Memories of Summer: Our Readers Revisit Vacations Past

Sunday, May 31, 2009

"How I Spent My Summer Vacation" is an essay permanently etched in our minds. Perhaps the color of the cottage was blue, not gray, and it was Uncle Frank, not Al, who wore the lobster-patterned trunks, but the recollections that matter are as fresh as a blackberry picked straight off the bush.

As we excitedly welcome June, and all of its anticipated pleasures and joys, we can't help but think of the past. When we were small and free, enjoying the warmest weeks of the year with our beloved yet nutty families, all four or 10 of us crammed into a mountainside cabin, beachfront bungalow or VW camper. When the biggest decision was vanilla or strawberry ice cream, swim or build sand castles, Mom's or Dad's lap. When the smallest experiences led to such bliss that, decades later, we still pause to relive that moment, then return to reality with a secret smile on our lips.

To celebrate the start of summer vacation, we have collected memories (edited for space and style) from readers who generously opened their doors to their pasts and let us in. (See Page F6.) Trust us, you will be lulled by their reminiscences and recharged by the warmth of their anecdotes. And while you may wish you had been there, if only as the intrusive neighbor or the family dog, don't neglect your own history. Remember, the memory machine never turns off.

-- Andrea Sachs

My parents were 18-year-old Washingtonians when they married in 1962. A decade and four children later, they decided we needed more exposure to the United States and embarked on a series of cross-country trips, each time venturing farther and farther west. The first year, we crammed into an orange VW bus and drove to Indianapolis to visit my father's childhood friend. A year or so later, we packed up again, this time to Bismarck, N.D., where my parents had friends.

I remember flashes of events: the disappointing stench of the Great Salt Lake and the soaring beauty of Crazy Horse Memorial; the donkeys we rode into the Grand Canyon and our fear of falling off the edge of the world; the peace of sleeping in a single hotel room, my family all in one place. What I remember most clearly, though, was the music my father blasted from his eight-track player: Fleetwood Mac, Neil Diamond, Santana, Helen Reddy. My sisters and I did not like this stuff, but no one dared question Dad's musical tastes. Instead, we sang along.

Only now, 30 years later or more, do I see those vacations for what they truly were: acts of love and generosity, my young parents determined to show us a world much bigger than our own Maryland suburb.

Janice Lynch Schuster, Riva, Md.

When I was a kid in New Jersey, we spent two weeks every summer renting a beachfront house in Barnegat Light, on Long Beach Island on the Jersey Shore. Several times each visit, we'd take a trip to the small harbor at 4 p.m., just as the charter fishing boats were returning from sea. You could buy, right off the boat, beautiful bluefish, a foot long or more, for $1 each. To this day, I love bluefish because it tastes like my childhood.

Cathy Ciccolella, Sarasota, Fla.

Until I was 13, my mother, father, sister and I -- plus the family dog (there was always one of those) -- would pile into a VW Bug for the 15-hour, un-air-conditioned trek from our home in South Florida to western North Carolina. We stayed at Nantahala Village, in a tiny log cabin that hung over a large mountainside. The old lodge burned down several years ago and was replaced with a new one, but much of the place remains the same, and I visit as often as I can.

Kelly Heath, Asheboro, N.C.

Some of our summer vacations involved a camper. On one trip to the Adirondacks, my dad drove a trailer camper to the top of Whiteface Mountain, crossing over to pass cars and nearly killing us a few times.

Dan Palmeri, Tacoma, Wash.

In the 1950s and '60s, my family would drive up to my grandparents' ranch in the Coast Redwoods region of Northern California for a few weeks. The location was so remote that normally the only sounds we could hear were of nature -- mostly birds and the wind rustling through the redwoods and Douglas firs. After lunch outdoors, we'd all take naps during the heat of the afternoon. By late afternoon, we'd get started on a few chores, then dinner preparation, then we'd sit around the fire talking and playing cribbage by kerosene lantern. My grandparents didn't have electricity yet and never had a phone. I don't suppose it's possible to be so detached from life's stresses and deadlines anymore, but I sure wish I could recapture that sense of serenity once in a while.

Katharine F. Baker, Monroeville, Pa.

