IT WAS NOT all that radical, the notion of a family going off together for a week of summer at the shore
But when you're spread, as we were, from California to Washington, and New York to Georgia, it can seem almost impossible.
Still, my mother had a dream: that somehow amidst active careers, commitments to in-laws and growing families of our own, we could all be together for a vacation, at least one more time.
We were two Fitzgerald parents and four Fitzgerald kids, who had had our last real family vacation together in a cottage near the shores of Lake Michigan a quarter of a century ago.
But over the years we had acquired more "baggage" -- three spouses, a girlfriend, two daughters, two sons, a dog and three cats, a real estate business, project deadlines at work, even a second business of a summer camp.
Still, anything's possible for my mother -- as long as you're willing to be patient. And though she missed the summer of her 40th anniversary -- I had to scotch her plans with the news that I was expecting a baby -- this summer, the summer she turned 65, looked right.
She gave us six months' notice and we all agreed to be there.
The question was where?
We had no "summer place," either ancestral or sentimental. My father had hopscotched around the divisions of a large corporation as we were growing up, and had tended to invest in boats rather than second homes. We used to call Michigan home -- and had spent a couple of summers "up north" -- but now all of us, even my parents, had moved away.
So we started from scratch. We needed a place that was easy to reach, not so expensive that we would feel guilty afterwards, with five or six bedrooms and enough activities to keep us from driving each other crazy over the course of a week.
My parents thought first of Skidaway Island, a recreational community off the coast of Savannah where they had retired. It had golf and tennis and a swimming pool and they could rent a couple of condos for all of us. But it didn't have a beach. And, after all, Mother and Dad wanted a vacation, too.
So they drove up the coast a ways to scout out Hilton Head. It had golf and tennis, but no homes available on the ocean and a maze of rules about who could use the pool and beach club. Somehow, it didn't seem right for the family.
But with some time left over, they decided on a whim to drive another hour and visit Fripp Island. They vaguely remembered hearing about it from some of their friends.
They liked what they saw. You could get a house on the ocean and could use all the facilities that you wanted to pay for. There were no high rises and, since access was limited by a security guard, no crowds. They put a deposit on a house that day.
We never had heard of the place. For months after they had first told us, we had thought it was "Tripp Island." A neighbor from South Carolina reported that "that was where all the families go." On the way down, we stopped at the South Carolina visitors' center and picked up a small brochure: "Every year the giant loggerhead turtles return to the clean, white beaches of Fripp because the island remains unspoiled, uncrowded and uncommercialized. Some of the very reasons that make Fripp so attractive to people."
"Sounds like it has potential," I said to my husband.
We followed the map south and east to Beaufort, and then threaded the chain of islands and causeways that ends a half hour later on Fripp Island. The island is only three miles long and a half-mile wide. Many of the homes are strung out, three or four deep along the beach, others line the golf course. Townhouses -- "villas" in the development's argot--cluster around the beach, golf and tennis clubs. Some cottages are nestled deep in lush southern woods. Still others look out on marshland, a view that at sunset can provoke as much meditation as the ocean.
We found our house easily, following the directions of the security guard. It was probably 10 years old, with wood siding and a nice screen porch on the second floor facing the beach. It was configured so that it could be divided into two units and -- a critical point -- had enough bathrooms that no one ever had to do much waiting. I found out later it was an "economy" house by Fripp standards. With the sand that we tracked in, I think we all felt comfortable right where we were.
Mother and Dad's two-car caravan from Savannah with the California contingent didn't arrive until more than an hour later. In the meantime, we had broken out the beer with the Rochester Fitgeralds and, in another mark of the family, made a worried call to try to find out why Mother and Dad were so late.
It took some time to unpack my parents' cars. My sister Sue and I had agreed that we were not going to let Mother do all the cooking. And so we were surprised when she announced that she would not let that happen, that we would all divide it up.
We should have known better. From my parents' cars came 10 pounds of fried chicken, a 16-pound precooked smoked turkey, a whole cooked ham, a dozen steaks, premixed chili for hot dogs, 10 dozen cookies, two batches of brownies and a rum cake -- so much food, in fact, that Mother had been forced to leave her golf clubs behind. At 65, though, the quartermaster was slipping -- she had packed a mayonnaise-size jar of minced onions, but forgot the mayonnaise. Too much confusion when we were packing, she complained. Somehow it made her more human.
