Beach vacation brings changes ashore

July 27, 2011|Susan Reimer

I packed this summer's hot beach novel, "Maine," by J. Courtney Sullivan, along with my shorts, sandals and suntan lotion and headed for the Delaware shore.

"Maine" is the story of Alice Kelleher, an imperious Irish-American matriarch, and her far-flung, dysfunctional family and the beach house in Maine where the family has been gathering every summer for 60 years.

But this summer, Alice plans to tell them that she is donating the house and land to the Catholic Church, and their fractious summer ritual is ending.

Halfway through the book, and my week's vacation, life began to imitate art.

Members of my quirky and far-flung family, with whom I have vacationed in essentially the same spot every summer for almost 30 years, came together to tell me that they wanted to go somewhere else next year.

They were tired of taking a tram to the beach. They were tired of the crowds. ("I feel like I am in the middle of New York City in my bathing suit" was one particularly apt comment.)

They were tired of the same condo layout — the loft is hotter than blazes and you can hear every whisper and television show from down below. And they were tired of the blow-up mattresses and the cramped quarters. Everyone is so much bigger now. And they have more friends.

My eyes burned with tears as they made their case. I was stunned by the complaints; hurt and embarrassed to realize they had kept those complaints to themselves until their frustration boiled over.

Change? Change? How could we possibly change such a sacred tradition as our summer vacation on the Delaware shore? Moving this operation to the Outer Banks — the unanimously preferred location — would be like serving meatloaf for Thanksgiving.

For the characters in Sullivan's book, the frustrations and the inconveniences — as well as the feuds and the secrets — of the old house in Maine were part and parcel of the summer ritual. I felt the same about our summer trip, minus feuds and secrets.

The parking headaches, the umbrella boys who kept losing our tags, the wait for the tram, the Russian girls who can't get your order right in the snack bar. These are part of the character of the week. Perhaps because I was on vacation, I never classified these things as a hassle. It was all familiar. It was all part of our way of being together.

But my family wants a vacation where you can walk out the front door and be on the beach. Where you can walk back to the house in seconds for a baby's nap or a sandwich. Where cocktails on the beach at sunset is not a full-scale military operation.

I felt like I was in the middle of one of those interventions — like the one made famous by Betty Ford's family. I felt ambushed and defensive.

The young adults in my family, I realized, were looking forward while I was looking back. They were ready to make fresh memories while I was holding fast to the old ones, in part, I thought, so I could safely pass them on to the newest generation.

I was afraid that if we left the Delaware shore, we would leave behind the babies, toddlers and teens my children and my nieces and nephews had been on that beach. That the memories of those days would be washed away like sand castles at high tide. That we would not be together in the same way because it was not the same place.

Only Jill, the wife of my husband's brother, was able to rescue me from despair.

"We left Rehoboth when we got too big for Star of the Sea. We left the high rises at Sea Colony when we got too big for them. We would only be leaving the condos because we are growing too big for them. That's not a bad thing."

So that is how I choose to think about it.

In "Maine," Alice Kelleher's extended family believed the big house on the beach was the essential element of their summer memories.

For me, it will be the family.

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