Best summer memory: a tiny, electricity-free log cabin in the Laurentians, about an hour north of Montreal. There is indoor plumbing but no hot water (we bathed in the lake), and a full kitchen that runs on propane. The only electronics are a battery-powered radio (Vermont Public Radio), but we prefer to listen to the birds, or talk, read, swim, play cards, canoe, hike or nap. I've missed two out of 28 summers. I remember being extraordinarily cranky when I did not get my Canadian recharge.

Carla Winston, Washington

My dad lived to fish. One summer, he packed up all of his gear, and we headed to Florida for a week of fishing. The only stops were for ice, so his night crawlers would stay alive. Forget potty breaks. I'll never forget how disappointed he was when the Florida fish ignored his Pittsburgh worms.

Susie Brown, Burke

We always went camping for our summer vacations. Not camping in the RV/camper style, with electricity and bathrooms, but the stripped-down version with tents, a gas cooktop, kerosene lamps and outhouses (or bushes, depending on the time of day and location in the woods). On one trip to Maine, there was the threat of a hurricane. Because of the possibility of high winds, we took down the tents, put a tarp over a lean-to's open side and hunkered down to wait out the storm. I have no idea how long we stayed in that lean-to: all night? Just an afternoon? I guess I could ask my mom, but I would hate to find out that we were only in it for an hour and spoil the memory of my favorite camping trip.

Elizabeth Cush, Severna Park

Every spring, my mother would pack our summer clothes in a steamer trunk and ship them Railway Express to California. Then in June, she, my younger brother and I would fly out to spend the summer with my grandparents. I vividly remember the summer of 1955, when we had watched the "Disneyland" TV show and learned about a new amusement park in Anaheim. We begged my mother to take us, and she eventually agreed. Disneyland was still under construction, but to us, it was the most magical place on Earth. We went every summer, two or three times, until I was 17. I knew every ride and the words to every hokey spiel on the Jungle Cruise.

Years ago, when my boys were almost 2 and 5, I took them to Disneyland. In Town Hall on Main Street, a friendly young woman pulled down a dusty, leather-bound album from 1955, and on one of the first pages I found my name, "Nancy Rogers, Locust Valley, N.Y.," written in my best first-grade handwriting.

Nancy Rogers Bowen, Potomac

The year was 1958 when, barely school-aged, I accompanied my parents and pre-adolescent brother on the first of many road trips. We set out from New York City in my father's 1955 Buick Roadmaster, traveling the back roads of upper New York state to Niagara Falls. The trip held forth such wonders as an injured donkey being fed an ice cream cone, as well as the obligatory tourist attractions, such as Howe Caverns and Niagara Falls itself. My mother directed my brother and me to a rock in the green shallows of the river, where we had to pose in our matching pink gingham shirts -- the reason, my family jokes, why I won't pose for a photograph.

Gayle Emen, Rockville

Falling in love was so easy in Myrtle Beach, S.C. My first summer romance was with a fellow named Bill, the desk clerk at the Carolina Inn, a marvelous old clapboard hotel. We rented the same casual yet elegant oceanfront cottage every summer from the time I was 11 until I graduated from high school. It was close enough to the waves that it lulled you to sleep, yet far enough away to feel safe.

The next summer I fell in love with Johnny Waters, a lifeguard from Rocky Mount, N.C. My mother had been ill during the trip, so my father was my constant chaperone. Turns out Johnny thought he was my husband, the reason why he'd shunned my flirtations.

I've happily carved a warm place in my heart for these boys. Oh, the passion of summer at the beach, with sand and sun and moonlit nights under the stars.

Geraldine Lloyd, Frederick

In the summer of 1945 when I turned 7, my parents took my cousin, Jon, and me by train to the Boundary Waters, near Ely, Minn. I have never forgotten the beautiful wood canoes, storms, bears, great fishing, putting up the tent, swimming in cold water, and the solitude and beauty along the Minnesota-Canadian border. When I turned 12 and was too old for family vacations, I went to YMCA Camp Widjiwagan, outside Ely. Then we moved to California.

The 1945 trip was such a profound experience that my family has re-created it with a tiny cabin outside of Ely, where we go every summer. Unlike me, our kids are not too old for family vacations.

