Ever since I started writing checks for beach house rentals, I've lived with one single terror. It happened to a friend one summer and the tale of woe she told upon her return was not to be forgotten. She and her husband had rented a beach house, driven down with his two young sons and three dogs, and been stuck in the house the entire week. Their main source of recreation was to watch rain, which poured down every day until they left.

This year, there was only one bone of contention in our beach preparation, which was whether to bring along the TV. "What do we need a television at the beach for?" said my son the college student, who was packing the car.

"What if it rains?" I said. "Do you know what it's like to be stuck in a beach house with two little kids?"

I felt very smart about this because it began raining about a half hour after we left for the beach. My son the 9-year-old kept talking about Hurricane Danny. Things were not helped much when we arrived at the realty office and discovered that they did not have keys to the beach house. Finally, a manager arrived and found a set, and we were off to find the town house we had rented. Our instructions were clear: We were to take a U-turn after a big complex and drive back until we saw the sign for the town houses and we would also see a sign that says "Beware of Dog."

We made a great many U-turns. We saw no signs. We drove back and forth in the downpour along the ocean highway. Finally, we agreed that a cluster of gray town houses had to be the place. We drove in and found a sign hidden by growth. Still, no sign "Beware of Dog." Then we saw the number "7" on an underground parking space. We were staying in "7." We drove in. This had to be it. We walked up the steps and somebody opened the screen door: There on the door in small letters was the magic sign: "Beware of Dog."

The rain continued for the rest of the day and there was something nice about it: No one felt rushed into unpacking and getting down to the beach. That night my son treated the family to a crab feast and his girlfriend treated us to sundaes. I figured this was definitely the way to go to the beach.

It was still raining the next morning.

I started thinking seriously about my friend.

The children, miraculously, were not complaining. The television was on and what turned into a week-long backgammon tournament had begun. There was nothing to do but relax. About noontime, the sun broke through the clouds and within an hour everyone was down on the beach.

The next day was magnificent. It was the kind of day made for lying on the beach, reading a truly trashy novel, sipping iced tea and, when you feel the need for a real workout, walking down to the ocean and dipping your toes into the water.

"Mom," said the 9-year-old. "Let's play whiffle ball."

I looked at his brother. He was sleeping.

I looked at his sister. She was 6.

I played whiffle ball.

A sportswriter covering the event would have had to note that the wind was ferocious, but he also would have had to note that it handicapped both opponents equally. And he would note that one player was overmatched.

"Mom," said the 9-year-old after the 17th miss at bat, "you're swinging too late." Or: "Put your feet like this." Or: "Bend your knees more." Or: "Hold the bat farther back."

Pitching was another story, altogether. Worse. I threw balls that Frank Howard could not have hit. I hit the batter. I threw behind the batter. At some point I decided that one of the unheralded advantages of opening up athletics in schools to women is the fact that should they grow up to be single mothers they won't disgrace themselves with a whiffle ball. Or bat.

He was patient, though, and it was fun. Somehow, during the year, there isn't much time for whiffle ball. So those games became a nice memory of the vacation. Another was watching my older son take his sister out into the surf and watching her clinging and laughing, going under and coming back up, secure in the knowledge that he would not let her go. And then there were the walks along the beach, the big decision being which direction to go.

After we returned, I was talking to a friend who had taken his family to the same beach area. We were comparing notes on the weather. It had rained the day we left, which was the day after he and his family arrived. Lots of other people we know were down there at the same time. He made no effort to see them. "It's really the only time the six of us can be together," he said.

Which, rain or shine, is what a real vacation is all about.