The House on Stilts

The recent, suspicious Seaside Boardwalk fire reminded me that I had scribbled down some imagery about a beach vacation. I recently pulled those sentences out and started to remember more about the week my family spent at the shore, decades ago. But my strongest memory is a single image of a safe, shady place. I know that houses near rising waters are built on stilts to raise them above flood waters, but I didn’t know that when I was six. I did know that it was blindingly hot near the beach, and that underside of our rental beach house was an oasis of shade. My parents, sister, and cousins were vacationing at Beach Haven, on the Jersey shore.

As a freelancer, I don’t have the safety and security of a day-in-day-out routine, unless I manufacture one myself. So images of childhood can be particularly compelling if I let them be. Now, years later, I don’t remember the rest of the beach vacation all that well, but the image of a safe, shady place has stuck with me. I’m not even sure what the family did on that trip, aside from some dim memories of walking towards the ocean over the burning hot sands, the days so hot and still that even the gulls were silent. I remember the inside of the house. But not what we did every day. Did we have a beach routine? Did we take a side trip into town? Did the kids build a sand castle? Did we even go into the ocean?

Beach Haven, located on one of New Jersey’s barrier islands, sustained a lot of damage from Hurricane Sandy last summer, and for all I know this rental house is no longer standing. Maybe in the aftermath it’s been rebuilt better than it ever was. But it was pretty well put together even then. Its large windows were cleverly placed, angled on the sides of the house that would not face the sun’s path over the sands. The interior managed to stay in shade during most of the day. The house’s shiny hardwood floors would reflect the setting sun’s indirect orange light at the end of the day; and, the following morning, the yellower, brighter light of sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean.

This summer, Sandy’s effects still show in demolished boardwalks and buildings up and down the coastline of the Garden State. Damage from the hurricane also lurked quietly for a year, only to emerge and contribute to that fire that burned down a chunk of the boardwalk, an hour north of the house on stilts. It may be an awfully long time before the shore is viewed by anyone as a safe place of refuge from the harsh sun. I now know that Beach Haven had all manner of amusements when we were there, but I don’t remember much about the trip. My parents probably took my sister and I and our older cousins on the boardwalk, maybe even to the amusement park. But I don’t remember any of that.

As I type this with deadlines looming, I can still see the midday sun, the beach utterly silent. I can still remember that the underside of our house was my favorite place. The sand was cool, unlike the surrounding beach. I could see other houses, themselves on stilts. The other houses were perched atop islands of shade among the burning hot sands. I was safe and happy where I was.


Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here. He rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints when he damn well feels like it. He’s also a musician who plays in a Celtic fusion band, as well as a folk band, currently on tour in Connecticut.
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