Shore house razed, but memories live on

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Since 1921, generations of a family spent summers at their house at 220 44th St. in Sea Isle City, two blocks from the ocean. There were Sunday-night fish feasts and lazy days on the porch, watching beachgoers pass. Visits gradually became less frequent, and after Sandy wiped out the first floor, the house had to be demolished.

In 1921, my great-grandfather and his brother-in-law bought a three-story house in Sea Isle City, two blocks from the ocean.

It was one of three homes on 44th Street in a sleepy fisherman's village, with a growing number of Italian-American families looking for a summer oasis. The year-round population couldn't have been more than 700. The terrain, my great-uncle tells me, looked almost savannahlike, with weeds filling in between the few properties and a clear view of the bay.

In time, plastic fences and cookie-cutter condos went up, the population tripled, the view disappeared, but the house remained; a nexus of love and a trove of family trinkets and memories through five generations.

A year ago, Sandy wiped out the first floor of the house, where my 87-year-old Uncle Rudy lived. He had grown up spending every summer at the house, and moved in permanently when he retired at 62. "It was always my plan," he told me from a retirement home in Cape May. "There are a lot of good memories in that house."

Friends ask why we didn't save it. But, truth be told, along with the warped siding and the mold came the realization that summer trips to the house had grown less frequent and the understanding that my uncle should no longer be living by himself.

So we sold, and last month a bulldozer took the home down, leaving behind a vacant lot of copper-colored soil. The house had been in the family for 92 years.

When I was younger, my parents took my brother and me down to Uncle Rudy's (also known as "The Big House") a few times a summer. I'd spend the day at the beach and late afternoons on the huge porch eating butterscotch Tastykake Krimpets with my cousin, who will be married at a church in Sea Isle next week.

My memories, though rich, are nowhere near as numerous as the generations before me, who spent every day of every summer of their young lives in the house.

The four-bedroom top floor slept at least a dozen people in the first generation. That only grew when my father and his brothers were born, yet it never felt crowded, family members tell me - except for mornings, waiting for the one bathroom.

"Growing up surrounded by the love of cousins, siblings, aunts and uncles, parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents . . . somehow that seeped into the foundation of that house all the way out through to the crazy shag rug-patterned linoleum floor and family-room carpet," my cousin Paula Della Penna said. "It's what makes the house feel like a family member itself."

As cozy as the house was, the porch was the centerpiece. There was something musical about the slap/knock sound the screen door made when it sprang open and shut. It was the best viewpoint for fireworks and unrivaled for people-watching.

"The porch had almost a subliminal nature to it," Uncle Joe Terruso said. "The passersby never seemed to look up at us, but we were almost assuredly checking them out. The whole world that was Sea Isle City could be taken in from this vantage point."

Everyone had their favorite spot. My dad, Gene Terruso, recalled his, along with the precise time of day it was best enjoyed, hours after he watched the house demolished.

"On the bay side of the house, there was a sofa beneath a window, and when the sun would come up over the bay late in the afternoon, it would fall through that window and create a spot on that couch that was the warmest, most comfortable, most peaceful place I have ever known."

In the earlier days, there were Sunday night feasts of fish the men had caught; skate, crabs, squid, bluefish cakes, fried flounder, plus fresh vegetables from the garden beside the home, and the juiciest peaches you'd ever tasted.

That house was where most of my family watched the moon landing in 1969, as well as tuned in (first via radio, then TV) to most Phillies games played between 1940 and the 2000s.

I treasure the stories associated with that place, which have been retold so many times I can hear the cadence of my uncles' voices overlapping as they told them.

The fig tree planted beside the home was smuggled out of Italy by my great-grandfather after a visit in 1957. He strapped the trunk to his leg, so the story goes. Uncle Rudy used the tree to grow four more just like it, at least one of which remains in the family.

A distant cousin from Italy, who came to visit sometime in the mid-1970s, died while he was visiting the Shore house. The complications of shipping his body back still elicit guilty laughter.

"I used to lay awake well after my bedtime, on my cot under the back window, eavesdropping on the grown-up talk on the back porch," my cousin Gia Maccari said. "They laughed so much!"

Perhaps fittingly, even in its end, the house brought the family together. Cousins I hadn't spoken with in years responded to requests for information about the house with poetic reflections and suggestions we get together.

In October, we'll have a long-overdue reunion at a restaurant in Sea Isle and raise a glass to 220 44th, where the foundation for a new home is already in the ground and where the foundation for an American family was laid.

 


E-mail Julia Terruso at jterruso@phillynews.com.