By Laura Petelle
This is the final post in our What is Family? blog series. Click here to read all of the posts in the series.
Those early years all blend together, from when I was about three until I was maybe twelve. It’s one long summer of sand and sun, bare feet and itchy clothes.
Every summer, for twenty-seven years, my mom, her brothers and sister, and all of the spouses and kids, made their way by car and plane, from Illinois, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Kentucky to The Beach.
That’s what we called it—The Beach. It was Ocean City, Maryland, but it didn’t need a full name. We anticipated it all summer and cried when it was over.
It wasn’t until I got older that I appreciated what the adults gave up for us to be close to our grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. It’s not everybody’s idea of fun to spend a week with their parents, adult siblings, and a herd of noisy children in close quarters, especially if it’s the only vacation of the year.
We children never knew how much work went into this sublime sun-drenched week—the dozens of loads of laundry, the hundreds of sandwiches, the scores of mediated spats. For us kids, it was a week of sheer bliss, packed into two condos with all of our cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents. We had freedom and a pack of built-in playmates, plus time at the beach, with acres of sand and crashing waves.
In the end, there were thirteen cousins. Nell, Big Mike, and I were the oldest, and I desperately wanted to be included with them rather than the three Bubbas—Pat, Chris, and Brian—who were all the same age and came next, two years after me. After them were Danny, Kate-o, and Kevin. Then Jamie and Michael, the same age, and last of all Will and Rachel. But what I remember most about those years are my aunts. I had four of them, plus my mother, with Aunts Cathie and Carolyn playing the young “cool” aunts. What stands out most about those earliest years is Aunt Janet, Aunt Ellen, and my mother—a trifecta of mothering.
In those days at the beach, when I was waist-high and the world seemed to exist in two distinct levels—those of us whose heads didn’t reach the countertops and those who stood near the ceiling—my mother was suddenly multiplied. I would patter around the condos busy doing “errands” until confronted by a woman’s knees and a kind, smiling voice. I would look up – up – up and see my mother, or Aunt Janet, or Aunt Ellen inquiring about the events of my little world.
In that wonderful week, I would walk up to my Aunt Janet just as imperiously as I would my own mother and demand that she “goop me” as my mother was busy smearing sunblock on one of her nephews. I would beg and whine to Aunt Ellen for extra donut holes as if she were my own mother—no company manners there. And I watched as my mother adopted nine extra children as her own, changing diapers and making lunch for a baker’s dozen of children.
Of course their husbands were there too. When I think of my uncles, I remember them reading the Washington Post, and if you asked nicely, Uncle Bob or Uncle Gene would usually be able to find you the comics section. Uncle Dick and Uncle Jack and my dad were the lifeguards and mission commanders, organizing the massive trek down to the beach every morning, assigning this cousin to carry the umbrella, that one to carry two chairs, this one to carry the blanket. They decided when we could get in the water and how deep we could go, and they took the babies into the shallows to splash in the waves.
They were always smiling, my aunts and my uncles. The years seemed to drop away from them at The Beach. They have all grown wrinkles and bellies and gray hair with age, but still when they smile I am transported back to the eternal summer of The Beach. At The Beach they were children, teenagers. Uncle Dick knew the best way to dig a hole in the sand. Uncle Bob told the same joke over and over—and we always fell for it. Aunt Ellen would nearly always give in, with a look of disapproval that was never effective because her eyes were twinkling, when we teased her for an extra donut hole. And my mother seemed like a girl, laughing and teasing, more carefree than she ever seemed at home.
They would sit around the adult table long after dinner was done, retelling family stories as we hung over the couches or crawled into their laps or played quietly with our toys in the deepening dusk. Some of the stories were the same every year—the time Nell switched all the tags on the wedding presents, the time Chris fell asleep with a mouth full of hamburger—and some would have a sudden resurrection from the depths of memory. We listened hungrily to learn the stories that made us family, so that we too could repeat them one day
The room was full of laughter, so loud it would echo through my child-sized head, sometimes hurting my ears. The laughter was almost a living thing. Was this what being an adult was like? This endless laughter? I would shift in my seat, itching where the sand was still in my clothes, bask in the salty sea breeze that rolled in from the waves, and revel in the happiness around me.
My aunts and uncles grew older, and inevitably I did too. I stretched from childhood into gawky adolescence, and eventually slid into adulthood, without gaining the extra inches I had so hoped for. My uncles grew bellies and my aunts’ capable arms began to sag. They grew wrinkles from mortgages, gray hair from driving lessons, and those knees I so loved began to resemble elephants’. In time, the chill hand of death touched our family, and I saw my uncles cry. In time, I learned that family meant tears of sorrow as well as tears of laughter.
Now, when we gather as a family, some faces gone from us and some new to the clan, we cousins can join in when the stories are retold. And now, when my mom and Aunt Ellen and Aunt Janet smile, their faces relax into labyrinths of lines and those who admit it wear their gray hair like crowns. But in their happy faces and sparkling eyes, I can see more than a score of summers stretching out behind them, smell the sea air of my childhood, hear the lonely call of the gulls across the years. I see them as young wives, and harried mothers of teenagers, and a wonderful trinity of mothers, six knees all in a row, smiling down at me like a benediction.
Laura Petelle is an attorney, author, and mother of two who writes frequently on parenting and education. She lives in Peoria, Ill., and is on the web at laurapetelle.com.
Click here for all of the posts in the What is Family? blog series.