Every summer, I see my dead parents walking on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. I cannot figure out why the apparition happens here, and not in so many other familiar places: at synagogue. At Costco. At my kid’s college graduations. But there they are, smiling, hand in hand, in all their glory, even though it has been many years since they walked anywhere together.
The sun, beating down hard and furious causes me to blink and then squint, trying to make out their faces in the distance. Maybe it’s not them. But it must be. Surely, I’d know them anywhere. Even now. They are waving, coming closer as I look remotely further ahead not wanting passersby to think I’m hallucinating or talking to myself. My mom, with her “you’re not fooling anyone” blonde hair pulled back in a “I’m ship-shape today” visor, fresh from one of her many cruises, calls out to me. I can’t hear what she is saying. Her sun-tanned face glows, her smile is big— bigger, warmer and more inviting than when she did stroll on this Boardwalk. And my father, a more mature, grayer yet handsome version of the 51-year-old man who took his last breaths in the family living room 26 years ago.
Their friends are all here. It amazes me how many are still around. Some are pushing strollers at a pace only acceptable to kvelling grandparents. Some are riding bikes trying desperately to stave off osteoporosis and resting tuchus syndrome. Others hold court, catching up with subjects that have been known to stand in the same stretch of boards for the past thirty years. And still others sit idly on benches protecting faulty knees and recent hip replacements. But at least they are here. I briefly wrestle with resentment. They seem to surround me. I know them all. Or do I?
My peaceful morning walk is interrupted by the loud screams of shattered memories. I was on these boards with my parents when the casinos opened in the 1970s. We saw Neil Sedaka in concert amongst heavily sequined patrons at the blackjack tables. My mom let me put on some lipstick and sneak into Caesars with my dad, his large glasses and dark mustache guarding a guilty father’s face. We were here when scores of Miss Americas paraded through the crowds.
We sat on this beach with the patchwork blanket my dad kept in the trunk along with the giant igloo cooler. We changed in an old boarding house, all three kids patiently waiting our turn, piling into an out-of-date bathtub to innocently wash away the sand. We strolled through a bygone era of Salt Water Taffy and amusement piers, thinking this was the best place on earth. We were so alive then, not wanting the sun to go down or the mirage to ripple and end up as just another relic of simpler days gone by. But sadly, it did.
But then a new Atlantic City was born. The one where new memories were painted, memories with me as the parent, drinking coffee and pushing my kids in a double stroller. Their grandmother’s condo served as home base for swimming races and new friends. We sat and watched fireworks on the beach, sometimes putting cotton balls in my son’s ears to drown out the loud booms that scared him so.
I slathered my toddlers’ bodies with Coppertone, collected buckets of shells and shielded our homemade turkey sandwiches from the swoop of seagulls. The kids ate fried corn dogs and ice cream cones, watched fudge being made, and had their picture taken with Mr. Peanut. They rode Ferris Wheels and played Skee-ball, and gathered more prize tickets than I could hold.
My dad would have loved being here with them, I remember thinking back then.
I walk the boards every week now, usually alone. Some days my daughter offers to come with me, but sleep is still more precious to her than an early morning stroll with her mom.
Perhaps it is better this way. I mentally count the street signs. For the past six years, I have avoided walking past my mom’s condo, afraid the giant high rise would swallow me up, punishing me for being here when my mom is not.
I am lost, navigating my thoughts between the past, the present and the future. Stuck in between what it real, and what is left behind. I look ahead one more time and see my parents waiting, still smiling, unfazed by barking dogs, rollerblades, and the occasional rolling car.
A trail of casinos, some shuttered, pave an elusive gateway to the past. I have walked close to a mile but have still not reached them. Are they walking towards me or backwards? I squint again. I rehearse what I will say when we meet. The waves crash. I feel like I am floating. Someone is talking to me. “Good to see you too. Yes, it’s been a long time. Yes. Yes, everyone is wonderful,” I feel my lips say.
I can’t walk any further. The destination is just an updated mirage I once believed existed. It is time to turn around and walk back to my beach home, where my family is waiting.
But, I will be back next week. I imagine my parents will be too.