I’m at the beach with my entire family as I write this. Mom, Dad, both sisters and their boyfriends, my husband, all four of my kids, and a partridge in a pear tree. As any parent can attest—this is not a vacation. Vacations don’t exist when you take kids. This is a trip.
On beach vacations people read entire books, they apply sunscreen a couple times a day, they pack a cooler and snacks for the beach and find it was sufficient for at least half the day.
I have read the same paragraph of my book nine times. I’ve applied sunscreen nine times by noon and only one of those times was on me. You can’t ever really get the grease off or make the sand stop sticking to you when you have sunscreen on your hands every 45 minutes. I’ve doled out more mini-snack bags than I can count and the pad of my thumb is raw from slamming straws into so many drink pouches.
The waves have been too rough for the kids to play in the water without an adult—thank goodness we have a plethora of adults to choose from or my husband would be collapsing on the sand from exhaustion. My mom is a master drip castle builder, my sister Alex has a strange love of digging large holes on the beach which the kids are on board with (and which we always fill in so nesting sea turtles and beach walkers don’t fall in them at night—you should too, consider this a Public Service Announcement #savetheseaturtles #anddrunkteenagers.) My sister, Katie, is always good for spotting during impromptu tumbling sessions in the sand and has been known to attempt a backbend kickover well into her 30s. My sisters’ boyfriends, John and Christopher, are up for some raft time in the waves and pretending to be terrified by a two-year-old who’s playing a game none of the rest of us get, but feigning fear seems to be the right answer.
What’s amazing is that I was one of these interrupting, starving, sunburnt beach babies at one point in my life and yet my parents are here packing the snacks for the beach and refereeing the sibling squabbles over whose turn it is to use the sand shovel. What are they thinking? They could be on the beach without sandy children dripping water on their books, requesting yet more snacks and sending a wave of sand into the air as they run off with barely even a ‘thank you.’ Their mother really should work on their manners...
My sisters’ choice to be here I understand—it’s free and Mom cooks and Dad brings good wine. Playing with my kids in the water and letting my girls give them bizarre and painful hairstyles on the balcony is the price they have to pay and they are here for it.
But my parents. They know what a trip to the beach with kids is like. They’ve put in their time being buried in the sand, crunching sand between their molars from sandy fingers in their beach snacks, and playing endless rounds of Go Fish! until you start trying to throw the game to just make it stop, although my mother has a very solid rule about not letting children win at cards. She will smash their chubby little fingers under her surprisingly aggressive participation in Slap Jack like nobody’s business. Say the kid Mom’s playing in Go Fish! only has one book to her seven and Mom just drew that queen the kid’s asked for three times in a row. ‘Do you have any queens?’ she’ll ask without even trying to hide a smirk. No mercy from this Queen of Cards. I would worry that she was crushing their spirits or dampening their love of friendly competition except they keep coming back for more. I’m pretty sure when she finally does break one of their fingers all they’ll care about is how it proves their hand was on that Jack first.
My dad brought his own padded bottle carrier filled with wine we can’t pronounce and don’t appreciate as much as he thinks we should; and he packed the entire cache of plastic beach toys we bought while here last year. ‘So we don’t have to pay for those again.’ I’m sure storing them for a year and sacrificing valuable real estate in the car for their transportation back to the beach was worth the $7.99 we won’t be spending at CVS. I hope he put that savings towards the wine.
The man loves nothing more than making a summer sausage and cheese tray for everyone to graze on while watching the sunset on the balcony. He stations himself out there with binoculars and a drink with extra olives—after 38 years of parenting he knows his daughters will steal some. With us around, his golden hour is interrupted by requests to use his binoculars by children prone to dropping things. They flit and flounce about on the balcony so he can’t read the newspaper he’s brought out with him because he needs to tell them to stay away from the railings every 30 seconds or break up a fight or slice more summer sausage because the bottomless pits I’m raising have finished it off again. I doubt he gets to eat even one of those olives.
Mom always cooked spaghetti the first night at the beach when we were kids, a tradition she carries on today, and Dad was on waves duty. I would inevitably get a sun poisoning rash in spite of my mom’s best efforts to keep sunscreen on me and I’d be that awkward kid in the water with a t-shirt on—where were cute swim shirts back then when I needed one? My sister, Katie, and I would spend hours snorkeling with meager results then my mom would join us only to find conch shells and the biggest, most intact sand dollars every time—it was uncanny, really she has a gift.
We raced go-karts at The Track where my parents were more competitive than us. We did Big Kahuna Water Park many times and as a parent now—I shudder at the thought. If taking my kids to Big Kahuna’s is what’s required of me to be a good parent, then I’m out. Surely we can come up with an alternative activity that doesn’t require exposure to quite so much urine-warmed water?? But my parents did it, climbing stairs to the tallest slides and hanging on to the handles of our floats to pull us through the Lazy River—making me look bad 30 years later.
My parents have earned their rights to some great beach vacations now—the kind that don’t require the work of taking kids. I don’t remember the work part of my childhood trips. I don’t remember how long it took to pack and load the car, just the TV/VCR combo my dad hooked up for us to watch in the back of the Oldsmobile station wagon. I don’t recall my mom cooking or packing snacks, but that spaghetti was there and a turkey sandwich I didn’t make eaten on the beach is still one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. We always had sand toys and rafts and towels but as far as I was concerned, the beach supply fairy made sure they made it up and down from the condo everyday.
I don’t remember what it took to pull those trips off, and my kids won’t either. They might have a memory of their daddy standing in the window of my car to strap the travel bag to the roof, or a vague recollection of me shooing them away so I could pack for four children for a week. Maybe they’ll remember that my mom put plates of supper in front of their red-cheeked, tired little faces so their parents could finally shower after wrestling wet suits off of the four of them and shampooing their tender, pink scalps first. I doubt they’ll recall that my mom volunteered to stay at the house with whichever child was still young enough to need a nap in the afternoon so that my husband and I could stay on the beach playing with the older ones or finally manage to read a few pages of a book. I know they’ll remember the rafts they rode the waves on, if not that their grandfather made sure they were inflated. They’ll remember their daddy taking them out to catch the biggest waves, but probably not how burned his back got from ‘One more wave, Daddy, just one more!’
They’ll tell their friends about the castles they built and holes they dug with their Aunt A, forgetting the part where she was covered in sand the rest of the day and sore from her shoveling in spite of daily yoga. They’ll remember that they begged Aunt KooKoo to have a dance party with them and how she let them dress up in her clothes and I let them wear my lipstick. I still remember going out on the beach at night with nets and buckets to catch sand crabs; if the screams and laughter heard from the house are any indication—I’m pretty sure my kids won’t forget doing the same this week with their daddy and grandfather.
I may not remember what it took to make all of my childhood beach memories, but I know what it takes now and I’m grateful for all the ways they do the same for my kids. I don’t know why my parents keep inviting us—maybe they’re gluttons for punishment, maybe their brains are addled from the stress of their own years of taking kids to the beach, or maybe I’ll understand why when I’m a grandparent too. But I sure hope they keep asking us back in spite of the physical, mental, and emotional toll it takes on all of us, because my spaghetti isn’t as good as my mom’s, nobody can spot a sand crab like my dad, and I like learning how to make beach memories from the best.
Elizabeth Quinn makes her home in Northeast Jackson with her husband Percy and four children.