Going To Coney Island In My Mind: Reflections of a Roman Catholic Woman Priest
“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely seas and the sky…to the gull’s way and the whale’s way….” The English poet John Masefield wrote that poem (Sea Fever) when he was a young man longing for the call of the sea. He longed to sail in a grand ship on the sea. I longed simply to be at the seaside or to feel myself floating in the sea. That call has been with me since childhood. My mother, who had many struggles before and after my father left us when I was two, loved the sea. Although we lived in our little two story row house family home with my Grandma and Uncles in Central Brooklyn, she would take me by busses and trains to the sea at Rockaway Beach, or Riis Park, or Coney Island as often as she could**. I could often bring a best friend with me. We loved Coney Island best and I think she only chose the other two beaches when she did not have money for the Steeplechase Amusement Park in Coney Island, a strong secondary draw for us. Mother was always peaceful and happy when we were at Coney. Life was simple and so good in Coney Island.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a prominent “beat” poet, Poet Laureate and social activist of the 1950’s, wrote Coney Island of the Mind. The actual Coney Island is three miles of beach front bounded by a Boardwalk, and a host of other attractions set in a mostly poor and working class neighborhood. But to those of us who love it, it is also a state of mind. Ferlinghetti quotes Steeplechase founder George C. Tilyou: ” If Paris is France, then Coney Island, from June through September, is the world”. It is where “you and me could really exist”. It is where Ferlinghetti waits “for the rebirth of wonder.” It is where wonder took root in me. As I write this I can hear James Taylor singing his song “ “In My Mind I’m Goin’ to Carolina…” “Can’t you see the sunshine, Can’t you just feel the moonshine?” “I better get back home again real soon… Yes, I’m goin’ to Carolina in my mind”. My Carolina is Coney Island.
Coney Island is home to me, as much as home can be now. When I was a child it was the smell and the feel of the sea and the sun, and the wood of the Boardwalk, the sand between my toes and in my pail, the smell of cotton candy and Nathan’s hot dogs and the music of the Carousel we always rode together that drew me. It was precious time with my working mother, traveling with her on the train and bus and watching her do handstands in the water, and teaching me how to float and swim. It was riding the electric horses in Steeplechase with her and a little friend, and really thinking we could win the race. It was tumbling down the huge, shiny, wooden slide and landing on the spinning plates below that thrilled me. It was visiting Aunt Edie at her summer bungalow there with the whole extended family surrounding and Uncle Jackie singing Pennies From Heaven. Playing with Cousin Billy on the beach as all the grownups sang and ate under the boardwalk. It was the whole summer Mama and I spent there when I was a little older, maybe 6, swimming every day, chasing butterflies in a backyard field and eating spaghetti on the Boardwalk at night. Wearing the pretty turquoise blue bathing suit my mother bought me and talking on a neighbor’s phone to my Grandma so I didn’t miss her so much. Mama and I hand in hand as we walked into the welcoming sea.
In a few years, in my early teens, we could also visit Cousin Jackie and her Mother Aunt Charlotte in Coney Island. Charlotte grew up on St. Marks Avenue with my Mom and my Uncle Jack . Jack and Charlotte lived in Coney Island together in young Jackie’s early years. Later he moved back to St. Mark’s Avenue but we could visit Jackie, my closest Cousin who was more like a little sister to me, and Charlotte who was one of my mother’s few loyal friends. Charlotte and Jackie lived inside of Seagate at one point and that was next to our favorite spot on the beach on West 36th Street. The rocks and later a fence separated Seagate from the public beach. Our spot was always near those rocks and as a child I would enjoy climbing on them.
When I was divorced, my own difficult decision as I claimed who I was, after 13 years of marriage I was “at sea” in a new way. I was thirty-three, a new University Professor and in my first love relationship with a woman. For the first 4th of July after the divorce I got on the train from Manhattan and visited my cousin Jackie and my mother who also lived in Seagate near them. We all sat on those familiar rocks and I dipped into the sea as I reoriented my life. The sea was a place that put life into perspective.
As Anne Morrow Lindbergh says in Gift From the Sea “…the slow flapping of herons across sand dunes, drown out the hectic rhythms of city and suburb, time tables and schedules. One falls under their spell, relaxes, stretches out prone. One becomes, in fact…flattened by the sea; bare, open, empty as the beach, erased by today’s tides of all yesterday’s scribblings. And then, the mind wakes, comes to life again…It begins to drift, to play, to turn over in gentle careless rolls like those lazy waves on the beach…”(p.10). And at the beach in Coney Island I began to put my life together again with new figurations that defined me as I was and would become.