Tom Rose, Annapolis

When I was 13, I took a cross-country summer road trip with my maternal grandparents, Maditz and Paditz. We drove from their home in Catonsville to my great-aunt's home in Seattle. We saw the educational (Hannibal, Mo.; Lincoln's home in Springfield, Ill.), the amazing (Badlands) and the sublimely ridiculous (Wall Drug, Corn Palace). It was the longest amount of time I had ever spent with them and the most fun. (However, Maditz insisted I do lessons in a dreaded Spanish workbook every night.) Our last night was in Oregon, and we celebrated at a Denny's -- early-bird special, of course. We were so giddy and loud, the neighboring customers shot us disapproving looks and finally moved. Rioting with the grandparents! I'm so glad I got the chance.

Sharon Moores, Woodbridge

As a kid in the early '60s, I vividly recall the last day of school. Soon afterward, it was off to the barbershop for my summer flattop and on the road to our house in Dewey Beach, Del.

Dewey was different then. Route 1 was a two-lane highway, and there were only a few businesses. You could see the ocean from our house and hear the surf hitting the shore. Some days my mom would say, "Let's have seafood for dinner tonight." I would head over to Rehoboth Bay with my inner tube and clam rake and dig up half a bushel of clams in no time. Then I would go over to the pier (where the Rusty Rudder is today) and easily catch a dozen or so large crabs. After I took this home, I would head down to the beach and catch as many kingfish and blowfish as we needed.

We still have our house in Dewey, and I have never grown tired of going there, even with the hustle and bustle that takes place there today. Yet I sometimes long for those days when I could see the ocean from my front yard and fish anytime the tide was high.

George Pappas, Frederick

The going-to-the-lake days started with six o'clock Mass, where every few times either my brother or sister would faint, probably from the summer heat trapped in the airless church, the smell of incense and the lack of breakfast. I would watch them go down and think, "Oh, my God, they're dead!" only to see them revive in time to hog the window seat of our 1956 Chevrolet.

Off we'd go, to Lake Waneta, where my grandparents had a cottage on New York's Finger Lakes. My parents sometimes did the eight-hour trip up and back in one day; other times, we would stay over for a night or two. I think it depended on whether or not they had the money, as we often survived on very little. As my mother wrote in her diary at that time, "We don't have much money, but we are very happy." She was right.

Jean Ross, Vienna

I was very fortunate to have had wonderful experiences every summer visiting, along with my mother and father, relatives in Providence, R.I. One summer in 1954, we saw a performance of "Sabrina Fair" at the Cape Playhouse on Cape Cod. I can still remember the joy of being a little girl and watching this live production starring June Lockhart. In June 2006, I went back to this theater to see my son perform. The theater seemed very familiar, but I wasn't sure if it was the same one from my childhood memories until I went backstage and saw an old poster for "Sabrina Fair."

Fran Nathan Oscar, North Bethesda

I can remember my vacation in Maine so well because it was my first. I was 7 years old in 1946 and had been invited by a neighbor and her daughter on the two-week trip in July. My girlfriend Barbara had an aunt who owned a roadside restaurant within walking distance of where we were staying. We went there for lunch every day. My favorite was the lobster bisque and blueberry pie, and I came home 10 pounds heavier.

Shirley Hughes, Annapolis

I'm told the trip from Jamaica Plain in Boston to South Chatham on Cape Cod can be made in just over an hour. Sixty-five or so years ago, it was an all-day trip down mostly two-lane roads that paralleled the Atlantic Coast. I can still see my father sitting in the front seat of Uncle Frank's monster Buick with my mother in the middle.

I must admit now the little five-room cottage wasn't very impressive. Surrounded on almost all sides by salt marsh, the cottage at high tide appeared to be perched on an island. As my mother once told a snobby visitor, "It's not much, but we like it." The name stuck and, at least until my last visit there in 1977, the cottage was called "We Like It."

Alain C. deVergie, Haymarket

The year was 1945 and I was 5 years old. My father, a school principal, took a summer job working in a lodge at Manzanita Lake in Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California. My mother and I joined him, living in a small log cabin and eating meals at the lodge. On one of my dad's days off, we climbed Mount Lassen. I remember being helped through waist-deep snow, peering into the smoking crater, and signing my name and age in the book at the peak of the 10,400-foot mountain. I was the youngest climber that summer. Equally memorable was Aug. 15, when we heard on the radio that the Japanese had surrendered. We could not set off fireworks because it was a national park, so everyone honked their car horns.

