My sister Mimi called me this week to ask if I was counting the days until we slip out of town for a vacation. She read my mind.
I still happily indulge in a family vacation. The condo I rent is separated by one wall from the unit she shares with our youngest sister, Josie.
It's a cozy arrangement but nothing like family vacations of 50 years ago. We rented a cute little brown shingle house in Dewey Beach, Del., built atop the sand dunes. It was roughing it, with only bottled water and the nearest phone blocks away in a general store.
I spent my third and fourth summers there and can still recall those Friday nights when weekend company rolled in. Shabby accommodations never deter guests. I cannot think of a better summer vacation than a houseful of compatible friends and family.
Aunt Dorothy Croswell arrived via Carolina Trailways coach. I was already tucked away, lulled fast asleep by the sound of the Atlantic's waves. When I awoke, Aunt Dorothy was occupying my roll-away cot (no prize), and I had been transferred to a canvas cot, war surplus from the decade earlier.
At least I got a bed. I think my Uncle Jack took to a hammock off the back porch — no doubt wet whenever a mist came in off the ocean. My grandfather — and later my father — did their best to rent commodious summertime places that would accommodate their families, and maybe a few friends. Nonfamily visitors were always a good idea. The presence of company held down the squabbles — it's bad form to fight in front of guests.
One of our 1970s ocean-side roosts was the third floor of a Victorian house on Wilmington Avenue in Rehoboth Beach. My mother called it The Attic — and that's just what it was: the third floor, under the gables, of a summerhouse. Technically, it had two bedrooms, but I think, as the rental agents said, the place slept nine, family-style. And on many nights, it did just that.
My brother and sisters were old enough to work the summer there — my sisters as waitresses at the Hotel Royalton and my brother Eddie at the old Henlopen.
I was on weekend-only status and often arrived via the Carolina Trailways in a coach that must have been the same one that carried Aunt Dorothy 15 years earlier. Sleeping space was assigned in order of arrival. If you posted late, you took what was available.
That could mean being assigned the midget — a short and spongy bed that doubled in the daytime as a sofa by the front door. It wasn't too bad, but late and noisy arrivals from the boardwalk tended to bang up against the mattress.
One night a couple from Baltimore sailed in and had to be quartered. They were given single beds in the large sleeping room where so many of us sacked out. At lights-out time, the husband switched on a reading lamp, thus keeping everyone else awake, and launched into his book. He cracked open "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."
The worst spot was a sofa covered in a tough green fabric that opened up to reveal a mattress. One night my mother, who paid the rent on the joint, wound up there when some fancy company displaced her from her normal room. Upon awakening, she wasn't happy. She dubbed the couch the Green Monster, a name that endured in the family lexicon as a rotten sleeping site.
Over the years, the places we rented were sold, consumed by storms or demolished for fancier digs. After years of communal sleeping porches and semi-roughing it, my parents said they had had enough. They rented excellent houses with real bedrooms. The company still arrived, but we could now handle it.
These houses were also blessedly quiet and their atmosphere wholesome, with lights out at 10 p.m. One night I required a nightcap or two with old friends — and a few hours on my own. We took off for a bar and at its closing hour, I slipped back to the rental property, approached the back steps and very quietly made my way up, foolishly thinking no one would be the wiser. I hadn't noticed that our little ocean retreat was so high-tech that it came equipped with a motion detector. It was sunrise at 2 a.m.
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