The first line of Kathy Curto’s book says it all:
“When I was growing up in southern New Jersey in the 1970s and 80s, there were days my mother floated through the halls of our brick ranch house leaving behind waves and wafts of curious and enticing aromas: Charlie, Wind Song and, if she’d been cooking all day, garlic.”
Curto is a Jersey Shore native, growing up in 1970s Toms River in a house off Brookside Drive. She attended Cedar Grove Elementary, Intermediate East, and Toms River High School East before moving out of state for college.
While she may reside in New York’s Hudson Valley these days, Curto’s childhood is a long-time tenant in her mind. Her book “Not for Nothing: Glimpses Into A Jersey Girlhood” demonstrates how her memories of her childhood on the Jersey Shore have become a source of value, inspiration, and communication for the writer.
“When I started the book, I didn’t even realize I was starting it,” Curto said in an interview with Jersey Shore Online.
The writing process began in 2005, when Curto was taking a creative writing workshop as a student.
“The prompt was to write your earliest memory,” she said. For Curto, her mind effortlessly travelled back in time to the 1970s, when her family operated a gas station business on the Jersey Shore. She noted the business is still running today at the hands of her siblings.
After that moment, “it clicked, the planets sort of aligned,” she said, and “Not for Nothing” became a possibility. She continued to dig up memories from her past to write about, although it would be many years before these pieces came together to form her book.
After Curto left the Jersey Shore, she attended undergrad at Sara Lawrence College in New York where she concentrated on sociology and creative writing. She continued her writing while doing graduate work at Hunter College, also in New York, where she worked on getting her Master’s in Social Work.
It wasn’t until years later, around 2010, that she really focused in on “Not for Nothing” while she was attending classes for her Masters of Fine Arts in writing.
Between 2010 and 2012, she “wrote heavily” for her book while finishing up her studies and being a mother to her four kids, who are now 18, 20, 22, and 24 years old.
“I was chipping away at it in various degrees,” said Curto. “Not for Nothing” was mostly complete by 2012, and received official acceptance for publication by December 2017.
Curto’s book is made up of numerous small chapters that describe “snapshots” of moments from her childhood. Beginning with chapter one, entitled “Now,” Curto takes us back in time to see what her girlhood was like in a place most of us can recognize ourselves.
From going down to Fred’s Texaco with her mother for a Coca Cola, making stops along the way to the A&P that used to be on Route 37, or Garden State Bank, to signing up for kindergarten classes in the basement of Ambassador Christian Academy Church School, Curto takes us on a journey of Ocean County in its former years.
One chapter, entitled “21st Street,” is a glimpse of when Curto moved to 21st Street in Ship Bottom while she was in the first grade. She attended Ethel Jacobsen Elementary and spent her free time going to the local arcade, playing mini golf, riding her bike down to the bait shop and crabbing on the Barnegat Bay.
“Not for Nothing” makes countless references to familiar Jersey Shore spots that we know and love, some no longer with us.
“There’s references to the Seaside boardwalk, Cedar Grove Elementary…references to places that are no longer there like Charney’s,” a stationary store in Toms River. Curto reminisced that her mother always loved to go to Charney’s for her office supplies.
Robert Hall stores and the Berkeley Sweet Shop also make appearances in her snapshot memories.
Out of all the places on the map that Curto mentions, she said that the book is chock full of references to the ocean and the beach; one of her favorite places to this day.
“They [the beach and bay] occupy a lot of space in the book,” she said. “My mother loved the beach.”
While she said she can’t pick a favorite, Curto was able to explain how the specific memories in the book came to her over others. The memories that were “lingering” and “sensory oriented” were the strongest ones that stood out, making the cut into the book’s final edit.
The feeling of sand from the beach, her mother’s tan skin, the smell of gasoline and grease from her family’s gas station: these are the memories that lingered for Curto, that made her girlhood on the shore a unique and tangible experience, she said.
A lot of the book also revolves around her relationship with her mother, sometimes wonderful, sometimes turbulent; a feeling most can relate to. Curto’s mother came to the shore from Brooklyn after meeting her father where he lived in Newark. Together, they moved to south Jersey and opened up a business and started a family.
“The book took a long time to write, but it’s very quick,” to read, said Curto.
Now, she lives in the Hudson Valley with her husband and four kids. She teaches writing and literature at the Writing Institute at Sara Lawrence, her alma mater, and at Montclair State University, while freelancing occasionally.
Curto takes every chance she can get to make it down the shore to see her family, brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews that still live in the Toms River area.
“I always go back home,” she said.
One of her favorite pastimes is heading over to the water. “I rarely go down to Toms River and don’t go over the [Mathis-Tunney] bridge,” she said.
“A lot of the book is couched in Italian American experience,” she added. This is something that she hopes her readers can either relate to, or learn from. Curto hopes that for those that can’t relate, her family experiences might provoke thoughts about the reader’s own family history to foster a “rich reading experience.”
Curto hopes the reader’s final takeaway is this: “an appreciation for the fact that we all have the capacity to remember.” Her mantra revolves around the idea that in memory, there is value.
“I’m still learning from it,” she added.
While she is not currently working on another book at the moment, Curto is delving into the world of music, putting together a playlist of New Jersey artists that “move her,” she said. Music has helped influence the way she remembers, so she hopes this will be the next step for her writing.
Readers can find more information about Curto, her other published works, and her in-the-works playlist on her website at kathycurto.com.