My mother was beautiful, inside and out, and she was also very smart. I always felt it was special to be in her presence though I knew I would never be beautiful or as smart as she was. One of eight children, my mother was the only one that went on to High School and that on a College level, after excelling in Rapid Advancement Classes and entering High School a year early. She was a true pioneer who bravely left Brooklyn to attend Eastern Nazarene College Academy in Wollaston, Massachusetts. I think my Grandmother’s church gave a scholarship for this. She excelled and was about to graduate when she was sent home on a disciplinary action for sneaking out of the dorm to meet her boyfriend, another student who was not so disciplined. Seen as a “sinner” for doing this, and it was nothing more, she was denied graduation although she had completed all of her work. This terrible injustice was quite a blow for her. She eventually took hold and did Secretarial Studies, getting high level office jobs. But, she was an artist, a writer, an actress understudying at the Cherry Lane Theater in the Village, and a thinker who loved reading and the Library where we spent many happy hours. She never liked her regular work where the bosses would make passes at her and the job would be lost.
She, Anne Marie Weinmann of Brooklyn, New York was married to Albert Carl Beach, of Morristown, New Jersey, at 22 after an elopement. My Dad was also 22, and they lived happily in Greenwich Village, New York. I was born when she was 30 and my father left for World War II. We moved back to St. Mark’s Avenue in Brooklyn. He visited us during my first year and wrote loving letters, but when he was discharged from the Navy in 1945 he never returned to us. ( I was finally to meet him in my 55th year after a successful computer search. I could see her attraction to him, and I could see myself in his face. But this is another story). This was another blow to my mother that she could hardly recover from. But our times at the beach were a time of happiness and recovery for her, and pure joy for me.
The above picture was my Mother just before her marriage. She worked as a greeter at the Albee Theater in Brooklyn where she met my father, a head Usher. She was chosen “Anne of the Albee” at that time. She had modelling jobs and also Office jobs.
They called Coney Island the People’s Playland and the Poor Man’s Paradise or Riviera…but when we were there we were never poor-we were rich in what God had created and what imaginative human beings like George C. Tilyou had thought up and brought into being. We could make believe, we could play, and we could be free in the sea.
My Mother and I in front of her home on West 36th Street in Coney Island in the early 1980’s
In the last twelve years of her life, my mother lived in a new Senior Residence on west 36th Street in our Coney Island. She lived in an apartment on the eleventh floor facing the sea-her “million dollar view”. It was amazing walking the Boardwalk with her and realizing that she did this every day in her early seventies despite what heavy smoking was doing to her heart and lungs. She loved it there. She spoke of the good air, and the rolling sea. She painted many beautiful pictures of her view and of the beach. Her other favorite subject was colorful flowers. She left us peacefully in her home at the sea in 1987, the smoking had finally weakened her heart and she was about ten days from her seventy-fourth birthday. I still miss her every day. My walls in Fort Myers are filled with her paintings of flowers and of Coney Island, Her refuge, and our refuge. And my refuge.
IN the picture below taken this August I am with my dear friends Laura (left) and Danielle in front of the Adult Living Home where Laura lived on West 36th Street exactly across from my mother’s building. We are celebrating Laura’s 85th Birthday. Laura remembers when we all viewed this same Adult Home from my Mother’s window and wondered who lived there?
After Laura’s celebration which was brief as she did not feel well, we walked two short blocks to visit my favorite spot on the Coney Island Boardwalk and look at the rocks, Seagate, and the rolling sea. My life had come full circle there. I was with my love and full of quiet joy as we beheld my beloved beach. There were some changes. The Boardwalk was now made of a plastic composite and not wood at all. It lacked the warm sweet smell of sun drenched wood. The sand was filled in right up to the Boardwalk so no one could have parties or respite under the boardwalk any more. And grass grew here and there and a few flowers poked their yellow heads up. My mother would have loved the flowers.
I could feel her here with us. And I could see her living- whole and beautiful again with our loving God and all of our family. We were so blessed to be there and to have her close to us. It was so good to be home again.
May you hear the sea winds blowing gently, may you take your shoes off and walk in the sea if you like, and may you feel close to those you loved who have gone before. They are as near as your breath, and fill your heart with joy if you let them. They want no tears, though tears may fall, They want you to live your life fully, to love the Author of Life, our loving God, and to love one another. In doing so you will feel their love supporting you as always.
May God bless and keep you,
Rev. Dr.Judith A.B.Lee, RCWP
Pastor, Good Shepherd Ministries and the Good Shepherd Inclusive Catholic Community
Fort Myers, Florida
September 10, 2022
** If this sparks interest there is a book I have written about our life in Brooklyn entitled The House On Sunny Street: My Two Brooklyns that is available for ebooks on Kindle on Amazon.com Sadly the hard copy is out of print at this time. And now you may also know that the A. B. in the middle of my name is for my mother Anne Beach and it was also the rest of my maiden name after Judith.