Saturday, August 22, 2009

Letter from the Beach

Oh, the summer family vacation. Or as my husband's former boss once corrected me, the summer family trip.

Every August, since my older son was two, we have rented a house for a week or two on Long Beach Island, a.k.a. the Jersey shore. We did fly West in 2007 and 2008 to see Yosemite and Yellowstone but this summer, we regained our provincial senses and headed down the shore.

Even though LBI lacks such creature comforts as a movie theatre, a bookstore, a shady place to sit or a Starbucks, it does have its attributes.

There are a lot of ice cream stores to choose from. The ice cream trucks will sell your almost-nine year old a cold can of Pepsi even though you specifically gave him money for a popsicle. It’s very easy to get fresh fish. You can see water from almost anywhere you stand. There's some excellent fudge. It's flat.

While we're there, we run, read, rent kayaks, go fishing, catch inedible crabs, grill salmon/swordfish/shrimp and scallops, drink white wine, do laundry, empty the dishwasher, leave the towels out to dry on the line, and relax. I rarely write when we are at the beach. I spend a lot of time going to Neptune Market and Foodies in Harvey Cedars and seeing people I know from childhood. I often feel like a French housewife and a French maid, shopping every morning for groceries and then hauling the bags up three flights of stairs. I don't (necessarily) mind. The coffee is weak but the sun is strong. I like to gaze at the ocean and my kids and my husband love to swim in it, even if it is warm one day and full of rip-tides and freezing water the next.

This summer, my brother and his family, and my sister-in-law's sister and her family, came down the same week we did. Altogether, there were seven kids, four of them teenagers, six of them boys. Because there were so many kids, the cousins ended up spending a lot of time together, comparing notes about their parents and grandparents. My boys came back to me with such gems as:

"Uncle Michael says the reason you are not super-skinny even though you run all the time is because you have a slow metabolism and your father was fat."
"You're kind of like Grandpa Brendan (85 and semi-retired). You sort of work but you don't really make a living."
"You've been misleading us all these years about what MILF means."

And so on.

Some good clean fun did come out of our week together. My older son and husband ran a five-mile race and raised money for the local firehouse and diabetes. I did five loads of laundry, and emptied the dishwasher ten times. Every morning, we ran with my sister-in-law's 15-year old niece, who is training for a 70-mile bike race. We watched Hannah's blonde-pony tail bounce on her back as she sprinted ahead and left us in the Long Beach Boulevard dust. We played Set at my brother’s house and Scrabble at ours. I read a lot: Maile Meloy’s new short story collection Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It (brilliant and wonderful), Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles( smart, snappy and in-your-face---tells every artist what s/he needs to know to start working again without obsession or delay,) some of Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter (which I may or may not ever finish) and Melanie Gideon's The Slippery Year: A Meditation on Happily Ever After.

A word about The Slippery Year. Initially, the idea of the book really pissed me off. A fortysomethng Mom writing about waiting in the car pool line for her nine-year old son and trying to make sense of it all? That was my territory. And as my older son’s former hockey coach said in an email, “That was supposed to be your book.”

Ouch. So out of spite and and a lame attempt at frugality, I decide not to buy it. But then my great friend Liz, another fortysomething writing mother who reads more than any other person alive, said the book was good and offered to let me borrow her copy. Not only that, she would drop it off at my house before she left for vacation. Needless to say, it became my go-to book on vacation. Very little happens in it---Gideon talks to her friends and her mother, she visits her sister and hangs out with her son, she gets her hair straightened and buys a new mattress, she realizes she loves her husband a lot, even though he snores and thinks he's preparing their son for camp by making him watch "Into the Wild." The book is a soothing and illuminating read. Parts of it are wry and poignant. A couple of paragraphs made me laugh out loud. I think of it of now with fondness and longing. And envy.

But back to the trip. My in-laws drive down from Philadelphia and spend a couple of days with us. Whenever my in-laws visit us at the beach, my husband likes to rent a boat and take them fishing. My husband loves transportation. He loves cars and boats of all kinds---he comes from a family of German engineers and scientists and what I’ve discovered about them is that they love objects with moving parts. They love fixing cameras and bikes and working on computers and calibrating distances and unreeling fishing rods. My husband loves to read sailing books and wander around harbors. He and his brothers and his father like to use their hands and their brains at the same time (My mother-in-law is more like me---she likes to read.) My favorite activities are to sit very still and read a book, then stare at the computer and type very fast.

What I’m trying to say is my husband loves to fish and I go along for the ride.

We pile my in-laws and kids into the car and drive to Barnegat Light. We rent a boat and buy two containers of frozen squid. The boat is more like a barge, and my husband mans the wheel. Our kids attach the bait to their fishhooks. We have the fishing boat for four hours so everyone relaxes. The men and boys are fishing, my mother-in-law and I are watching.

After a half hour, I pull out a bag of gluten-free chips. I have also brought pretzels, potato chips, pita chips and six bottles of water because God forbid we go hungry out on the bay.

“Do you want to fish?” my husband asks.

“We’re going to sit here and make sure there’s enough shade,” I say and hand my mother-in-law the bag of chips.

We sit on vinyl chairs under a canopy in the 90-degree sun. An hour goes by, nobody catches a fish but the lines still manage to get tangled up many times. My kids fish in the front of the boat, my father-in-law and husband fish in the back. Finally, my husband catches a fish. It is small and grey and writhing, and much too small to keep. We have to throw it back. My husband grabs the hook out of the fish’s mouth. It continues to thrash on the floor of the boat. He tries to grab it but these fish are agile things and it keeps wiggling way. I try to grab it. The fish looks angry, its eyes are fierce, it’s thrashing from right to left, it’s fighting for its life. My heart starts to pound. The fish thinks we are trying to kill it! Maybe we are.

“Get the net, get the net!” I yell.

Someone hands me the net. I scoop up the fish and throw it in the bay. Well, I try to throw it in the bay. The fish get stuck in the net. Back and forth, I swing the net in the water. The fish stays in the net for way too long. Finally, it either swims away or I manage to dump its body out.

“Mommy, did you kill the fish?” my almost nine-year old asks.

“No,” I lie. In truth, I have no idea. All I know is the fish is no longer our responsibility.

My husband decides that the big fish must be in other spots and we need to keep moving around the bay to find them. Every few minutes, he tells the kids and my father-in-law to to reel in their lines. He is getting a little bossy on the boat so I move away from him and rejoin my mother-in-law. We talk a little bit about family dynamics. My husband and I are both first children. We want what we want when we want it. We are all hot and cranky so I suggest we jump in the water and have some fun. I climb down the ladder and ease myself into the bay. Whoopee! The water is warm and delicious. I am so happy to be swimming with the fishes, wherever they are. My kids jump in and we all tread water. My husband suggests I swim to shore and see how deep the water is. I suspect he is trying to get rid of me.

“It’s really deep,” I say.
“I bet you can stand,” my husband says.
Our thirteen-year old stands up. We walk back to the boat.

Afterwards, I say to my husband, “Your mother says you like to be in charge.” My husband shoots me a look. He hates it when I talk about him with his mother and then repeat her observations back to him. I know exactly how he feels because I hate when he talks about me with my brother and repeats those observations back to me.

We head back to shore and return the boat, fishing rods and excess bait to the boat's owner. As a reward for our semi-good behavior, we treat ourselves to ice cream and iced coffee. Maybe next summer, we'll head West and go for a hike.

2 comments:

  1. Very funny. My husband and I are also both first borns, so I know all abt that dynamic. Loved Olive Kitteredge (the novel,not the person); will look into the book of short stories you mentioned.

    kae h
    jacksonville

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