Imagine yourself inside Washington’s National Cathedral, or Notre Dame in Paris, with all the gorgeous stained glass and stone arms reaching up to heaven, and the aisles of stone worn smooth by centuries of worshipers and tourists. Most people would say, “How gorgeous, I’ve never seen anything like this place.” But my family would say, “This reminds me of the pea green church.”
The Pea Green Church has become an icon for us, representing home and normal and history and tradition, even though it stopped being painted pea green a long time ago. It was my father’s church growing up in a small town in eastern North Carolina, not particularly large and plain inside, as Presbyterian churches often are. No deep blues or reds of stained glass there! My strongest memory of it was almost 20 years ago when I was there for my grandmother’s funeral, in a church decorated for Christmas and filled with loving people.
Wherever we go we use that town, all of it, as a benchmark, a touchstone to real life. Sitting on a balcony on a little hotel along Lake Lucerne, drinking wine and eating cheese while looking out on the Swiss Alps at sunset, reminds us of sitting on the front porch of my grandmother’s house – even when clearly my grandmother’s house was just a liiitttle bit different. Same with shopping and dining and buildings.
My father moved away from his hometown over 50 years ago and we didn’t live close enough to visit often, though I was able to spend a bit more time with my grandmother in the years before she died. But by invoking “the pea green church,” I bring my history, my family into the present of wherever I am. It’s a way of honoring them and bringing some human scale to the unknown. It’s also shorthand that means something to us but not to those listening to our conversaton, strengthening the bonds.
In the same way, I also have Manasquan, the archetypal summer vacation place on the Jersey shore. This was my mom’s family’s special place, where she grew up spending every summer from the time she was a little girl. I spent every summer of my life there until I was 16, and even now, 35 years after moving away from New Jersey, we all think that summer holidays such as Memorial Day, July Fourth, and Labor Day should be spent at Manasquan. It’s Tradition, and tradition should be honored – with cookouts and fireworks, and the surf and sand that are part of the shore.
It’s almost July 4th weekend and we should be at the beach, but not any beach — Manasquan beach, captured in memory in the summer of 1969. This week I downloaded some music to the iPod in a new playlist called Manasquan Tunes that evoke that happy time. Let’s hit the beach!