We almost didn't go to the beach this year. As almost everyone in Washington knows, you have to rent a beach house by the first week of January or else everything is booked for the summer. As everyone who has an offspring headed for college knows, you usually don't know where the offspring is going until April, and since colleges start at widely different times, you therefore have no idea until April which week you can go to the beach. By then, everything is rented. I was resigned to a beachless summer.

Winter's resignation turned into despair by July. Everyone I knew was going to the beach in August. My children were asking when we would go to the beach. I had to tell them the news.

Then, one day at the swimming pool, a miracle occurred. A friend was talking about a house she owns at a beach in Delaware. It was large enough for grandparents, parents and children. It was close to the beach. It had not been rented for the last week of August. Within a matter of minutes, however, it was.

Looking back, I probably should have wondered why it had not been rented for what is traditionally the peak week of the season. But at that point I wasn't about to look a gift house in the mouth. The deal was struck, the deposit made: we would go to the beach after all. School, as far as I knew, opened the Friday before Labor Day, which struck me as idiotic. It also brought out the anarchist in me and I resolved that my children would simply miss the first day of school.

Our fallback for vacation was a trip to visit my sister in Michigan, which was not quite the hardship it may seem, since she and her husband have a boat docked on a lake. The plan, then, was to celebrate my daughter's fifth birthday Friday night, fly to Michigan on Saturday, return the following Friday, pack for the beach that night and leave the following day. All that was required to pull this off was planning. Out came the yellow legal pad and soon I was making voluminous lists of what we needed to buy, take and do. No detail was overlooked. I was the essence of organization.

As any single working mother knows, there are times when things simply fall apart. This started happening the week we were to leave for Michigan when strep throat invaded the household. My son the 8-year-old got sick, then my daughter got sick the day before her birthday, jeopardizing her party, which, when you are turning 5, is nothing short of disaster. She started on penicillin precisely 24 hours before her party was supposed to start, with the doctor assuring us she would no longer be contagious and the party could go on. Disaster had been averted.

We flew to Michigan the following morning and spent six days in the lap of luxury before returning to reality the following Friday. We rushed from the airport to the pediatrician for the physical my daughter needed before she could start kindergarten. We were only 15 minutes late. The vacation had turned into a triumph of organization and advance planning, the virtues of which I am forever preaching to my children. Obstacles that would have doomed a less determined mother had been overcome.

That Friday afternoon, I remembered to pay the college tuition and after-school care bills. Cat care and lawn care were arranged. We did last-minute marketing, I got cash from the bank and we stopped by the elementary school to find out the children's room assignments and hand in my daughter's medical forms. By Friday evening, when we gathered at the family dinner table, I was flushed with a sense of accomplishment. "After this," I announced grandly, "I feel I could have handled the invasion of Normandy."

My son the 18-year-old turned to his sister and brother and asked them if they were excited about the beach. They said they were. Then he asked them if they were excited about missing school.

"It's only one day," I said defensively.

"No, it's not," he said, looking rather amused.

"Yes, it is," I said firmly. "They're only going to miss next Friday."

"Mom," said the 8-year-old, "what day do you think school starts?"

"Friday the 27th."

"WRONG," he cried out, with a blinding twinkle in his eyes.

My son the 18-year-old started laughing.

At that point I got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that something had gone terribly wrong. I closed my eyes and then I heard the amazed voice of my 8-year-old: