When I was a kid, our family summer vacation always included going to the beach, and then doing next to nothing for a solid week. During the rest of the year, my dad’s schedule involved working 10-hour long days, usually six days a week, and my mom’s consisted of holding together everything else during those long days (and nights.) Given this, it’s not at all surprising that vacation meant parking ourselves under an umbrella on a hot, sandy beach with a cooler filled with sandwiches, soda and beer, and absolutely nada on the agenda. That kind of full stop is what I’m craving right now as we race past the middle of summer, with 2 trips out of the country, a few road trips, 3 sets of guests, and more than a few local events under our belt, and with much more to come before the end of August rolls around.
All of this movement has me thinking about one of my parents’ preferred locations for their restful summer pause from the stress of everyday life, Wildwood, New Jersey. If you’ve never been, Wildwood is a one-of-a-kind East Coast beach town populated by 1960s art deco motels, many of them conceived with a design theme like the Casa Bahama or Lollipop Motels.
It’s just a 3-hour drive from Philadelphia, but we’d get up extra early to pile all of our things into the Buick, and make it to the shore before lunchtime. I remember the excitement in the car as we neared our destination, and started to smell the fishy air of the bay and feel the warm, salty breeze coming in through the rolled down windows. Vacation began at that very instant. We packed our sony walkmans, mad libs, tiger beat magazines and invisible ink fun pads back into our sacks, knowing that soon we’d be winding through Wildwood looking for our colorful ocean side motel.
There was yet more anticipation as my dad went into the motel office to get the keys to our room. Which floor would we be on? Would we be near our cousins? Would the strangely alluring ice machine be closeby? Would we face the pool? The beach? Would we have a balcony? Which bed would my sister and I get? Would the room have a kitchenette? It was enough to keep two little girls giggling and bouncing around the giant backseat of the car for hours. Luckily for my mother, it was over in minutes, as we raced after my father to uncover all the mysteries held by our motel room. By that time, the cousins had probably arrived and were doing the same. A lot of running back and forth between rooms usually then ensued as our parents lugged in our bags and beach gear.
Shortly after a quick lunch at the motel’s diner and a change of clothes, we would all climb the stairs down to the beach to set up our spot for the day. Beach towels were arranged side by side, two or three umbrellas were driven into the sand and opened, the cooler was strategically placed between my dad and uncle, and our bags of multi-colored buckets, shovels and sand sifters were dropped close, but not too close, to the adults. And that was it. There we would exist, between the motel and the beach, the beach and the motel, for five or six days. Well, that was almost it.
We’d be deliciously exhausted by the sun, sand and water every evening, but managed, at least 2 or 3 nights out of the week, to make it over to Wildwood’s Morey’s Piers, a seemingly never-ending wooden boardwalk, packed with rides, games, food and t-shirt stands. I only wish I had a picture of the totally rad air-brushed baseball shirt that I got on the boardwalk in 1980… light pink sleeves and a white torso, a black and white checked background on the chest, my name in graffiti emblazoned over the top, complete with sparkling stars. In addition to getting totally awesome shirts, we tried our luck at picking yellow plastic ducks out of a spinning pond for prizes, devoured delicious funnel cake and cotton candy, and then tried to keep them down while spinning on the super loud music express train.
But in the morning, we’d be back at the beach with nowhere to run to, nothing on the schedule at all, no monuments, no historic sites, no lunch reservations, no crazy dinners, no event start times, and no summer homework. It was great for us kids, but frankly, we probably would have been fine anywhere school was out. I realize now, that for our parents, it may have been an even more special place, and the perfect way to rest their bodies and minds. They were too far from home and work to be weighed down by their normal responsibilities, yet the surroundings and people were familiar and comfortable. They weren’t tethered to a smart phone beeping with messages or news from the world outside the beach. All they had to focus on was not losing their joy-filled kids and keeping the overflowing cooler in the shade. Magic.
I’m very grateful for all the things were able to do and see over the course of one summer, but next time around, I’m going to keep Wildwood in mind, and make sure there’s at least one week of the summer just like it. For now, we’ll have to steal some lazy moments when we can, like this rare occurrence from yesterday, all of us sitting at the same time, in the same place. Magic.