When they say “you can’t go home again,” it’s really true when you’re a P.K. When people ask me where I’m from, I say “New Jersey.” If they happen to have connections in NJ and push it further, saying, “Where in New Jersey?” I have to say, “All over, really. Mostly Red Bank and Woodbury.”
But neither of those towns are my hometown. I spent my childhood in Red Bank, and my high school years in Woodbury. There’s no house I can go back to in either of those places, because strangers are living there. Both towns have changed quite a bit, and there would be very few people that would remember me.
The one place that was constant through all those years, and on into adulthood, was Ocean City, New Jersey. The Southern NJ Conference of the United Methodist Church met there annually, before they merged with Northern NJ. Before my mother started attending with my father, we waited for Dad at home, knowing that when he returned from Ocean City, he’d tell us whether we were moving or staying. One of those years, Dad decided to buy me a T-shirt on the boardwalk. I remember distinctly that I was in fourth grade, because I wore it to school. But only once. My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Hartswell, who smelled so good that us kids would sniff the air after she walked past, eyed my T-shirt that day and read it out loud.
“Hmmm…” she said.
The T-shirt had a picture of a cat with dreamy eyes and it said, “Stroke me and I’ll purr.” Clearly Dad didn’t know that this was not appropriate for a child’s T-shirt. He just knew I liked cats. Mrs. Hartswell knew. Somehow the T-shirt got lost in the laundry.
I think I was in middle school when my mother started going to Ocean City with my Dad, and even let me go along. She got me out of school for three days in mid-June, seeing that it was so close to the end of the school year, anyway.
Their friends from college, the Hughes’, had friends who owned a cottage in Ocean City that they allowed “Uncle Ray” to use for himself and his friends during Annual Conference every year. There were three bedrooms, a kitchen, dining area, bathroom and a living area, all just two blocks from the ocean. The Hughes–whom I called “Aunt Betty” and “Uncle Ray”– my parents, and a couple called the Ameys all stayed there for those days in mid-June. I slept on the couch.
I did that every year through high school, and drove down a day or two during college and the two years I was at home after that. Every morning, the three men quietly got ready, whispering, and eating breakfast, so they wouldn’t wake me sleeping in the living room. Ray and Jay would joke with my father, who was always lagging behind, and they usually left without him while he went into the bathroom to shave. He wasn’t thrilled with the all-day meetings and took his time getting there, but Ray and Jay felt that being on time to Conference meetings was akin to obedience to God. Maybe not, but they never skipped meetings, as far as I ever knew.
I took my time waking up after they all left, taking in the morning light through the front window, and the sound of the wind chimes on the porch. To this day, the sound of wind chimes takes me back to those days in Ocean City. I could smell the ocean from the living room, as it came through the screened windows. That is still my image of pure relaxation; the sound of wind chimes, the smell of the ocean, and a slight breeze through the window. And time. I’m back in Ocean City. Home.
I’d get up when I heard Aunt Betty, Ruth and Mom start their days. Aunt Betty was a sweet, loving, short woman. She never wore make-up because Ray didn’t believe in it and she tried to be an obedient wife. But she was beautiful, nonetheless, with her radiant spirit, her fun sense of humor and her deep capacity to love. We spent our days playing Scrabble on the top deck of the house, able to see the ocean and beach from that perch. Or we went shopping downtown. We walked the boardwalk. Well, Ruth didn’t. I’m not sure she believed in fun, though she was nice enough. She sat and crocheted, hour after hour and watched us play games, laugh and tease. And kept on crocheting.
In the evenings, after supper, we all went to the evening worship services at St. Peter’s UMC, where all the conference meetings were held. It had a huge sanctuary, no air conditioning at the time, so the windows at the top of the stained glass windows were all open. About 800 people were there for services each night, and we sat about halfway up the aisle. The sound of seagulls provided a soundtrack to prayers said out loud and in silence, and occasionally one or two of the birds would find their way in and fly across the top of the sanctuary, squawking, perhaps providing commentary on the sermon or the organ music.
It was thrilling for me to sing along with 800 other United Methodists in that space that smelled of ocean and was sticky with humidity. United Methodists, historically, love to sing. In the UM Hymnal, it says that historically, United Methodists are a “singing people.” From John Wesley’s Select Hymns, published in 1761, he wrote in his instructions: “Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep, but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan…”
Pastors and laity at Annual Conference took these instructions seriously, unlike your usual Sunday morning experience in the local church. My heart would pound with nearly a thousand people belting out, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” The organist for Conference was also particularly good, so the floor would vibrate with those bass notes, the seagulls would flutter at the ceiling, as if chasing the high notes. Worship at Annual Conference fed my soul.
After the evening service, I would search the crowd for my friends; counselors from camp, my father’s District Superintendent, John Ewing, who’d known me all my life, and people from our own church. I’d beg Mom to go walk on the boardwalk with me, and usually the Hughes and my parents would tag along. The Ameys went back to get ready for bed.
On the boardwalk, I’d search the plastic-tagged people strolling by for my friends and mentors. Ed, who I knew from camp at Pennington. Greg and Ken, also from Pennington camp. John Ewing. Other camp counselors. When I did find them, my parents and Hughes kept walking as I visited with my adult friends. I caught them up on my life. They’d tease me. I got a lot of hugs. They were always glad to see me and made me feel like they were focused on just me in that moment, listening and taking me seriously. Which is why I loved them. I was like a green plant, growing in their attention. Pennington camp was always at the end of June, so I knew I’d see them all again in a couple of weeks.
If it wasn’t too late when we got back, or if the men got back early in the afternoon before supper, we’d play the game Probe. It was a word game where you had to guess each other’s hidden word on a plastic tray, letter-cards face down. At meals, the men talked about the meetings of the day, what absurd decisions were made or tabled one more time, sometimes laughing at some of the comments delegates made at the microphone. None of the three men there were ones to ever go to the microphone at Conference. They gossiped a bit, and Jay and Ray had a way of teasing my father. Dad would do his usual dinner table pontifications, and whereas some people were intimidated by Dad, Ray and Jay were not. They knew him as a skinny little foreign student in college. They loved him but teased him, not feeling inferior or superior to him. Just amused. He took it from them, as he knew they meant no harm. When he went off on philosophical monologues, they just laughed. Good-naturedly.
Those were easy days for me and my mother, some of our most relaxed times together. She was out from under the pressures of being a pastor’s wife, not on display, and with her lifelong friend, Betty; one of the few people with whom Mom could totally relax. Betty treated me as if I really were related to her, teasing me, asking about my life, making me laugh, and playing Scrabble with me when Mom wanted a nap. She made me feel loved.
Every year at Conference, they remember the pastors, pastors’ spouses and lay delegates who had passed away the previous year. This year, these many years later, the Conference is now in Wildwood, NJ and includes the Northern New Jersey Conference. There are very few people left that would remember me or my parents, as Dad had been retired almost 25 years. Jay and Ruth Amey are both deceased. Ray and Betty are in the United Methodist Home in Pitman.
I went back this year, when I’d received some money I hadn’t anticipated. It may not seem worth it to someone else to go all that way to see my parents’ faces on the screen for about 30 seconds, but it was more than that. Some of our best times were at Annual Conference. My faith was deepened and nurtured at Conference, albeit in Ocean City, not Wildwood. After the year we’ve had, even before my parents’ deaths, it felt right to spend a few days at the beach. To remember.
Ed was there. Greg and Ken were there; all of them retired now, but all there to honor someone they knew and loved. Those of us who are family of the deceased were ushered in during a hymn. It was not in a church, but at the Wildwood Convention Center. I saw my own face on the big screen up front as I processed in. We laid an evergreen branch down on the altar, in memory of our loved ones. Later, we would receive them back to take home and plant.
I stood for Mom. And for Dad. And for John Painter, with whom I’d been a student assistant pastor in Roselle Park, and who taught me all the practical things I needed to know as a pastor that I didn’t get in seminary. A young, African American singer sang Sandi Patty’s “We Shall Behold Him.” Oh. Unlike our annual conferences in Nebraska or Northeast PA, I sat among a diverse crowd; people of various ethnic backgrounds. White, Black, Asian, etc. There were people with rainbow scarves around their necks representing their support for LGBTQ people, which is an issue presently dividing the UMC. When that young man sang, we were all together. I felt pinned to my chair, goosebumps rising on my arm.
An older gentleman stood up and energetically pointed at the singer, “You sing it, man! Praise God!”
I had tears in my eyes and felt breathless. That song was worth the whole service. It spoke of seeing God face to face and how awesome that will be. The preacher talked about how all our loved ones were experiencing that awesome experience NOW. As we processed out, I felt Ed’s arms around both me and my husband. Later, we met and visited for two hours on the boardwalk. Same ocean. 30+ years later. Friendship that has remained over major life changes, misunderstandings, physical distance, personal struggles, pain and grace, highs and lows.
It wasn’t Ocean City; I hope to go there next year. But it felt right and good to stand for my parents and remember them in New Jersey. That’s where they spent most of their lives. That’s where most of their friends were. Their graves are in Mississippi, and we had their funerals there. It was Mom’s home, and she loved it. But I knew them in NJ. Near the shore. It felt right to remember them there, with the ocean breeze and the sound of seagulls. And a thousand tongues singing praise.
And to walk into the hugs of Uncle Ray and Aunt Betty, to allow them to remember their best friends to me. To share memories and to laugh. But mostly to hug.