing that memory and stiring my heart, xoxoxo

I grew up in Landing,NJ which is right on Lake Hopatcong. It was the best place to grow up. We moved to Boise, Idaho in 1974 and when we got here my little brother and I were so disappointed. The only water here is the Boise River. No place to ice skate nor swim. Now, I guess we're both used to it because we're still here.

Wonderful post Diane. It brought back some very good memories for me. My wife and I started our married life in Oakhurst and two of my children were born there. I was into 5 mile and 10 K runs then and I used to have a t-shirt from almost every shore town. I can't wait to read your book.

This is Diane's little brother here. Loved the piece. A few years ago I took my wife and kid back to Point Pleasant. What flabbergasted me was the beach where I used to go swimming - where the body was found in the picture above. It was so much SMALLER than I remembered it. Talk about beach erosion!


Lol, Rob. the only beach erosion there was in your mind, I'm afraid. Glad we get to share these memories together.

lil G., that's so sweet!

Diane, thank you for a loving, moving tribute to the real Jersey Shore.

You'll go back. Once you have Jersey Shore sand in your shoes, you never leave it totally behind.

I was born in Atlantic City, grew up in Ventnor (South Jersey Shore), went to school at Monmouth, partied/lived/worked in Asbury Park for a number of years (Rocking the Stone Pony!). I know the Point Pleasant and Seaside boardwalks as well as I know the A.C., Ventnor and Ocean City, NJ boardwalks, too. Although I've lived full time in the Florida Keys for nine years, I am always a Jersey Shore girl in my heart as well as my history.

Except for the one year that my family lived in France, I've never lived further than a mile from the beach. For most of my life, our family home was just off Atlantic Avenue (That's a yellow street in Monopoly.) and steps from the boardwalk. Now I live in a small house on a quiet harbor. There's no getting me away from the water.

My first job aspiration was to ride the High-Diving Horse at Steel Pier. Right now, I'm intensely craving saltwater taffy.

The kindest, most ladylike comment I can make about the show Jersey Shore is that thinking of it makes me want to projectile vomit. I've never seen an episode and know it's horrid.

My husband grew up in Northeastern Pa, so I've heard many stories about the family trip to the shore.
Would love to win a copy.

Such lovely and powerful images, Diane!! Thank you!

I spent a few weeks each summer in the 50's at Cape May Point with my Grandparents. They used to rent a small cottage for $300 for the 10 week season. I remember fishing for sunfish in Lily Lake with a curtain rod and a safety pin with bread for bait. We actually caught some. Later on in the late 50's my other grandparents built a home at Beach Haven. After the big storm of 1962 their house on pilings was one of the lucky ones and made the front cover of the commemorative booklet. I still have it somewhere.

Oh, Diane, I feel the same way about a cottage in Ontario--a second home , on a lake, with a porch glider, a tippy canoe, smoky fireplace and books, books, books! We went to Stone Harbor one summer and loved it (taffy! sand in our sneakers!) but it wasn't as magical as that Canadian lake with loons to wake us up every morning.
Nancy Martin

Thanks everyone for sharing your own memories and for embracing mine! I've loved the response to my love letter. I'll pick one of you randomly tomorrow to win a copy of The Bay at Midnight.

This takes me back to my childhood in rural Australia - a very different scene from JS but the same soul connection to place and family. As a child I would roam the paddocks near our house for hours talking to myself and my friend "Missy". I have never managed to get our place out of my heart and many dreams include aspects of my early life. Unlike you, I would not go back, though as I believe new owners have changed everything too much. It must live in my heart. I am a reader (when I get time - lately on the treadmill at the gym) and i like the way you write very much.

Lovely piece, Diane. I guess we all have a different color sand in our shoes. My sand is sugar white, from the Gulf beaches of Florida, Pass-A-Grille, where my dad would take the five of us to the beach on summer Sundays while my mom waitressed. He'd let us swim til we were worn out, then pile us in the car, with a stop on the way home for root beer and hot dogs. Kissed my first boyfriend on that beach, drank beer there the day of high school graduation with my future husband, taught my babies to swim on trips home from Atlanta, toasted our parents farewell there after their respective funerals.

What a wonderful story and beautiful pictures. I have only ever been to Ocean City, MD but now I want to go to the Jersey Shore and I really want to read the book!

This was so beautiful...and I was one of the moist-eyed readers--though my summers were far from the JS. Lake Michigan claimed my heart and my summers and my youth. And now, through your own memories, my tears. Thank you.

Loved the post- just beautiful. It brought back fond memories of family vacations in Brigantine, my first concert- the Supremes- on the Steel Pier, and hanging out at the Stone Pony with my girlfriends. I sooo miss the ocean. As I've gotten older, I appreciate the camp our family has on Sacandaga, not the ocean, but pretty water and great wonderful family times- past and present. Thanks for reminding me.

Diane - How great! I grew up summering in Toms River, working at the Dairy Queen and my boyfriend worked at Nicks on the Seaside Heights Boardwalk. That was the 70's...We still have the house in TR, on a lagoon, and always go through the Canal to get to the ocean. I think I know EXACTLY where Su-Nan-To is and I look forward to trying to find it this summer. You are truly wonderful at creating the mood, becasue I could actually feel your nostalgia!!
PS:I HATE Snooki and the horrible buzz that Jersey Shore has created.

Donna is the winner of The Bay at Midnight. Congratulations, Donna!

Thank you Diane. Looking forward to receiving the book. And you will never lose your Jersey Girl status.

Lovely memories Diane! I saw your link on the Tales of the Jersey Shore Facebook page, and had to continue reading.
I grew up in Long Branch but would go to Seaside and Pt Pleasant in my teens and early twenties. You certainly captured it - the smells and sounds and sights!
I'm so glad that you and your sister were able to whisk your Mom away for a wonderful visit and that you took the pictures of the front and back of the house for all to cherish.

Billerica is a place I love that has an undeserved reputation or being a "tough" town. It's hard sometimes, telling people you love a place they make fun of, but in the telling it's an opportunity to remember. Then there's the Marky Mark way of remembering, and I love that, too. I recognize every tree in his video. Most of the rocks, too.


Wonderful... I just checked my email for the first time since Dec. and Tom had sent this to me... How many wonderful memories for all of us.

Your cousin,
Karen L.

Thank heavens you redeemed the name of our Jersey Shore, Diane; a beautiful letter to a beautiful time and place.

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