Ifailed to anticipate one thing when planning a family get-together at the beach: rain. Five days of it. Enough water to keep Noah in boat-building until the Second Coming.
If you want to test the "blood is thicker than water" maxim, spend seven days in a mildewed cottage by the sea with your parents, two adult children, and their spouses and offspring. You think three is a crowd? Hell, we were eight adults and three kids spanning four generations, from learning-to-walk to 85-and-losing-it. Adding spice to the mix, a childless gentleman friend came along for the roller coaster ride.
What could be more idyllic, I mused last winter, than gathering at the ocean for a fun-filled, sun-soaked reunion? In retrospect, thumbscrews hold a certain attraction.
That the week before our pilgrimage had been unseasonably cool and wet I took as an omen. Surely the bad stuff would drift to New Jersey where it belongs and the sun would shine on us each and every day. How could it be any less?
Our first day was a Code Red on the gloominess scale. We kitchy-cooed the baby, who had traveled with his parents from Chicago (where, they were only too eager to tell us, it had been 80 and cloudless), covered our arms with fake tattoos and raided the fridge of healthful treats such as pork roll, spray cheese and Yoo-Hoo.
Rain on the roof signaled reveille the second morning. Good scouts that we are, we ate, played Candy Land, ate, colored, ate, read, ate, watched old movies, ate, put together puzzles, and ate our way to taps.
By Day 3 our good humor had begun to melt. A dozen pairs of wet flip-flops lined up at the front door, testimony to our sad and sodden state. Around 3 o'clock the sun peeked through before disappearing behind a thundercloud. Thank God, the electricity held and we could enjoy SpongeBob together.
Days 4 and 5 were no different. In haute couture rain gear by the House of Hefty, the kids and grandkids slogged to the boardwalk to play Skee-Ball and overdose on french fries and caramel corn.
My parents, who divorced when Lady Bird Johnson was planting daffodils along Spout Run, disappeared for three hours. I didn't know whether to send a search party or a rabbi. "We were having lunch and cocktails," my mother announced when they returned from a nearby pub. With so much free time, I picked Froot Loops from the carpet, arranged the kitchen spices alphabetically and baked a blueberry pie.
While I was busy in the kitchen, Jaymie, 4, and Josh, 7, set a new Guinness record for "He hit me. She hit me first. Did not. Did too. Did not. Did too."
There were moments when I would have traded the entire crew for whatever was behind the curtain. Or the torn curtain over the sink. Or even Paris Hilton.
But a steady stream of visitors kept us in line -- members of my daughter-in-law's family arrived from Philadelphia and Cape May bearing frankincense and myrrh for the Messiah, who goes by Dustin. Not to be outdone, my son's friends drove from Alexandria with their toddler, who enchanted us by breaking new ground with the terrible twos.
Even my ex -- who hated the beach when we were married but now rents for the whole summer (maybe he didn't like my bathing suits) -- stopped by to say hello. If looking good is the best revenge, I flunked: French manicure of chocolate fudge, T-shirt a collage of strained peas and carrots, and hair by an Elizabeth Arden wannabe on a bad trip.
On Day 6 the sun came out. Quick as you can shout, "Surf's up!" snarls turned to smiles. Swords (grilling skewers) turned into plowshares (beach umbrellas). The two eldest kids hit the waves. His acolytes in hot pursuit, baby Dustin crawled to the water's edge to dip his teeny toes into the Atlantic for the first time. He pulled himself up on his dad's legs and, for one split second, I could have sworn he walked on water.
The next day, after everyone had gone, I made a final sweep of the house. Alone once again, the perfume of dirty laundry permeating the car, I stopped to return the key and left a deposit for next summer.