by Mystic Silks
Every summer, during most of my childhood, my family made the short trek "down the Cape," to Cape Cod, in Massachusetts, for our annual vacation. This was my father's one big week off from work, and he liked to spend it by the sea, basking in the sun, eating fried seafood, and generally relaxing. We rarely went anywhere else. Sometimes we rented a cottage: one of those tiny, one-room, eat-in, playhouse-like structures that sat neatly in a row with other cottages that all looked exactly the same. Usually these were painted white and sported folksy, green shutters decorated with pine cone cut-outs, or were weathered gray with white trim, a color that was, and still is, synonymous with Cape Cod. Route 28, the main southern road through tourist towns like Dennis and Yarmouth, was famous for a plethora of cottage motels in those days. Later they were replaced with bigger, two-story motels or hotels, and fancier places to stay. But back in the 1960s and early 1970s there were many of these quaint getaway spots. The only trouble was, these groovy little lodgings weren't near the beach, although they were closer to restaurants and shopping. So, in later years, my family - my mom, dad and I, stayed in a motel right on the ocean. To me, this was a thankful improvement as I could now go to sleep with the soft wooshing of the waves rather than the city-like din of highway traffic.
For that one week of vacation bliss (or boredom, depending on my age), we would do all the touristy things that were available, like shopping all the cheesy, themed gift shops vending souvenirs made in Japan (not China back then), and playing mini-golf with its obstacles of pirates, whales and giant lobsters. Oh, there had to be lobsters - everywhere - on plastic toys, on menus, on signs, and on hats. You couldn't get off the Cape without having eaten at least one meal made with fresh, local lobster, and having worn that famous and fashionable "lobster bib" to prevent food from dribbling on your lovely summer outfit. Personally, I liked lobster as long as it was done "lazy man" style, already cut up and dowsed with buttered bread crumbs and cheese. But, given the choice, I'd always prefer the clam strips plate at Howard Johnson to lobster. Ah, those were the days of fattening food without guilt!
Speaking of food, our trips to Cape Cod also inevitably brought indulgences in ice cream and salt water taffy. There was a place we'd visit on each trip that made salt water taffy on site; you could stand outside the window and watch huge, metal paddles pulling and stretching the sugary goodness. The taffy came in a mind-boggling array of flavors and we had to try them all over time. We'd always come home with a box or two of taffy: one for us and one for my grandparents. I can still remember the rainbow of candy colors semi-hidden behind translucent, twisted wax wrappers that you could see behind the clear cellophane window on the front of the white taffy box. Childhood joy!
However, the main event of every Cape vacation was the daily trip to the beach, if the weather was nice. We would pack up the car with our seaside gear which included a multi-colored canvas umbrella with a dangerous, wooden, javelin-like point (no folding ones yet!); bags and bags containing towels and changes of clothes; aluminum folding chairs with woven, mod-colored, plastic seats; and the famous blue and white, hard-sided, Coleman cooler that weighed a ton, especially when filled with food and ice. After we arrived, we'd unload all these "survival items" and carry them over the scorching dunes, barefooted if you were brave, to find that special, perfect spot close to the water, but not too close that we'd have to move as the tide came in. Finding a good spot on the beach was a science!
Once the proper landing spot was selected, the establishment of "base camp" began. First, we'd stake our claim by jamming, as best possible, the umbrella into the hard sand so it would stay upright. Next, the beach towels were spread out and weighed down with shoes, the cooler, bags, and those lovely metal beach chairs, which were now starting to get to skin-burning temperature in the sun. The cooler with all its precious, life-preserving contents, was given the best spot under the umbrella to keep it from the heat of the sun, while the rest of us baked, like potatoes, out in the open. As a side note: Being that ours was a fully Italian family, that cooler was well-stocked with food. I think that we could have survived for a week on its contents. Inside were endless cold cut and tuna sandwiches, fruits of all kinds, potato salads, and sometimes even pasta, not to mention cold drinks AND ice. I am not sure how it all fit in something that was only a few cubic feet in volume, but I imagine it was like one of those tiny cars at the circus where clowns keep coming out: there was some sleight of hand involved that only my mom knew how to do.
After all that packing and unpacking, we were finally ready to sit on the hot sand with hundreds of other folks who were also trying to jam in a year's worth of fun into one glorious, work-free week. The slightly sickly-sweet smell of warm skin and tanning lotion (not sunscreen, as we were not concerned with skin cancer just yet) filled the warm, moist air. Ah, time to settle into that scalding beach chair and relax. But wait, who's ready for a dip in the water?? My mom, being very self-conscious about her appearance and who couldn't swim, never went in the water except for an occasional walk near the edge of the surf. It seemed her self-appointed duty to watch our valuables - the cooler, of course, and my father's wallet, while sitting back at "base camp." My father and I would take the plunge into the cool Atlantic waters, sharp sand and plenty of seaweed under our feet. My father didn't really swim; he dog-paddled for short distances, but he did enjoy being in the water - for a short time. I could stay in the water for hours and hours, coming out only to eat from the cooler cornucopia, and to comb the beach for shells. I was a big shell collector in my youth, and trips to the ocean resulted in pockets full of shells and rocks, and any other seaside flotsam that caught my eye.
Being an only child, I had a lot of time to myself to walk the beach, play in the sand and surf, and just think on those family vacations. Lest you believe I am complaining about those childhood trips, I am not. There were some boring moments, but I do have many fond memories of our times by the ocean. Just yesterday, as I was waiting for someone in a parking lot, car windows open to let in the steamy air, a subtle whiff of something salty combined with the hot sun on my arm as it rested at the edge of the window, brought back a flood of sensations that reminded me of visits to the beach. There was something earthy and pleasant about the feel of warm sand by the sea. Of course, there was also sand in my toes, in my swimsuit, in my hair, and in my food. Maybe you haven't lived until you have eaten a tuna sandwich made with tuna and the grit of actual sand. Running my hands through the sand, over and over again, was quite meditative as the waves created rhythmic and soothing background music for my reveries. I could almost block out the surrounding crowd noise until it was just me and the sea, at least in my mind. I am sure my love of being near water, whether ocean or lake, developed there, on the sands of the Cape.
I realize now that I was lucky to have lived close enough to the coast to have experienced the sea first hand. Vacations are special opportunities to go someplace that transports you from the ordinary to the memorable. It doesn't matter whether you go to the sea, to a lake, to the mountains, or to a new city, as long as you see life with fresh eyes and an open heart after having been away. I hope your summer vacation is filled with fun, laughter, and the spirit of the sea, even if you don't get sand in your shoes.