Something in the water

When Scott Claffee and Lily Fu told me many months ago that they were planning on getting married on the Jersey Shore, my ears pricked up a bit. When she was twelve, my wife Maya and her mom moved back from their home in Athens, Greece. Though they settled in Port St. Lucie, Florida, they spent many a summer on the Jersey Shore, the stomping grounds of Maya's grandparents, Joseph and Gladys Catenaci.

Joseph Catenaci, who turns a healthy 94 today, was in the construction business after World War II, among many other things, building sewers and jetties on Long Beach Island. (He also worked on the Verazzano Narrows Bridge, which I think is incredibly cool.) Known simply as LBI these days, Long Beach Island was, in 1948, a far cry from what we now think of when someone says "Jersey Shore." Largely undeveloped back then, Grandpa Catenaci and his workmen would stay at the only hotel on the island that was open all year long, Wida's, which is no longer there.

(Oddly, I'm told the toughest time on the island was after the Storm of '62, the year I happened to have been born. My mother always told me that I was born in a blizzard, on Long Island, so I'm sure it must have been that same storm.)

Even today, after decades of development, Long Beach Island is still a much simpler place than its counterparts like Asbury Park in the north or Atlantic City to the south. Other than the occasional Ben and Jerry's or 7-Eleven, just about every restaurant and store on LBI is family owned and operated. There is no Chili's, no Applebees, no McDonalds.

So when Scott and Lily told me they were contemplating a shore wedding, I asked them where exactly?

Long Beach Island, they said excitedly.

Well, add another notch in the serendipity belt.

It turns out that Scott's family has deep roots in Long Beach Island as well. For decades, they've been coming to the same tiny cottage originally purchased by his grandparents, Charles and Florence Peterson. And when I say cottage, I mean cottage. If you've ever been to Corrolla, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and have stayed in one of the beautiful homes on the ocean that sleep 34, shake your head and erase your memory. Long Beach Island doesn't have homes that sleep 34. In fact, some of the homes are so tiny--perfectly preserved artifacts of a post-war era--that they barely sleep 3.4. And that's what makes them so charming.

Scott's family comes back each year to the Cum-a-Dee, named so because when his grandfather's grandfather, with a thick accent, would call to one of his grandchildren to "come to me," it would come out as simply as "cum-a-dee."

Scott's grandfather, known affectionately as Pop-Pop, the same term of endearment that my daughter refers to her great-grandfather with, passed away earlier this year. But given that he was such a fixture on Long Beach Island, one can only assume that he and Maya's grandfather surely must have crossed paths at some point, during one summer or another. After all, they both were born in the same year, 1913, and both married for a period of time that often feels like a typo: Charles and Florence for seventy years, Joe and Gladys for seventy-two. Seventy-two years! There must be something in the water.

The morning of Scott and Lily's wedding, on a glorious off-season beach day, I drove down the island a bit, to the Holgate section, where Maya's grandfather once lived. I wanted to take a photo of his last house. I knew I was close when I saw the street sign for "Joan Road." After all, the "Joan" of Joan Road is my mother-in-law, Joan Vastardis. It's neat to have a street named for you.

(Two weeks ago, in a post here, I joked about the mysterious circumstance surrounding how Maya and her mom came into possession of the street sign from their neighborhood in Athens. I have since been assured that there was nothing nefarious about its acquisition. Apparently the sign was in a pile of construction rubble. As for Joan Road, well, that sign is municipal property.)

I drove a block or so further and came upon a group of older men, all laughing as they chatted. I asked them if they knew which house once belonged to Joe Catenaci and they laughed.

"All of them!" one joked.

We talked for a while and they shared some nice stories.

"Joe Catenaci was the only man to ever say anything nice about my boat," one remarked. I though that was sweet. One of the other men described him as "the prince" of LBI. I got out my cell phone and called my mother-in-law so she could say hello. Small world.

Lily and Scott were married later that day. As we drove from the church to the reception, a hip hotel named Daddy-O, I tried to avoid flying out of Scott's brother's convertible. I've learned from my daughter that it's hard to take pictures while standing backwards on a carousel. It's even harder to stand backwards in a moving car, on a windy day, while trying to photograph a bride and groom. It seems fun, but it's actually quite tricky.

During their dinner, as the sun set on the sound side of the island, we made a quick decision to try and get a picture. Luckily, the distance on some parts of Long Beach island from ocean to sound is about, oh, one quarter of a mile. We raced across the street and with not more than sixty seconds to spare made a beautiful picture. A minute later we would have missed it.

The morning after the wedding, I stopped into Ferarra's Bakery (the yellowed newspaper clipping on the wall from decades earlier told me this place has seen a lot of history) and bought some of their "famous" stuffed breads. I then met up with Scott, Lily and the whole Claffee clan outside the Cum-a-dee. We took some pictures on the beach and I began the drive back to D.C., glad to have had this brief nostalgic weekend.

Today, while mentioning this column to my mother-in-law, she laughed at the mention of Wida's, that island hotel where her father had stayed so many nights, so many decades ago.

"You know what Daddy-O used to be, don't you? That used to be Wida's!"

Small world.


p.s. Stay tuned for a wrap-up of last week's Photo Marathon, a great success! And as always, double-click on the images for better viewing.

Happy birthday, Grandpa!!


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