SUMMER MEANS many things. It means swimming pools and picnics; it means fireworks and softball. Around our place it also means the family reunion.

At least, that's what it means every other year, including this one. It is my husband's family, actually, and they will gather, with spouses, children, children-in-law and grandchildren at Bethany Beach for the eighth time.

I am very fond of my in-laws. I am decidedly less fond of the beach. I am a child of the Midwest, and the ocean either bores me or scares me. I can't sit in the sun unless I'm reading, and I can't read in the sun. I am also averse to sand in the bed. Also the bathtub. See my problem?

I think the original reunion included 40 men, women and children, and what with additions and deletions, there'll be about that number this year. Some of these people will be tiny babies, you understand, the third generation. There are the unavoidable no-shows: young people who cannot get away from a new job; a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa. But 40 is a good number. We never found a house large enough for such a crowd, of course, so we settled on one two-bedroom apartment for each of the seven families. We usually rent the eighth apartment for the inevitable overflow. So, in effect, we take over two of those enormous four-flats close to the beach.

We arrive on the Saturday of the week set aside, the cars loaded with food, beach gear, reading material, games, puzzles, bed linen and a fair amount of gin.

Only I would have married a man with not only one but five beautiful sisters. And not only are they still good-looking, they are all enormously clever -- talented needlewomen and marvelous cooks.

There's a sort of joshing contest all the time as to which apartment is serving the best hot hors d'oeuvres, for example. As an outsider, I do not compete, but I certainly benefit. There is food and drink available everyplace all the time, it seems to me. We usually gather at sundown on one double porch or another for news and conversation.

And just as often, we sing. Frank's sisters also sing beautifully -- isn't it a good thing I like them? -- and they know every hymn ever written. As a result, my grown children, and all the second generation, for that matter, know more old songs and lovely hymns than anyone else in their crowd.

Early in the week, Uncle Ben will have set up the bridge table on his porch in preparation for giving lessons to anyone in need. Helyn and Jack will wander off after shore birds, or dunes, or whatever. Celeste and Bud will find the best restaurant on the beach. And everyone will take turns watching the little ones and calling for more sunscreen. I might even get a nap in.

The Friday before we leave is a mass production: Empty your refrigerator and bring everything. It ends up a smorgasbord to defy description. Lasagna snuggled against potato salad; deviled eggs; a tad of barbecue; two hot dogs; half a lemon meringue pie and a pitcher of martinis. They said to bring everything.

Someone is forever going to the store and asking if you need anything. Frank supplies the morning papers and doughnuts to each apartment. It's a tradition. One night the big kids will take the little kids to the Ocean City boardwalk. It's traditional. One night there will be a showing of old movies. Jack and Helyn's wedding in 1946 is always the highlight. Little Julie learning to walk is good for a laugh, as is an interminable reel of autumn in Falls Church which Happy took during a brief naturalist phase.

Another tradition is that each reunion should have a theme, a focus, if you will. (The Sisters Five are also endlessly inventive, in addition to everything else.) One year we went all-out with a Salute to Fathers, complete with Certificates of Merit, original verse, one ode per father; thousands and thousands of dollars in play money, and scrolls with gold seals and red ribbons.

Two years ago we had a tea party for Nita, honoring her as the Mother of the Year. (Her oldest son had just been ordained by the pope. In Rome, yet!) Helyn brought down a large assortment of fancy hats, and we had all been ordered to wear white gloves. We ate tiny sandwiches and lemon tarts and had tea served in fine china cups from a silver service. The second event was a mock graduation for Julie who, at 60, was having trouble with college math on her way to a long- delayed degree. The men wore academic or judicial robes (one is a real judge, by the way) and the tape deck blared out "Pomp and Circumstance" as they marched down the road. There were speeches and honorary degrees awarded as well as the diploma and a scholarship to MIT.

Word has just reached me that this year we are to have a baby shower for little Julie and, on the lastnight, a Miss America contest. I don't have the official rules yet, but I hear there will be the usual bathing-suit-with-high-heels segment, followed by the evening gown and talent show, closing with a personal interview by the judges, all of whom are to work with a computer. I don't know what to do about this event. My bathing suit is nine years old and I have no high-heeled shoes. The thought of them makes my feet hurt up to my shoulders. I do have a black chiffon evening dress, sort of a Spectre-at-the-Feast number, which I could wear while reciting "The Song of the Shirt." Or maybe I could sing "I Got a Gal in Kalamazoo." Maybe not.

Females of all ages are to be entrants, as I get it, down to and including a 10-month-old who can count to six. Now they've got my interest. I will have three yummy granddaughters there, any one of whom could win it all.

Perhaps I can register as their personal manager and get in on the fun without quite relinquishing my title as the Family's Favorite Poor Sport.

Who cares about a little sand in the shower?