A Family Affair

STONE HARBOR, New Jersey—In the mornings we drift out to the patio as each of us wakes up. Knees curled up under us, coffees in hand, we field questions from aunts and uncles on school and summer plans. We talk about the family: a cousin’s lacrosse tournament, another’s bad grades, an uncle’s new job. Eventually we veer back to previous years at the Shore. When was it that we lost Aidan for a day? we ask each other. What year did the drawling Southern second cousins join us? We make halfhearted attempts at unraveling the years, distinguishing them into separate weeks, separate times. It is futile, though: the rental houses and beach days splice together in a mass of hazy memories.

When we were younger it was the vacation we looked forward to all year. We crammed the car with suitcases, coolers, badminton sets, groceries, only a slot left for Mom to see out the back. Every step of the two-hour trip we recorded in diaries, from the corn and cows to the first sight of sand. Crossing over to the island, that flat long stretch, tightened our almost painful knots of anticipation.

When we were younger there were still few enough of us to rent just one house. A bedroom each for the sisters and their husbands; for the cousins, a fleet of Aerobeds bobbing up and down through the house. If we woke up early we were faced with a tangle of arms and feet to maneuver around, to reach the cereal, before the rest of the house began slowly to stir and awake.

The four sisters and little brother had been coming for years. They waitressed at Uncle Bill’s Pancake House, worked from seven am till one and then went to the beach, then to the bars when the drinking age was still 18.

We, their oldest girls, the four oldest cousins, reigned over a sea of scrawny boys. We organized talent shows and lemonade stands and sand castle construction sites.  We saved up all our money for water ice in town. We went out in the ocean further than allowed, disdaining the lifeguards in the years after we looked up to them, in the years before they were our crushes.

When did the Shore lose its sun-hazy mystique? This year we drive across the bridge and through town, by the kitschy ice cream shops and bikini-baring preteens. We rent two houses now, some of us having become too big to sleep on the floor: one still loud and wild but the other for the older kids, more quiet and subdued. The meals are still raucous affairs for thirty, plus maybe a stray classmate or boyfriend joining in for the weekend. But after the weekend some of us peel off, older now and with summer jobs or other plans.

The boys are older this year, and we are almost shocked to find they have their own personalities, their own selves. You’ll come here with all your kids, the aunts tell us. We smile at the remoteness of it, but it also makes us sad. Maybe because we begin to understand: before coming home again, we first must drift away.