This painting portrays Coney Island, 1889. Coney Island was and is Brooklyn’s seaside mecca. The beach offered relief from the city’s heat and congestion. From the way people dressed, it is hard to imagine any measurable bits of relief. Hats, shoes, high neck collars and long sleeves could not invite more than a stroll while sweating. I feel a bit of sadness for their restrictions. The clothing and social taboos restrict the joys of the sun, sand, and surf. Imagine the scolding the children had to endure for damp hems and gritty stockings.
My great-grandma, Nelly Truglio, loved being around the water. Aunt Tosca, her youngest child, remembers traveling on the BMT with her mother and older brother Alfred to Coney Island in the 1930s. By then, there was a boardwalk, ice cream, and hot dog stands, rides, and attractions. But the Truglio trio was there for the beach and ocean. They went just about every summer day, even if the weather was not beach perfect. The children played in the sand and swam in the surf while their mother stood guard cooling in the wash of the waves.
Great Grandma must have believed the beach as the best playground for her children and herself, a woman who actively sought out joy in her every day. Aunt Tosca said, “Mama packed towels, a blanket, lunch, and an umbrella. We left home right after breakfast and got a spot near the water so we could keep an eye on our stuff. Mama didn’t swim but enjoyed every minute being in the water and watching us play and swim. She wore a modest swimsuit and always carried an umbrella over her head because she did not want to get tan. After our morning swim, we ate lunch on the blanket. Mama made us lay down and rest so as not to get a cramp when swimming in the afternoon. Later in the day, we’d pack up and buy a frozen custard before riding the subway back home.” Aunt Tosca holds these images as her most cherished childhood memories.
During the forties and into the early fifties, my mother took the same BMT train to Coney Island with her girlfriends to spend the day sitting on sandy towels and cooling in the ocean. My dad was fortunate to have a summer home, The Country House, in Copiague on Long Island. He, his sisters, and cousins swam the canal and paddled or puttered a small boat into the low tide beaches of the Great South Bay to fish, clam, and play. Just like Great Grandma and her children, they all came home sunkissed and happy.
The beach and sunseeker legacy continued through my generation. My childhood home was in Sayville on the Great South Bay. Like my dad, I clammed, fished, and played on the bay. Instead of the subway taking me to the ocean shore, I rode my bicycle to Port O’Call to catch the ferry to Barrett Beach on Fire Island. Like my mom, I met friends and swam in the surf all day. I would eat the salami sandwich I brought for lunch and buy an ice cream cone before returning home on the ferry.
When my daughters were little, I’d pack them and the beach paraphernalia I could carry and ride the ferry to Barret during the weekdays. The fares were cheap, and I could not juggle the kids and operate our boat without my husband. Like Great Grandma, the days did not have to be beach perfect. Overcast and wild winds on the ocean were just as glorious. My girls had to rest for thirty minutes after eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before going back to the surf, just like Aunt Tosca, Uncle Al, my dad, and his posse and me and my crew of siblings and cousins did as kids. As a responsible adult, I realized this rule enabled the parents to sit down and relax before resuming the surf watch on the water’s edge.
Although 800 miles down the coast, my grandchildren have honed their beach-loving legacy and bloomed into proper beach-bums. My daughter and son-in-law carry on the belief the shore is the best playground for their children. Great Grandma would have been proud.
These days, the ocean and bay remain part of my backyard. Fire Island is a boat ride or a ferry excursion across the bay. The beach is my place to appreciate, slow down, and just be. I find relief from my pressing anxieties and believe, like my great-grandma, that this is the best playground for my family and myself.
This essay is dedicated to my Great Grandmother, Angelina “Nelly” Truglio. Her birthday is today, August 7th. I do not remember her well, but I do remember her broad smile, jolly laugh, and bright floral housedresses. Aunt Tosca honors her mama’s memory by retelling the happiness and love her mother created out of simple pleasures and grace.
Antoinette Truglio Martin is the author of Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer. The memoir is a wimpy patient’s journey through her first year of breast cancer treatment.