1:49 pm
Tue July 6, 2004

Family Season

Pelicans are not the only group gathering at the shore at this time of year.

Wilmington NC – [Click the Listen button to hear Catherine's commentary.]

It?s that time of year when families flock to coastal Carolina. Generations cluster on the sand and the resemblance is traceable from matriarch to the tow-headed toddler carrying the orange bucket. Every summer offers something new?Joey rides his first wave, Nana has a new hip, Aunt Martha brings a new husband?yet every year brings treasured, hilarious memories of the past, too.

Beach families are a special breed. Over the years their routine ebbs like an easy summer tide. A schedule that once accommodated morning naps and double-tiered suppers eventually gives way to sandcastle compounds and boogie board contests. One year it might be evening kickball or Frisbee madness, another year it might be burying the nine year old in the sand. Most beach families keep some traditions, too, like playing horseshoes in the sand with grandpa.

The beach invites intimate, even unlikely conversations. All ages loosen up as the stress of car pools and meetings gives way to familiar, communal living, to teasing laughter and childhood jokes. Grown men can act like ten year olds in front of their parents, to the horror of their wives. Grown women forget their own children; it?s so fun walking on the beach with the sisters they don?t see often enough.

Everyone plays in the various ways the beach affords. Some drink water, some drink beer, some probably get too much sun, despite the trunk of lotion carted to the beach on a daily basis. Yes, these are special families, the ones who gather on the shore in something resembling a tribal ritual.

Their love for the ocean and sand is lifelong and genuine, as if they?ve inherited this love along with their mother?s blue eyes.

Kinks can certainly emerge, like when an in-law doesn?t come from the same sort of clan. You can see the stiff-lipped fellow who tries to look anything but obsessive wiping sand off his ankles. But generally the inner workings of the family remain invisible to the casual passerby. From the outside, everyone seems to fit and to fit in. Besides, we all know families are a work in progress, a choreographed dance where no one moves in perfect sync.

That?s just the way families operate, and in-laws aren?t the only ones who alter the family dance?the grandkids do the same. For beach families there comes the year when that tow-headed toddler is now a pre-teen, indignant that no one thought to carry a chair for her! Or there?s the year when that once shy nephew expresses curiosity about what it?s like to be a psychiatrist.

Even though each summer beach families know what to expect, they never quite know what will happen. For the most part, the beach turns out to be the perfect place for clans to return, year after year, like loggerheads coming home. As the family expands there?s always room for another chair, another game, another conversation.

The routine can?t ever remain too fixed because the family itself is always changing. It is a kaleidoscope of new hairstyles and hobbies, new attitudes and life directions. The one thing that holds true through time, though, is this shared love of the beach and the willingness to set aside time to have fun in the sun together.

Hey, will someone pass the pretzels?