When Vacation Means Coming Back for More08/05/2019
We took our children on vacation, oh yes, of course we did. We took them to the beach. We never got it together to own a second home; no country weekend cottage, no beach house. We never even got it together to achieve a recurring rental, or to return to a particularly beloved motel or holiday cabin — I’m not sure we ever stayed in the same place twice. We took what we could get, generally at the last minute.
But we took our children to Cape Cod. We rented a series of tiny cabins, with thin walls so we could hear the children squabbling in their minute square bedroom, and with kitchens we generally didn’t use, since what’s the point of going on vacation if you’re just going to stay home and cook? But we did manage to return multiple times to the late lamented Mildred’s Chowder House; the restaurant closed in the 1980s, but everyone in my family has vivid memories of Mildred’s signature dish.
Actually, we always made resolutions about provisioning so at least we could give the kids a nutritious breakfast in the morning (vital to eat breakfast, just ask me, I’m a pediatrician), but often we didn’t get it together to have breakfast fixings on hand — that’s why you might want to ask me about the Hole in One doughnut shop in Eastham (and while you’re at it, you could ask me about the fresh cream doughnuts we used to get in Rhode Island at Allie’s Donuts when we drove to Horseneck Beach; everybody remembers those as well, even though we haven’t been there for a couple of decades).
And we took them south to Chincoteague, even though none of us was particularly interested in horses or storybook ponies. So sure, there are family traditions that link us from summer to summer and beach to beach. I can see from my own 2001 article about Chincoteague that oysters were $6.95 a dozen back then, and I can think about all the platters of Wellfleet oysters we’ve been consuming this summer at around $2 an oyster (that article also reminds me to give full credit to the battered early paperback edition of “Roadfood” by Jane and Michael Stern which guided us to most of these restaurants, and in fact got us to Chincoteague in the first place, chasing Crab Norfolk, and, of course, those oysters).
There were holiday cabins at Chincoteague as well, and convenient motel “efficiency” suites, overlooking the salt marsh, which is a place of great beauty. And we bent our principles and cooked every now and then, because there was a truck selling fresh, never-frozen shrimp, up from the Carolinas.
But I can proudly say that we never once ever grilled anything, even in cottages that provided the facilities. No, we just couldn’t get it together. It is no coincidence that my own annual birthday dinner comes from a Laurie Colwin essay called “How to Avoid Grilling.”
North or south, the children squabbled. There was a legendary competition one summer on Cape Cod (was it maybe an Olympic summer?) with a running joke that was not quite a joke about who was getting gold and who was getting silver and who was getting pushed off the podium (I mean, we’re talking about competitions that involved singing TV advertising jingles over and over again — “We’re having Chef Boyardee!”). Somebody once wept, into one of those famous Wellfleet ponds, over only getting silver. And as a matter of fact, we weren’t having Chef Boyardee — we never even turned on our stove.
We were constantly resolving to get to the beach early and avoid the most intense hours of sun, as I would advise you all to do. We were constantly failing (I mean, what if there was a line at the doughnut shop?). And getting everyone out in the morning was such a production, we didn’t always get it together to manage it while it was still morning. But we did get to the beach. Everybody learned to jump waves, in lifeguarded areas and under parental supervision. Once or twice I bought a boogie board, but no one ever wanted to use it.
There was also always strict parental supervision of showers and other necessary ablutions; we were used to getting along at home with limited access to the bathroom (five people sharing one). Still, no question, those cramped quarters (and those thin walls) and the need to wash off sand and salt and sunscreen on a regular basis put the shower right at the center of family life. Also, the expression “I call dibs on the toilet” was sometimes heard as we struggled to get the cottage door open.
One summer we had a vacation cottage with a small and cranky black-and-white TV which, as I remember it, got decent reception only when it was showing reruns of “Leave It To Beaver,” and we watched religiously; jokes that were not quite jokes about Wally and the Beav became part of the texture of the summer (and I speak here as the person who was being measured against June Cleaver, with her pearls).
All around us, families kayaked and sailed, they hiked and biked. They went fishing. They did sporty things that required special equipment, and modest amounts of vacation expertise. We never got it together to do any of those things. When it comes to equipment (or vacation expertise), I remained the one who wanted to avoid grilling at all costs; my kids are the ones who had no interest in the boogie board.
We bought salt water taffy, even though no one ate it. We looked at the stars at night and marveled at how bright they were away from the city and tried ineptly to locate constellations. Several times over the years we went to the beach at night because the papers said the Perseid meteor shower was going to be particularly intense; no one ever saw a shooting star.
Now that my kids are grown up, I go to the beach and I occasionally yearn for their younger selves. And as part of that pleasantly nostalgic summer beach yearning, I occasionally look at big happy families and imagine them going back to those sprawling weathered multigenerational beach houses that I never even aspired to rent, much less own, where the kitchens are well stocked with healthy local produce and there are more bathrooms than people and the closets teem with beloved battered sporting goods and the spigots run with sunscreen to apply as you leave in the very early morning on your family fishing trip.
Even if I could go back in time to when my children were young and squabbling, I know of course that we still would not be able to get it together to be any other family. No equipment, no expertise, no grilling, no vacation home. It would all play out just as it always did — just as it still does when we go on vacation as adults, with or without a grown-up child along, from sour cream doughnuts in the morning to oysters in the evening. We haven’t turned on the stove once this summer in our cabin. And I just checked the American Meteor Society website, and guess what? The Perseids should be peaking next week.
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