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Essay: Jersey girl

Illustration by Becky Heavner

I’m from New Jersey — there, I said it.

To clarify, I’m not a part of the mob, my hair doesn’t look like Snooki’s — at least not intentionally — and I don’t call it New Joisey (and neither does anyone else who lives there, by the way).

Although I’ve lived in Colorado for years, old habits from my place of birth have stuck with me. I’m an awful, aggressive driver; I only eat pizza from places with huge, sloppy slices big enough to fold; and I have remnants of a New Jersey accent. When I was a teenager, my Colorado-native religion teacher told me I needed to learn to talk without the long-sounding vowels.

“I can’t understand you half the time,” he’d say. “Your accent is making your words sound wrong.” So I was forced into speech therapy lessons after school.

Though Colorado made me change the way I speak, I am virtually a walking, talking advertisement for the state: Colorado has more than 300 days of sunshine a year! We are the fittest state in the country! Everyone is so friendly! You should see these mountains!

Still, those superlatives do not apply — or generally appeal — to me whatsoever: I love cloudy and cool weather! I eat too much pizza! I’m a categorized misanthrope! Willingly propelling my body down a mountain on skis sounds like a terrible idea!

Instead, I love Colorado because it’s home to my sister, her three beautiful children and my mother’s parents, who moved to Denver a decade ago from New York after the rest of their family scattered across the country. Recently, my 93-year-old grandfather, a former New York City taxi driver, groused about Coloradans’ heightened sense of sociability, camaraderie and general kindness.

In New York, he explained, people don’t care how you are doing and certainly aren’t nosy enough to ask about your day.

His reasons for preferring his home state struck a chord with me. Sometimes the place you come from — stereotypes and all — is still home no matter how much time you may have spent away from it.

On a recent visit to New Jersey to see the family I’ve neglected for the past couple of years, I felt something I hadn’t felt in a while: I felt at ease. I wasn’t worrying about my life and where it was going (remnants of a quarter-life crisis); instead I felt relaxed and nostalgic. While driving past my childhood home I remembered playing catch with my dad in the backyard beneath a canopy of oak trees. The sound of the cuckoo clock in my aunt and uncle’s home reminded me of the firefly-lit summers I spent there after my family moved to Colorado. And keepsakes saved after my father’s mother passed made me think about my first experiences with loss and grief.

But the most meaningful part of my visit was Sunday morning Mass at St. Mary’s Parish, a small Catholic church in Pompton Lakes, N.J. St. Mary’s was the first place I attended school; it was the place of my baptism and my first communion; it was where I mourned the deaths of my father’s mother and aunt, watched cousins marry and — most importantly — the place where I found God and built the most stable and sincere relationship I’ve had in my life.

I thought about one gloomy weekday afternoon years ago, when my mom and I ran into the church and sat for an hour in the dark wood pews to escape a rainstorm that started while we were strolling through town.

As I returned to St. Mary’s for Mass, I felt that same sense of shelter. Seeing my parents with heads bowed and my uncle with a rosary in hand, mouthing the words of prayers I’ve quietly been saying for years, I finally felt at peace — and at home.

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