I am a storyteller and within that a creator of characters. I am not a memoir writer or a life chronicle-r, so my hopes for this aren’t very high. But I wanted to put some words to something that was a significant part of my childhood and will hopefully continue to be a significant part of my adulthood.
Beach week was something I was generally opposed to as a child. I much preferred the week or two I spent staying alone with my Grandmother in New Bern, North Carolina to shacking up in a cottage in Atlantic Beach with that entire side of the family. Perhaps it was because I was six years old, and generally afraid of most other people, or perhaps it was just that I liked being left to my own devices (and the ability to play video games, which were banned then at my house). I don’t really remember what changed my mind, but when I turned eleven something did, and I climbed into my Grandma’s black Dodge Daytona and rode the forty or so miles down highway 70 with her to pick up the keys and prepare the cottage.
The City of Atlantic Beach hasn’t left the 1980s with tacky surf shops still lining the main strip and faded pastel-colored cottages with weathered wooden porches and cracked seashell decorations packing the grid-like streets that front a few miles of the water. Our cottage in those days was an indecisive green, part tree-like, part neon, part teal with a separated basement (underground on the water side and at ground on the street side) and top two stories. There were four bedrooms, one opening out onto a balcony that overlooked the water for my Uncle Pete and Aunt Lynn, one stocked with a TV and two bunk beds for My Uncle Pat, my cousin Brittany, and myself, one for my Uncle Dave and Aunt Candy and the first floor master bedroom for my Grandma.
My cousin, three and a half years my junior, and I got along almost instantly. “Almost,” because of the necessary, shy, quiet, feeling out period that kids like us had to go through before warming up to someone new. There’s always a connection between family, but Brittany and I had something extra, we got each other. We got each other in the way that two people can see something and look at each other and smile without any words exchanged because they both know the other is thinking the same thing. We still get each other, even fifteen years removed from that week and meetings fewer and further between. Our brains just operate along the same wavelength. After that initial shyness, we were nearly inseparable, whether it was body-boarding down on the beach, digging really absurdly large (we’re talking 10+ feet deep) holes in the sand, or accompanying Grandma to the grocery store.
There were times, however, when she and her father, (my Uncle Pat, who is like a young Chevy Chase in both appearance and attitude) wanted to spend time together and I sidled up next to my Aunt Candy to work on the yearly puzzle. Aunt Candy, who I’ve unfortunately recently learned has passed away, was the embodiment of quiet southern charm. A short wavy-haired blonde , she was the kind of person while not overt in her friendliness, always had a space next to her for someone else. Her typical spot was the soft loveseat facing the large window in the back of the living room. You couldn’t see much ocean over the dunes and the tall grass, but most of the time in that seat was spent working away on the 1,000 piece puzzle she akways brought. Not a huge talker myself and very fond of quiet company, this is where I first discovered my love of such puzzles. She was always very patient, steadily completing the difficult pictures while I tried a hundred different piece combinations, ninety-nine of which didn’t work.
She wasn’t much for the water, but the beauty of the get-togethers of my family of introverts is that everyone is pretty comfortable doing their own thing. There are no forced family outings, everyone does what they want, and while that usually overlaps, no one is bothered when it doesn’t. We enjoy each other’s company and we enjoy each other’s absence.
Her partner, my Uncle Dave was one for the water however. I won’t say that he was my favorite uncle, but I connected with him more than I did with any other members of my family. A fifty-something man not entirely dissimilar in appearance to King of the Hill’s Bill Dauterive and very Ent-like in his calm, measured approach to things, he frequently accompanied us kids, along with my Grandma and Uncle Pat, down to the water. The beach was always the primary attraction, and I’d have spent a hundred percent of every day there if I could when I was a kid. It was the first thing we did in the morning and the routine was always the same. Swimsuit and sunscreen-up after breakfast and walk onto the back porch to start selecting beach toys to bring. Usually it was a few pails, the best shovels for digging, and the boogie boards, always the boogie boards. The porch narrowed into a walkway that extended about a hundred feet with a bench swing and shower spigot on either side of the midpoint. Then it was a barefoot race over the hot sand and up the dunes to the more temperate ocean-soaked ground beyond.
