Last November, when my mother got a call from Sovereign Bank in Ortley Beach, we were still reeling from the fact that superstorm Sandy had flooded our family’s summer house in Ocean Beach, Unit I. Just about everything inside was destroyed.
A crew of relatives tossed out furniture, rugs and appliances while my 91-year-old mother, the family matriarch, donned rubber boots and supervised. Right after her house was gutted, the bank notified my mother that everyone had to empty out their safe deposit boxes. The bank was closed indefinitely as Ortley Beach was ground zero of Sandy. I had no idea what the box contained.
The area was still under martial law when my niece Kelly drove my mother to their appointment. They met with a specialist the bank trained to assist customers with salvage and restoration.
“The box was rusty,” recalled my mother, already upset about the house. “It smelled when we opened it. Water was still inside, and all the papers were soaked.”
My mother and my niece took the documents out, between 40 and 50, they estimated. After removing them, the assistant helped stack the papers into folders. Then everything was placed into a plastic bag. My mother followed the instructions to put the bag in the freezer — for several months.
Among the documents were deeds to two houses, insurance forms, our birth and baptismal certificates, my parents’ Social Security cards, my father’s retirement papers, several savings bonds and memorabilia my sentimental father had saved.
I was shocked to learn my identity documents were at the Shore bank because Mom only lives there part time. I have a copy of my birth certificate in my loft in Manhattan. I cracked to friends that without my baptismal certificate I’d never be able to get married with a nuptial Mass in the Catholic Church. That was a joke because I’m gay. Still, the fate of this important Christian document concerned me.
I always went by Kate, but I was baptized Kathleen Frances. My Irish mother liked Kathleen, and my father’s first name was Francis. My formal identity papers were waterlogged. Could they ever be reclaimed intact?
This past spring, my mother and my sister took the bag out of the fridge, peeled the documents apart and spread everything out on the dining room table. Amazingly, all the important records were recovered intact — and they made an ancestral discovery.
They found my great-grandfather’s will, in which he left the house in Paterson (where I grew up) and other real estate to his wife and daughter, my paternal grandmother. My deceased father obviously put this will in the safe deposit box.
My mother had no idea it was there.
My great-grandfather, an immigrant from Alsace, was a successful businessman in New Jersey, who owned several properties, including a building with a saloon where the stagecoach stopped. Right before I was born, my father bought the Shore house with money he got from selling some property he inherited after his mother died. Due to Sandy, we found my great-grandfather’s will, the lost link to our owning property at the Jersey Shore.
My dad was a high school English teacher who probably could not have afforded a second home on his salary. As the property increased in value over the decades, we knew it was a smart investment to own land a five-minute walk from a gorgeous private beach.
Four generations of my family have enjoyed this bungalow for more than 60 years and we’ll be back, even though FEMA is driving owners crazy with new regulations. My mother had flood insurance, but what she received will not cover repairs and elevating the house. She applied for grant money to elevate. Like others waiting to hear from FEMA, she’s in limbo.
In the meanwhile, essential work is under way and new furniture is coming. The house will certainly not be in pre-storm condition, but it will reopen.
Once again, it will be summer at the Shore, and we will savor it more this year.