Soon, the Gross family will drive to the beach. Soon, they'll lean forward in the minivan, arms stretched toward the windshield, fingers fluttering, hands reaching for an imaginary finish line. First one to Dewey Beach! they'll shout as they speed past the highway sign. Soon they'll hug Gramps, bob in the surf, slurp clam chowder, spike volleyballs, laze under umbrellas, bathe in the sun.
Soon. But first, and this is no small matter, they have to get there.
In this, the season of beach trips -- of planning, shopping, packing and waiting -- we begin with a cautionary tale about what happens when anticipation gets the best of you. Consider the Grosses of Newport News, Va.: two parents and three kids who've been meeting their Baltimore relatives at Dewey Beach, Del., every summer for as long as they can remember.
The weekend after July 4, to be exact.
Like you, perhaps, they can't wait to get there.
More than ready
It's almost time to leave. The thought hits Jan Gross about a week and a half before the trip, the day her husband calls from work and says, yes, he's gotten the vacation day, yes, he's free to go. Now it's real, thinks Jan. She can smell the ocean. She can taste the clams.
She can't wait.
And yet, she must. She must shop for snorkles and watch The Weather Channel. She must buy extra pairs of disposable contacts and a box of Cheez-its. She must check the tires, fill the car with gas, pack five people's clothes in four duffle bags and buy new beach chairs to replace the ones that have been re-webbed three times.
Her children are deep in their own preparations. Eight-year-old Stacy dreams about the waterslide and 15-year-old Amanda does her nails. Twelve-year-old Jake finds his red and black bathing suit, his Dick Tracy towel and his giant foam tubes for floating on the waves. And the day before they leave, their father, Bill, helps Jan load the car. Brown paper grocery bags filled with sheets and towels? Check. Fishing equipment and playing cards? Check. One fuzzy yellow blanket that's been coming to Dewey forever? Check.
At last, after all the buildup, the morning of the trip arrives. Up at 5: 30, the Grosses are on the road by 6 -- forgetting the camera but remembering to stop, just like last year, at Dunkin' Donuts for breakfast.
Ten minutes down the road, Stacy throws up.
For the next four hours, minus the clean-up stop, the Grosses zoom toward Dewey. They pay the $10 toll at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. They make the turn onto the coastal highway. They roll down the windows to smell the fishy ocean air.
Oh, they can't wait. They pull into the parking lot of the Beachcomber apartments, and even though they don't see Bill's parent's car, or his sister's, or his brother's, they park the minivan and unload: the four duffle bags, hanging clothes, bag of sheets, bag of towels, fishing pole, old tennis shoes for clamming, pillows to make the beach feel more like home. Then it's up two flights, where they pile the bags on the landing even though the door is locked and the place is dark.
The rest of the family must be outside already. As is the Grosses' tradition, they race up the dune adjoining the parking lot and take their first look at the beach. It's a beautiful morning, sunny and clear, the ocean sparkling just as they remembered it all year. They scan the beach, searching for the orange-striped umbrella and yellow sheet that are as much a part of their relatives' beach trips as the sea and sand.
They don't see them.
A sinking feeling in her stomach, Jan decides she better walk to a pay phone and call Bill's mother in Cockeysville.
A few minutes later, Bill's mother answers the phone.
"We're in Dewey," Jan shouts. "Where are you?"
This is how the Grosses find out they've arrived one week early for the family beach trip.
Filling the trunk
"I can't find my black T-shirt, and I can't go to the beach without my favorite black T-shirt," says Joan Moag.
The first summer that John and Joan Moag went to Bethany Beach, it rained 11 days straight. But the kids loved it anyway, and a family tradition was born. That was 31 years ago. Now it's five days before they leave for this year's month-long stay and the Moags are already packed: food and books in boxes, clothes in big blue garbage bags, ready to be crammed in the trunk of the Ford Taurus.
When you've packed for a month at the beach, what's one embroidered black T-shirt?
But this shirt, maybe 8 years old, is part of the ritual now. Joan imagines herself wearing it in the evening, sipping a glass of wine, sitting on the rental house porch, watching the ocean. She could no more leave this shirt behind in Baltimore than her address book, her waffle maker or her five swimsuits.
Understand, she loves her month on the beach so much that just closing her eyes and remembering it -- the warmth of the sun, the spray of the surf -- helped ease the pain of a back injury recently. Don't try to tell Joan Moag that preparing for the beach is somehow as pleasurable as being there.