Marilyn Silvey, Reston

Every summer, Mom and Dad would cram the eight of us into the station wagon for our annual Fourth of July vacation to Wellesley Island on the Thousand Islands in New York. For the holiday, Dad would drive us across the border to Canada so we could purchase and set off firecrackers and sparklers, which were illegal in New York. An all-American family leaves their country to celebrate the birth of their country.

Tim Reagan, Silver Spring

From the time I was born until I turned 12, we spent summers at the camp my paternal grandfather rented for the season on Lake George in the Adirondacks. It was a modest structure, built in the late 1890s, with five bedrooms, one bath and an extraordinary porch that ran the length of the structure and looked out over the lake.

The routine never changed summer to summer for the blackberry excursion. We all piled in Gramp's Mercury with our shiny pails and headed for a remote location on the shore where there was a profusion of blackberry bushes. As we drew closer, Gramp would roll down the window and exclaim, "I smell blackberries. We're getting close." As if on cue, he would drive off the main road down a dirt road and we cousins would begin sniffing out the open windows like a pack of raging beagles. Gramp's admonition as we scrambled out: "Watch out for bears!"

By the end of the afternoon, we had collected pails full of blackberries and Gramp had done his annual bear imitation by concealing himself in a nearby thicket and growling like a black bear. Today, I am a grandfather myself, but every summer I think of the taste of blackberries and, if I listen real hard, I can hear a bear growl and the startled shrieks of little children.

Robert C. Plumb, Potomac

Every August in the 1960s and '70s, my family (mom, two brothers and me, my aunt and three cousins, plus the dads on weekends) rented the same house in Rehoboth Beach, Del. We have the silent movies to prove the fun we had: Every year, we'd end our stay with a movie of each of the kids (and the dogs) repeatedly running out of the front porch door, circling around back into the house by the side door and back out the front, making faces, jumping in the air and out-clowning each other. Then the parents would run out, my mom with a pot and spoon; my aunt holding a laundry basket and Tide; my dad with his goofy beach hat on, swinging his tennis racquet; and Uncle Mike throwing the football. Those were the days.

Nancy Ross, Potomac

In the late 1950s and early '60s, we spent our family summer vacations at a small resort called Oakwood Inn, on a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay near St. Michaels, Md. Our day began when an employee walked the entire covered porch of the hotel, ringing a large bell announcing morning's arrival. We would wash up in the shared bathrooms and race to the dining hall, where the guests would sit on long benches at wooden picnic tables and share breakfast family style. Daily activities consisted of swimming, hunting for snails along the tall reeds, fishing off the dock and playing games with other children staying at the resort. Some days, our family of five would take the small motorboat out into the river, lay the crab line and then run back and forth dipping the crabs up with long-handled nets. Upon our return, they were dumped into the live box to be shared by all at the dinner crab feast. Evenings never went on too late, however, because we knew that the morning bell would ring at 8 a.m. to start a new day.

Deb Horrworth, Germantown

My grandfather wanted to have family reunions every summer. I was about 2 years old, so I don't remember the decision making that went into Thunderbird Lodge on Lake Tahoe, Nev. The lodge is a historical landmark, but before it became public property in the late 1990s, it was owned by Jack Dreyfus, the mutual fund tycoon and a client of my grandfather, a lawyer.

Our family (four kids, including my dad, and 11 of us grandchildren) would play on the beach, in the water and in the long tunnel. We would stand out on the stone dock that stretched out onto the lake and watch the boat tours come over to talk about Whittells Castle (another name for Thunderbird Lodge). We'd wave to the tourists, and for a week each year, we felt like rock stars.

My husband and I went back as tourists in 2005. It was hard to be there as a "paying" customer and see all the people walking through the house and not hear our family's laughter. We still manage family reunions every two to three years in various destinations; however, no place has come close to our summers at Tahoe.

Veronica Rogers Everett, Silver Spring

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