My family and I returned Sunday night from a week-long vacation in the Outer Banks. By “my family,” I mean everyone: my mother, my three sisters and my cousin, our spouses and all our children, nineteen of us in total. Kill Devil Hills, the quiet, beachy town where we stayed, offers little activities. Having fun means making fun and that we did. Whether it was laughing together on the beach, working on cheerleading stunts in the pool, or yelling and singing over a game of cards at night, we had our fun.
And while we were having it, I couldn’t help but think of the beach vacations I took growing up. The vacations when my father was still here, when only two of my nieces were born, when I was only a child and my future with Anthony and Rosie was many years away.
For four or five years, we spent our summer vacations in the Hamptons. My mother, father, sisters and I would stay in our own condo while my “Italian” cousins and their parents stayed in another.
Each day we’d trek to the beach, slipping off our flip flops at the end of the dock and pressing our bare feet into the squishy sand. I watched as the men–my father, uncle and brother-in-law–unfolded yellow striped lounge chairs and pushed umbrellas deep into the ground. Pack ‘n Plays were opened underneath where my sun-flushed baby nieces would drift off to sleep throughout the day.
I spent the day so many ways. At times, I sat in a beach chair, a sketchbook on my lap swiping a pencil across the page to draw the swimsuited backs of my nieces as they stood along the shore. My aunt sometimes peeked over my shoulder and shared pointers on perspective and shading. Later on, I sat on the edge of a lounge chair along with my mother and the other girls and women. With a chair between us, we laid out our cards for May-I, catching them as fast as we could when the wind breezed itself across the beach. Or I stood in the ocean with my sisters and brother-in-law bopping as the soft waves lifted us up, ducking under the bigger, rushing ones or riding them into shore.
A large amount of my time, though, was spent with my sisters as we played with our nieces. The scratchy grains dug into my knees as we flipped buckets of wet sand into miniature castles and dug tiny moats around their edges. We took turns letting the girls bury us. Lying face-up on the sand as they covered me with shovel-fulls, I wiggled my fingers and toes, feeling them escape into the open air as the little girls giggled around me.
Back in the house, once the sand had been washed from our skin, we pulled on our soft, long-sleeved tees from Breezin’ Up, pieced together puzzles, sang songs, and tickled the little ladies until they lost their breath. In the morning, we began it all again. Each day. Every year.
A New Millennium
Five years after our last Hamptons trip, so much had changed. My sisters and I had become women, my first two nephews had joined the world (and a couple of years later, my new niece, Olivia) with their chubby cheeks and pudgy knees.
And my father was gone.
People say when someone dies there is a hole left behind. But the word hole doesn’t seem like enough. It’s more of a crater, a chasm. One so deep, it seems to begin again and again before it ends. But that’s not all that remains. Debris remains too, a pile of fragments left behind. And when you put your pieces back together, when you build it all back up brick by brick, it is nothing like it was. It can’t be But you have to build it, for that is the only way to carry on.
So we didn’t return to the Hamptons; we didn’t rent a condo at the Heritage as we always had. But we did begin annual outings to L.B.I. My nieces were older then but still little girls. They’d spend hours in the ocean with their father; I’d watch them beg him to take them in again and again and again. Those days, I didn’t play with them as much in the sand honestly. I was working on my tan. In the pool, though, we played unending rounds of Goofy or simple games we made up for fun. When the girls had had enough, I’d take a nephew on my hip and jump up and down or spin splashing the water around us.
And in the house, we just played and played. We sang our own version of “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid, lifting the girls up in the air on the end notes. We lined up along the couch and sang Father Abraham moving our heads up and down. And then our arms and then our legs until we collapsed onto the sofa in fits of laughter. Even the babies chuckled at our antics.
We slapped down our cards on the coffee tables, claiming piles in Spit or hoping for the higher card in War. My sisters and I would search for a low card among our decks to make sure the girls could win now and then. We started teaching them to play May-I too, letting them sit on our laps and be on our teams, singing “You Can’t Throw That” and dancing to M. C. Hammer’s beat whenever someone threw an illegal card. And each year I brought a craft to make with all the kids. One year we colored white sneakers with fabric markers; the next, we made our own T-shirts with bright, shining paint.
When I remember these vacations, those of my childhood and my young adulthood, it is my nieces’ and nephews’ faces that I see. When I remember the moments of laughter, the moments of joy, they are there all around me.
Now, eight years later, a entirely new generation has joined our family. My sister’s daughters, five and three, and her ten-month-old son. And, of course, there is Rosie.
So there we were again. At the beach. In the pool.
I played with Rosie. I dug with her in the sand. I took her to the edge of the ocean and watched her freeze up as the cold water ran over her pale feet. I spun her around in the smooth pool water; I threw her up in the air and let the water swoop her down and push her back up. I watched her laugh as Anthony swam around the pool with her. We made memories. And I enjoyed every moment.
But that’s not all I enjoyed. I loved watching the full circle we’ve made. I loved seeing how my older nieces and nephews are the big kids now while my daughter, my new nieces and youngest nephew are the babies. I loved watching as the bigs sat around the kitchen table, helping the littles string wooden beads onto a necklace. I loved hearing Rosie yell “Ready or not, here I come” as her older cousin hid under the kitchen table. The older kids held the hands of the younger ones in the pool, pulling them around the water and singing “Let It Go” over and over again. They played Marco Polo and Goofy, guiding the babies along the length of the pool and cheering them on as they “raced” each other. They lay on the beach and let Rosie and the others bury them with sand; they built sand castles and helped them collect shells on the shore.
Isn’t life amazing? Isn’t it incredible that what seems like only a few years ago, these tall, dark, beautiful young woman and were just little girls, laughing at my every joke. And these almost teenagers were only tiny babies, sitting on my hip in the pool, laughing at a game of Peek-a-boo. And, here they all are now, making my daughter laugh, laugh with her eyes closed and her mouth open.
This is what family means after all. This is family. Family is this.
Moments and memories and change. Change that doesn’t change what matters. Falling apart and coming back together again. Growing and moving and staying and loving. Forever.