STONE HARBOR, N.J. — Forget the cigars. And don’t stand around waiting for somebody to curse in Italian. These bocce courts are in Stone Harbor, and therefore are far from makeshift. They cost $21,000 each and feature artificial turf. And a paid referee.
But found on those courts are the wonderfully welcoming women who have presided over the Stone Harbor beach homes where perhaps you or your children may have crashed over the years — some for more than 50 seasons! Don’t you think they deserve to blow off a little bocce steam in style? How many weekends, how many guests, how many dinners, loads of sheets, beach tags, how much sand hosed off to avoid being tracked in the house?
These women have been making the art of Shore house matriarchy look easy since the 1960s.
It is in bocce where they struggle a bit.
Well not everybody struggles. There are ringers, like Marge Mirabella, who elegantly threads a bocce needle honed in Cape Coral, Fla., during the winter. (Alas, on this particular Wednesday, her team, the Shore Rollers, suffered its first loss of the season, an 11-7 nail-biter to the Yellow Jackets, possibly derailed by a few balls overthrown by Sandi Slabik, a longtime field hockey coach whose athleticism got the better of her, at least on this day. But don’t count the Rollers out.)
But bocce is a welcoming pastime. As Peg Sutton, captain of the Yellow Jackets, one of eight teams in the League, put it: “I don’t have to catch this ball. I don’t have to dribble it. I probably can do this.”
The women play every Wednesday during the summer, and referee Tim Gear, a Stone Harbor recreation department employee who keeps a tight yet affable leash on disputes, keeps the standings.
He’s quick with the tape measure to decide whose ball is closer (the key measure in bocce, where players attempt to get their balls as close as possible to the smaller white ball, known as the pallino). Players score a point for the closest ball and any of their team’s balls that beat the other team’s closest ball. Play is until 11 points.
When the women played on older courts, without a referee, these disputes took longer to resolve, he noted.
“They couldn’t get off the court,” he said. “They would never get out of there.”
There was a bit of an uprising this summer when the recreation department said it could no longer spare Gear for the bocce league, which is free.
“We almost had a protest because they weren’t going to give him to us this year,” said Sutton. “And ladies protested.”
She laughed. Stone Harbor relented.
“He’s our ref,” she said. “We need him.”
“The women of Stone Harbor run this town,” says Gear, stating the obvious.
In both bocce and Shore homes, there are rules. In bocce, there is Gear. At the Shore homes, there are the matriarchs.
Judy Holman has been hosting Stone Harbor summers for 52 years. She and her husband recently put the house up for sale, completing a cycle that began when she was 29. They will live in Jupiter, Fla., full time now.
After decades of countless guests, friends, and family, “no one’s coming anymore,” Holman said, as she waited her turn as Player 4 on the Bells of Bocce. “No one has that desire. Friends are dissipating or moving. Some are becoming caregivers.”
Her key to a successful half-century of Shore home hosting involved sand management, and rules.
“We had rules for the kids,” she said. “They had to wash outside. The hose first, and the outside shower. Some of them had their little noses up about using the outside shower.”
Still, every summer, they do it again. They are their family’s point guards, quarterbacks, strikers. They’re not pushovers. In bocce, they’ll take out your ball if they must. With every summer of Shore house hosting, they hone the rules, learn from experience, know their limits. They welcome boyfriends and new step-grandchildren; some outlive husbands.
“My family comes a lot,” says Sutton. “But I’m not inundated. Some women are. Some women are constantly doing sheets and towels.”
They set personal records. How many friends can one grandson bring every weekend? (Twelve.) Some, like Holman, are veterans of 40- and 50-plus Shore summers, which, you know, add up to around 500 summer weekends, most with guest rooms brimming.
“Thursday they start coming,” says Roe Hufner, 70, who grew up in Pennsauken. “They say they’re leaving on Sunday. It may be Monday. It may be Tuesday.”
Hufner long ago learned the heartbreak of trying too hard with guests. “If there’s too many, I just do my thing and go. I stopped cooking. I learned that the hard way. I cooked for them and they’re not there.”
Still, like the best Shore house owners, she keeps the refrigerator always full. “It’s an open invitation,” she says.
Connie Dillon of Avalon says having a place grandchildren file under “special” makes Shore house matriarchy worth every extra trip to the supermarket.
“I’m the only grandmother left in two families,” she said. “The grandchildren have been coming from birth almost."
The reward? "Oh, just that they can’t wait to come. And when they come and as they get older, just their memories: This was where the family gathered.”
Her daughters help out. “They cook,” Dillon says. “Otherwise it wouldn’t work. It would not work.”
One woman keeps a sign in her house that says “Stone Harbor dot calm.” If things get too boisterous around her own house, says Diane Hough, she heads for her sister’s nearby.
Nancy Bucher notes the “revolving door of teenagers.” She’s got five people at her Shore home during this bocce time, but most are still asleep.
“I guess the hardest thing is that my grandson, who’s 16, he has 12 close friends,” she says with a good-natured smile, adding: “They’re all best friends. I’m the chief cook and bottle washer. One kid even calls me the chef. Which I’m not sure I like."
Still, she emphasizes: “It’s really fun. It’s wonderful. That’s what the whole point of it is.”
Stone Harbor bocce is for sure a happy hour of socializing for these women.
Yet it is true that while all of them cite “camaraderie” and “these ladies” as the thing they like most about Stone Harbor’s Women’s Bocce League, the joy of year-rounders reuniting with the snowbirds from Florida, the low-key yet persistent competitive streak hovers like a too-interested seagull.
The other day, ReRe Boylan was rooting for Roe Hufner’s ball to go too far.
“Stop, stop,” Roe calls after her ball, flung a little too hard. From behind her, ReRe gives the ball another mission: “Keep going.”
Roe turns to look at her.
“I just want to encourage your balls to go the distance,” said ReRe, resplendent in her aqua-blue sun hat fit for the Kentucky Derby. (Her team is the Aqua Blues, playing Roe’s Shades of Pink. The ladies do like to color-coordinate their outfits for their teams.)
Roe acknowledges that her true strengths may lie elsewhere than the bocce court.
“Probably matriarch,” she says. “My children are down every weekend, two of the three. And their friends. It’s what having a house at the Shore is all about. That’s why we live here.”
And during the winter, Hufner hones another essential skill for an off-season Stone Harbor matriarch. “The ladies, we get together a lot," she said. "We try to figure out where the best places are to go early for dinner or happy hour.”