Boogie boarding and body surfing were always the highlights and we sometimes waited several minutes to jump in front of the biggest and most perfect wave. My Uncles got into it too and every once in a while Grandma would join, though she usually preferred to stand and watch while trying not to get run over. After a while my Uncle Dave would take a break and my Uncle Pat would get out to walk along the beach scouring the water for shells. Occasionally my cousin and I would join him, but with a keen eye and an affinity and ability to peruse tables upon tables of flea market wares for lost treasures, he always brought back the best ones.
After several hours of beach we would clean up for lunch, usually at The Waterside Diner where I once drank, and subsequently nearly painted the interior of my Grandma’s Daytona, with seven chocolate milks. Afternoons would be spent doing things around the cottage, going on shopping excursions, or sitting with Aunt Candy and working on the puzzle. Once or twice a year we would all go down to The Circle at night.
The Circle was a ticket-based collection of rides and neon lights, the best of which were the go-karts where they let you drive pretty liberally. My cousin, a woman who now stands around six feet tall, and I both became tall enough to drive them at around the same time and we always raced friendly competitions with one another around the track, oblivious to other drivers. This occasionally had it’s downsides when we would team up to pick on people we didn’t like or that time she kept her eyes on me and full-speed rear-ended a stopped driver, bruising her face on the steering wheel in the process.
Beach week then was something I always hoped would stay exactly as it was and Beach week now is something whose transition I can appreciate. Things changed, as they often do.
My parents and two sisters started joining us and while that’s not bad in of itself, it added a lot of friction. They fought with each other, I fought with my sisters, and we generally all fought with one another. It added a very volatile element to a generally serene environment, exacerbated by the fact that the cottage really wasn’t big enough for that many people.
My Uncle Pete and Aunt Lynn had my cousin Kelly, and then the second male to be born into that generation of the family, my cousin David. My family stopped making the trip down, partially because I started going to college and working during the summer, but mostly because it was too much of a hassle that no one really liked doing. My cousin Brittany started attending college herself and also became a less frequent attendee. The Circle was demolished for a series of condos that still haven’t been built, and one year the owners of “our” cottage stopped renting it out.
That is, luckily, not where this ends.
In mid-2010, I was laid off (from a job I hated anyway that has been my lowest paying “real” job so joke’s on them) and when confronted with the possibility of going down to North Carolina for Beach Week after a six year absence, I said why the hell not. There were a few reasons I thought it would work this time around. I had become an adult with a functioning wallet and cell phone and figured that if people were pissing me off I could just wander the beaches and city. My mom opted not to attend since she was focusing on her teaching career, which eliminated the parental friction. And my sisters had grown up as well, with me outnumbering my dad three to one, so that killed most of the incessant over-protectiveness (with love!) that is his hallmark.
Plus my Grandma had befriended the owners of a new cottage, getting us sole and exclusive renting rights and while it’s a bit smaller than the old one, the layout works better giving Aunt Lynn and Uncle Pete their own room, my Grandma and Uncle Pat the two remaining rooms, and splitting my sisters, my cousins, my father, and I between the living room and “dungeon,” a finished, spiral-staircase accessible basement with a sink, a fridge, and two fold out couches.
But the thing that changed the most for me was going from being one of the kids to being one of the adults. When I was young the prevailing sentiments were getting to enjoy time with Grandma, and “yay beach!” My relatives, while I adored them, were at times a burden. When you grow up, you start to appreciate the intricacies of each person, it’s less about spending time at this fun place and more about spending time with each other. And a large part of that is getting a chance to see my cousins, who have taken over the role of “the kids” and who both remind me of my young self in so many ways.
Kelly is a classic introvert, but incredibly and hilariously observant and intelligent once you get her talking. She’s somewhat disdainful of the water but I suspect that she enjoys Beach Week all the same. Three years younger than his sister, David is a carbon copy of me at that age, quiet, respectful, and very much in love with the water. He is the type of person that everyone enjoys being around, much like his namesake, dearly departed Uncle Dave. Hanging out with them, whether it’s going down to the beach, watching movies at night, or badgering the ‘real adults’ (of which I will never be one), is always the highlight of the trip.
I don’t have a nice wrap-up because the story isn’t over. Beach Week will continue, and continue to change, hopefully until one of our generation is running it (and beyond). Atlantic Beach will no doubt eventually change too at some point, though for now our portion remains just as it was that first year for me in 1997.