The Formative Beach Years

For all of her seven years, at least those she could remember, Catherine associated her maternal grandmother with the beach. Grandma Nina would call from her New Jersey home and repeat her mantra, “Come on down!” For all Catherine knew, the sun shone constantly in New Jersey, if you believed Grandma Nina. In those phone conversations, brief as they were, she would always mention beautiful weather. “The sun is shining,” she would say.

And every summer, Catherine would visit Grandma Nina and Grandpa Bill. Funny, they always referred to it as grandpa’s house, but grandma seemed to be in charge. Grandma started their day in her sunny yellow bathrobe, not too early of course. She’d take a big yellow grapefruit out of the refrigerator and roll it on the counter as if she were kneading dough. According to Grandma, this made it sweeter.

After breakfast, Catherine was always instructed to get dressed and ready for the day. “You can’t go outside in your pajamas,” Grandma would say. Since it was summer, Catherine would ask about wearing a bathing suit or clothes. Grandma’s answer was always the same, “Put your bathing suit on and then your clothes on top of it. This way, you’ll be ready when it gets hot in the afternoon.” Catherine was never sure what she was getting ready for. They never went to the beach in the afternoon.

On a beach day, everyone had to get up early. You knew it was a beach day because the decision was made the night before. That’s when Grandma began her systematic preparations and the excitement began to build. Laundry had to be finished, dried on the line, and brought in, so there were plenty of clean beach towels. In the evening, after dinner, Grandma boiled a big pot of water and left several tea bags steeping in it overnight.

Early on a beach morning, earlier than any other morning, the kitchen was buzzing with Grandma’s preparations. She worked and barked orders at the same time. There were provisions to prepare and pack, and everyone in the house had to eat breakfast, cycle through the one bathroom, and get dressed to go.

Giant thermoses and a big cooler were brought up from the basement. The tea, now cooled but still on the stove, was iced down in one thermos and lemonade was mixed over ice in the other one. Bagels were sliced, sandwiches made, and sweet treats wrapped up (anything but chocolate that would melt in the heat of the sun.)

At the height of chaos in Grandma’s tiny kitchen, Grandpa was ready to pack the car. That was always Grandpa’s job, but he was never in lock-step with Grandma on this. She complained that he was rushing her, and he pushed to get on the road earlier to beat the traffic. They played a symphony of dissonance over the crescendo of beach-going excitement — bathing suits donned, towels assembled, suntan lotion located.

Although it was Grandpa’s job to pack the car, Grandma still gave the orders. “Do you have the umbrella and the chairs?”

“Yes, Nina.”

“What about the blanket? Do you know where that is?”

“It’s in the car, Nina.”

“What chairs did you take? I want a lounger. Did you take the loungers?”

“Yes, Nina. Don’t worry about what I’m doing. Is this cooler ready to go?”

“No, you’re rushing me. I have more to pack.”

The back and forth would continue until Grandpa said, “Go on about your business!” Then, he would disappear for a while. He’d spend some time in the carport under the guise of looking for something important for the car. Grandpa knew the best way to end an argument was to walk away. He wasn’t going to win, and yet in some way he always won.

Somehow, the whole family ended up in the car in bathing suits and flip-flops with drinks and snacks, umbrella and blanket, folding chairs of various styles, towels, suntan lotion, and all of the supplies that would make it a fun day at the beach. Catherine usually slept through the one hour drive, having exhausted herself with the excitement of what was to come.

Grandpa would wake her up just before they crossed the Barnegat Bridge for the final leg of the trip. At that point, Catherine could see the water and smell the salt air. Grandpa had some important jobs on beach days. First of all, he drove the car. Grandma never drove, although she spoke as though she knew where Grandpa should go. Grandpa always wanted to leave early, so they would beat the traffic and find a good parking spot. He was an expert at maneuvering the car. When we found a spot to park, Grandpa could always get it in close to the curb.

Everyone carried something to the beach, so it was lucky that Grandpa usually found a parking spot within the first block. This would also come in handy when it was time to drag their sun-soaked bodies off the beach at the end of the day. Grandpa was also in charge of finding a place on the beach to set up camp for the day. When he located the best spot, everyone stood back while he pitched the umbrella.

Catherine watched this ritual several times before volunteering to help. Grandpa just looked at her like she had lost her mind. No one helped Grandpa with the umbrella, implying that he was the master of this task. He took the bottom piece of the pole, stabbed it into the sand, and began moving it back and forth. When the pole seemed to hit wet sand and would not move any further, he straightened it up, packed it with sand, and snapped on the top part with the umbrella.

After Grandpa raised the umbrella and locked it in place, he gave the okay and stepped back. Next came the blanket, two blankets actually, spread neatly on either side of the umbrella pole. Everyone donated their footwear to hold down the corners. If someone kicked up sand and it got on the blanket at this point, the blankets were lifted again and the spreading ritual repeated.

Grandma stashed the food and drinks in the shade against the pole, and chairs were unfolded and positioned around the periphery of the beach encampment. When everything was settled, Catherine could finally go in the water. She could only go in up to her knees until an adult was ready to swim with her, but she didn’t care. The whole purpose of going to the beach was to go in the water, and she had waited long enough.

The excitement of going to the beach that started the night before finally reached a climax. Catherine would spend the next several hours alternating between playing in the water, playing in the sand, lying on the blanket, eating sandwiches, and drinking lemonade. With two old army blankets, some sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper, and a jug of lemonade made from concentrate, Catherine formed the best beach memories of childhood.

Years later, Catherine holds those old beach memories as the standard to which all other beach experiences are compared. She’s been to many beaches since then, and a trip to the beach, any beach, does bring back fond memories..the smell of salt water on a hot, sunny day; the tight feeling of saltwater drying on her skin; the freedom of floating, not touching anything but water; the refreshment of a cold sip of lemonade on a hot afternoon; the burning cheeks from squinting in the sun; the scratchy feel of afternoon naps on the army blanket.

But any beach visit since Catherine became an adult is missing a few key elements: watching Grandma Nina hold her nose and duck under a wave; jumping over the big waves with an adult on either hand for safety; being called out of the water by her mother and told her lips are blue; being carried by Grandpa from the water up to the boardwalk so her feet would not collect sand and bring it into the car; and, nestling in the middle of the front seat and falling asleep on the way home.

When she was a little girl, Catherine lived for those summer beach trips. Her grandma called her a water baby, just like her mother. Now, Catherine lives on those memories of an exciting time to be alive — her childhood.

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