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On the north shore of Lake Erie lies a little beach town named Crystal Beach. To most, who know Crystal Beach, the first thing they think of is the amusement park. They picture the Comet, creaking along the old wooden track. They hear the cries of excitement from Laff in the Dark and shouts of “step right up ladies and gentlemen…” Many, though, will just vaguely recall the ineffable exuberance that emanated from every aspect of the little town—the feeling particular only to youthful summers of years far away and long ago. The park closed its doors and auctioned off its parts in 1989. Its time was ended. An era was over, and it left the town that depended on it so dearly to start again.
But there is a street, off the main road in Crystal Beach, named Mathewson which crosses paths with Dovercourt road. This unassuming intersection has been watched over for 83 years by a modest little cottage. Its inhabitants have seen the streets filled with beach goers, amusement park patrons and those same people scurrying home when the rains set in. They have seen the Funeral for Summer parade too many times to count, and have remained in that little cottage when most others were sold and forgotten. Yet we could never leave. Somehow, at no particular moment in time, Crystal Beach had become not just a destination, but a home—one that is idealized and perfect because of the familial memories that it conjures up. A childhood home is ageless. The magic that made life so carefree then, allows a place like Crystal Beach to remain immortalized in ones mind, just as it was those many years ago. And even if it is only for a week in a rented cottage, that inexplicable feeling can permeate a casual tourist so deeply that they too find themselves coming back each year.
My mother and her family practically grew up in that very spot on Dovercourt, spending every summer lazily “beaching-it,” eating only food that is proven to clog arteries, and being regulars at the Park. But now, I am the only one that doesn’t remember the Park. I know a different Crystal Beach. I know that the Palmwood has the best fish-fry, but the best french fries are at Simmy’s, on the beach. I know that it takes two people to cut our extremely bumpy lawn with our extremely temperamental mower. I know that on the fourth of July there is a fireworks display on the beach that will rival any more glamorous ones. I know that the cottage is the last place anyone wants to be during a particularly energetic thunderstorm, as the whole place visibly shakes. I know that on really hot summer days, the cottage becomes more of an oven than a house. But it is the little annoyances and signs of agedness like these that become subtle comforts which none of us could imagine going without. And even if it were to change, in our minds eye, we would look around and still see the home that shaped us in the summer of our childhoods. That is the magic of this place. Each one of us is transformed—made innocent again, because for a split second the world is as it was— in unadulterated simplicity. We all become the kids waiting, like my brother and I were, for our parents to hurry up so that we could run across that old shaded path and come out on to the beach and into the sun.
Truthfully, I cannot remember that picture being taken, but I remember plenty of days just like it. I remember my mom lathering me up with sunscreen to keep safe my little freckled face. I remember piling into our car with floats and towels and umbrellas and soon-to-be sandy sandwiches. I remember my brother holding me underwater and winning water fights, then taking me to get our favorite oily french fries. This is the Crystal Beach that an outside observer might say is passed its’ prime—but a shell of its’ former glory. They might say that the magic that had made Crystal Beach the summertime home to so many has faded away— a brilliant color lost to time and wear. But they are not really looking. They don’t see that the beach is still sandy, the fish-frys still crispy, and the memories made still joyous. The years have taken much from the life of Crystal Beach, but its heart is still intact. Perhaps some of its paint is peeling. Perhaps, some people have come and gone, and the night sky is not still defined by glowing lights on the midway. But as Shakespeare once penned, “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,” and when my mother looks out over the beach at the world that she and I have grown up in, I believe that what she sees is not faded or aged. What I will always see is a perennial childhood haven that is as unchangeable as the lake it overlooks – one that we will never cease to return to.