We had six nights when we all would be there. I had thought we could rotate each day among the "sub-families," but Sue had a different idea. Sue really missed her calling as the social director of a luxury liner. She insisted we would have a drawing to pair two cooks and two members of the clean-up crew. The second half of the week, we would switch jobs and draw again.
And it was fun. The first night my father and his 8-year-old granddaughter were on the cook detail. They expertly unwrapped the fried chicken Mother had brought, but the corn on the cob proved to be a challenge. "How long are you supposed to boil it?" Dad asked. After tasting the results, Mother gave him a short lesson on what "boil" means.
The second night was Mother's birthday. I had brought along mixes for a cake, but Mother already had taken care of that -- bringing a lemon-glazed pound cake from one of her friends. Terry, my brother's about-to-be-announced fiance', was scheduled with her 12-year-old soon-to-be niece, but she survived, and became the first to break out of Mother's menus with an hors d'oeuvre of her own.
The island had a small store with general store stock at 7-Eleven prices. It came forth with the food that Mother had forgotten, toys for uncles and aunts to buy Steve, our 3-year-old, even birthday cards and decorations for a party. When Mother made a Maalox run for Dad right before dinner, it gave us a chance to string up the balloons Sue had blown up and hidden in her room. We put out napkins, plopped a big "65" on the cake and put on those silly party hats. It was small as surprises go, but the only surprise party her children had ever given her.
The next night my husband and Mother teamed up. And Walt, who loves to cook, informed her he was not going to be satisfied with merely serving up something she already had made. Instead, we ventured off to one of the shrimp boat docks along the road to Beaufort. We bought several pounds of medium-sized shrimp for just $5 a pound (a "bad year," one of the merchants had warned us.) I nagged Walt that the shrimp really should be deveined, and was surprised to hear my mother tell him later that she never bothered.
The days unfolded leisurely. Mother, as mothers do, spent a fair amount of her vacation worrying: when the thunderstorms arrived, when my father swam alone, even whether we were all having fun. She was upset to discover that a seawall was under construction right in front of the house, with a crew -- "make sure the house is locked if you leave" -- showing up each morning. But when she discovered that their first choice of a house had no beach at high tide, she decided she had been lucky.
We never lacked for anything to do, but there was never any pressure to do anything either. Four of the men tried the Fripp golf course the first day, and returned hot, sweaty and cursing the 25 balls they had lost in the water. The next time, we tried a private club about 30 minutes away that had two 18-hole courses. My younger brother and I played for the first time since we were teenagers; instead of throwing his clubs now, he offered some helpful suggestions. He braved the Fripp Course on the last morning and, this time, nearly broke 80.
The tennis contingent was disappointed its first day out to discover that a fence had fallen down on the cheaper, hard courts, barring play there. Only "proper" tennis shoes were allowed on the clay courts, so half of them were forced into a makeshift game on the basketball court. But Fripp's laid-back ambiance apparently extends to its staff: The next time those with the proper shoes reserved the court, and the rest trooped on later.
We devoted other afternoons to sailing small catamarans, modified for vacationers to make them harder to capsize. We rented bikes to explore the trails that run the length of the island, but in the heat, passed up the jogging trail and the "European Parcourse" with its exercise stations. There was a lighthouse to explore at a state park down the road, and historic homes in Beaufort. And for those who feel they must -- we didn't -- wine and cheese parties to find out about the real estate opportunities of Fripp Island.
The in-laws all endured two nights of old family slides. Another night was passed with "E.T." in Beaufort; on another, Sue organized us all into attending the Fripp Island-sponsored "roller disco," held under the lights on the basketball court until the rain washed it out. And on our last night together, we put on clean clothes and posed for an informal family portrait -- Mother had the frame already waiting at home.
We passed a week without a fight, major or minor. The old political divisions -- the diehard Reaganauts teasing the Carter administration aide, or vice versa -- never surfaced. Instead, we recalled the derivation of family nicknames -- "Queen Witchabella" for me, "Bird-o" for my brother Tom -- and debated who had organized the egg toss in the kitchen one night when our parents were out.
We had grown up enough to be friends, yet had not gotten so old that we could no longer get a kick out of all going off together.
Nor were we so old that we failed to call Mother when we got home to let her know we had made the trip safely.