It was just after 10 a.m. on a bright August Saturday, and my 6-year-old was crying as if his heart were broken.
“I don’t want to leave the Shore,” Kieran sobbed, his breath ragged and his chest heaving, “I always want to be here with my family."
In my family, summer means a trip to the Shore, a rented house within walking distance to the Sea Isle City beach, multiple generations cramming as many memories as we can into a single week.
The lure of a Shore vacation can be difficult to explain to someone who didn’t grow up with it. So wait, you pay thousands of dollars, lug all your stuff (sheets and towels not included) about an hour and a half from home, cook and clean all week? And you’re surrounded by family members, sometimes so many that couch and floor spaces double as beds? And you do this every summer? Willingly?
When I was very small, I’m not sure my sister and I knew that people went on vacations to places other than the Shore. Neither did my dad, dreaming of Wildwood summers during Philadelphia winters during the 1950s and 1960s.
My great-grandfather Bill Tobin owned saloons in Port Richmond and property in Wildwood, once upon a time. By the time my dad and his five older siblings were around, the Shore places had been sold. But Dad had a friend whose family ran a rooming house in Wildwood, and the family often invited my father to tag along.
He was 15 or 16, with just enough pocket money to buy BLTs and chocolate milkshakes on the boardwalk, and it was heaven, he said. He remembers the ride into town, catching a glimpse of people who were experiencing a different kind of shore life.
“It would always amaze me that people were outside Zaberer’s wearing tuxedos," Dad said. (The iconic Wildwood restaurant was known for its tuxedo-clad waiters and its high-flying clientele: Mayors and movie stars ate there.)
My mom, too, grew up with the Shore, but like me, she vacationed there from the time she was a baby, never missing a summer. My grandfather would drive the family to Ocean City and stay for a week. Then he’d return to work while my grandmother, mom, and three uncles enjoyed a second week.
“I was drawn to the ocean, I always loved swimming, and I remember the wonderful feeling of tranquility,” my mom told me. “When I got older, I wanted to take my children there — we made such wonderful memories growing up, and I wanted you to have that, too. I was so thrilled that you enjoyed the ocean, that it’s something we were able to share."
Family and dear friends often join us on our trips; sometimes, our party is so large that we rent two houses. This year felt a little different; fewer people than usual could join us, and some members of our family are facing health challenges.
But the routines still felt familiar, comforting: the race down from Philadelphia and points beyond, unpacking, delegating rooms (to my sons’ delight, this was the first year they were both old enough to sleep in the kids’ room with the cousins), divvying up cooking duties, then settling into the slower shore rhythms — beach, books, walks to get ice cream, excursions to other shore towns if you’re feeling ambitious.
“Or you just sit on the porch and watch people go by,” my dad said. “Even sitting and doing nothing, that’s enough. You think about all the memories you have with your family, from your grandparents on down, so many of them are from the Shore. It makes you feel good, that people will remember you."
We slip so easily into the do-you-remembers: Do you remember the time toddler Amy (my sister, two and a half years older than I) got lost on the beach? Do you remember when a seagull stole my french fries? The first time we stayed at the beach so long we saw the moon rise?
Do you remember the way Uncle Bill would sit in a beach chair and whistle Bobby Darin songs? When Poppy lost his teeth in the ocean (true story!), when Brendan learned to boogie-board, when we drove to Cape May singing along to hokey Al Alberts songs in the back of the van? When we rode rented bikes on the boardwalk? The time we lugged a giant inner tube to the beach and rode waves so enormous we had to be rescued by lifeguards?
We added some do-you-remembers to the list this year: Kieran lost one of his front teeth, and we learned that the tooth fairy is more generous at the beach. My niece turned 15, and my sister decorated the living room with giant silver balloons that made our lovely Julia crack a wide, warm smile. My nephew Brendan, ever the good sport, rode the Wonderland Pier carousel to make his small cousin happy and managed to grab the brass ring.
“The Shore has always been a magnet,” my mom said, “that draws me back.”