Savoring the sweetness of vacation with the family

12We always know we’ve arrived at the right house on Long Beach Island each summer when we recognize the old faded towels that our daughters once dragged to day camp drying on the deck of a summer cottage.

After years of grabbing a few days with our own kids when they were little bucket-toting beachcombers, the “new normal” began about 10 years ago.

Now, our annual pilgrimage to Long Beach Island plays out with the role reversal that we should expect by now, but that still comes as a slight shock.

Now Jill, Amy and Nancy — all grown up and parents of their own kids — rent a home together and invite the old folks — us — for a few overnights. And it always begins, ironically, with the very same caution we used to utter to them: “Be careful!”

Except this time, we’re on the receiving end of those words, as one or the other of our daughters will “supervise” us as we maneuver the steps that typically lead to their rental stilt houses on LBI.

Amy, the former family daredevil, is ironically the most attentive of the safety queens. Vic and I just exchange glances, and then do as we’re told.

With a seashore cottage filled with seven grandchildren, three sons-in-law and three daughters, serenity is not the vibe. There is mayhem, as meals take on epic proportions, and people large and small come and go.

And we wouldn’t change it for the world.

Our end-of-summer odysseys on this island are a steady reminder of so many things, not the least of which is the march of time.

Once we led — our daughters followed. Now they set the agenda, plan the meals, deal with the heaps of wet towels, the trails of sand, the slathering of sunscreen, and one year, the presence of our oldest granddaughter’s terrific boyfriend.

Wasn’t it just yesterday that Hannah wanted to dig holes all the way to China? That she clung to my hand as we faced the mighty Atlantic Ocean?

Now — dare I say it — I sometimes reach for hers when those breakers crash around me…

Once, I stationed myself at the water’s edge and kept a super-keen eye on my three little hostages to fortune as they jumped the waves.

During our recent visit, I could swear that the watchful eyes were on us.

Weird. And yes, wonderful, too.

It’s not so bad to be watched over, and it’s definitely a luxury to be shuffled out to the deck as the next generation makes dinner.

It’s all obviously part of the circle of life, the dance of the generations. What will remain a mystery is how it all happened while our backs were turned.

But lingering over breakfast muffins and bagels at an old pine table in a beach house bursting at the seams — well, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Not unless you factor in searching for perfect seashells with the “smalls,” our youngest grandchildren.

Or unless it’s sitting in a huge circle on the beach remembering family foibles past, and laughing until our sides hurt.

There have been those moments, and some amazing conversations with our adult kids about their lives, their thoughts, and yes, even their worries as the sea air seemed to open whole highways of feelings.

Is it all mellow perfection? Certainly not.

There are the inevitable minor squabbles and irritations. And sometimes, it was really tough to remember that our parental advice about everything from what is appropriate bedtime for the “smalls,” to our tips about how best to organize the jammed refrigerator, were not welcome.

Still, I can’t explain why my husband and I always sleep better than we usually do at the shore on these annual visits, despite makeshift arrangements, and a bit more noise than we empty-nesters are used to.

I can’t explain how the two days seem to slip away, yet how the memories linger for weeks.

This I do know:

On these brief odysseys, we don’t communicate with harried and hurried cell phone calls or accursed texts.

We may not see eye to eye on things but we do have eye contact — and yes, in this era, that’s now in the category of a treat.

We laugh more, reminisce more, dredge up old family lore and if we’re lucky, take long walks on the beach when secrets seem to spill out and sometimes silence speaks volumes.

When it’s time to leave, our kids and grandkids lug our stuff to the car, and warn us to drive carefully — the ultimate turnabout.

We still warn them to slather on the sunscreen and watch out for the undertows. Habits are hard to break.

And as we head back to the causeway that links this little island with the real world, the fervent hope is always that it will be same time next year. ••