Last week I watched the neighbors pack for vacation. It was done neatly and quickly; luggage stowed, bicycles secured on a trailer, two smiling children buckled in and handed the electronics which will keep them quietly occupied in their air-conditioned SUV for days, if necessary. They will have myriad choices for lunch. No one will have to hunker down along the side of the road for an embarrassing and highly illegal pee. They will arrive refreshed and and check into a suite with appliances, WiFi, a Playstation and free HBO. Their dog will enjoy extra time at home with the nanny, who comes three times a day to measure out his custom-blended dog food and follow him around his yard as he delicately chooses a place to do his doggy business.
Our family took a vacation every year. And every year, at the end of that vacation, my parents swore that this would be the last time we went ANYWHERE. Ever. Time heals all wounds, or maybe it was just that my parents' brains would blot out the trauma because July would roll around, reservations were made, the battered suitcases were dragged from the basement furnace room, gallons of suntan lotion were lined up in the bathroom, Dad tinkered with the car for weeks, and the dog eyed everyone suspiciously and occasionally refused to eat. Going to the beach! We're going to the beach!
Kurt (he was a German Shepherd - of course he had to have a German name) was taken to the kennel the night before. Mom never would say kennel - it was 'camp'. I've never been sure but I believe that the euphemism was for her benefit, not Kurt's, although he did have an extensive knowledge of English.
"Time to go to camp," she would say, and offer him a dog cookie. Ecstatic at the jingle of car keys, he would hop up and down until we opened the car door, when he would leap into the back seat and immediately snot all over the car windows that had just been cleaned.
Dad and I got the job of dropping him off, Dad because Mom couldn't stand to be the one who sent him to his fate, me because like the dog I was just happy to be going somewhere in the car without Mom. She was not a fan of loud music while driving (It's distracting! You might not hear a police siren! You'll go deaf!) while Dad enjoyed everything from Your Cheating Heart to Light My Fire at top volume.
Everyone was happy until we arrived at Waggin Tails. Kurt enjoyed exiting the car and smelling all of those delightful doggy postcards left in the lot, until we got inside the door. A cacophony of barking began, a river of canine distress assaulted our ears and Kurt immediately realized the depth of our betrayal. He yelped, he struggled, his claws scrabbled for a purchase on the concrete as he was half-led, half-dragged away by our neighbor who worked there. He knows her, he'll be fine, she'll take good care of him. One day I would know exactly how he felt as I was led off to sleepaway church camp.
I always threw up the day we left for vacation. It was a given; the only variable was when and how much. One time I had a bowl of strawberry Frankenberry cereal and left a pink trail of vomit down the front sidewalk.
"You're disgusting. I hate you. You ruin everything." This from my sister Lynn, who was three years older and vastly superior to me in every way. She'd already mastered the art of making it to the bathroom. In fact, she'd get there ahead of time and line up the necessary items for her comfort - washcloth, toothbrush, chewing gum - while I was still in the primitive stage of wishing the nausea would go away, praying for it to go away (please God, I'll never eat again I swear) and then chucking wherever I happened to be. I was, indeed, disgusting. And I hated her equally.
The first trips were made in a 60s Pontiac Fairlane. Two doors, no air conditioning, and a "hump" on the backseat floor which provided an armistice line. We had assigned seats - mine was on the left, behind the driver's seat, because Dad needed more leg room and I was the smallest. The runt of the litter always suffers. If I attempted to stretch my legs over the hump, I was beaten back - or kicked, or pinched - by my sibling, who jealously guarded every square inch of her side. We bickered and sniped until the warning "If we have to stop this car...", at which point we continued silently with scribbled notes, ugly faces, and hand signals. One year Mom discovered Dramamine, which was ostensibly to avert car sickness but was more probably to dope us into lethargically staring out the window.
Lunch was sandwiches and tepid tea from a Thermos. Back then the single "fast food" option was McDonalds; they only had burgers, didn't do "special orders", and I refused to eat anything that had vegetables or condiments on it.
"Oh for God's sake, look, I took everything off. Just eat it." But the bun was infiltrated with ketchup and pickle juice, she's missed some onion bits, and if I looked closely I could discern a fragment of something green pressed into the meat. I took a tentative nibble and gagged.
"You ruin everything," Lynn hissed.
But I was learning the art of deflection.
"She didn't share her candy."
"Candy? What candy? Where did you get it? Did you buy it? How did you buy it?" Our diets, and cash flow, were strictly controlled. No one was to have unauthorized goodies.
Like a good girl, Lynn had polished off her lunch while mine still sat oozily in its wrapper, mocking me and my finicky ways.
"Sunday school money!" I announced, sanctimonious snitch that I was.
Ha. Now she was going to catch it. With the added bonus of burning in Hell.
And that's why, on future trips, we ended up eating sandwiches along the highway and having to tiptoe into the litter-filled scrub to pee.
Historic Zaberers! Home of the Zaberized Cocktail! I didn't know what the place was exactly, but I wanted to go there. Welcome To Zaberville! The explanation "not a place for children" took it from appealing to desperately desirable. I imagined that it was an exotic destination, with rides and wild animals as well as whatever a cocktail might be. (The late Ed Zaberer operated the giant fine-dining establishment in Wildwood for 35 years. It's gone now, along with a host of places that I planned on visiting as an adult but never quite managed.) The sign also meant that we were close to the motels. Streets were soon lined with low-slung concrete buildings, painted cotton candy colors and with names that evoked far away locales, pirates, and glorious ocean motifs. We greeted the familiar neon names and read them off - the Gaslight! the Buccaneer! the Thunderbird Inn! I took note of which ones had the biggest pools, sliding boards, and plastic palm trees. (Palm trees mattered very much to me.) Later I would pester my parents to stay at one or the other. But our family was predictable, if nothing else. We stayed at the Friendship 7 year after year (a name which disappointed me at the time) because it was clean and, above all else, familiar.
We unpacked the car and toted a month's worth of supplies to our room of one week. I invariably fell and bled at least once, because I insisted on wearing flipflops but never could walk in them properly. Many parents would have let their kids go barefoot, but we were not bare feet people. One might step on glass, walk where someone had spit, stub a toe and rip a nail off. We weren't even allowed to walk on the motel floors in bare feet - you could get warts, athlete's foot, or ringworm. This meant certain acrobatics if you had to get from your bed to the bathroom and someone had (accidentally or intentionally) moved or kicked your footwear out of reach.
Dad took us to the pool while Mom set up shop and had a lie down. When we were young, it was fun; we all played together. Then Lynn got older and was supposed to "watch" me but all she wanted to do was lie on a chaise and get a tan.
"I'll be a dolphin!" I would squeak. I always wanted to be an animal, as being a human often seemed boring and pointless. Sometimes she would humor me (usually when there were no other kids), other times she would ignore me. Then I'd be forced to throw water on her or snap her bathing suit top, she'd hold me under water, I'd fight and then cry, and we'd go back to our corners and sulk until dinner.
Lynn had bad eyesight, and was forbidden to take her glasses on the beach lest they get lost, broken, or scratched by the sand. This meant that I had the upper hand for once. "That cute lifeguard is staring at you!" I would say. She'd squint desperately in the general direction I was pointing. I got some satisfaction from the idea that she thought she was missing a really "gorgeous guy" admiring her. Even better was silently slipping away and leaving her frantically trying to figure out her way back to the family beach towels.
Every year I got a little better at surviving the ocean. I learned to dive under waves, bodysurf, and swim out of rip currents. How to curl into a ball and safely roll up the beach when my feet got knocked out from under me. When and where to collect the best shells. One summer I spent most of my time walking hunched over along the shoreline, collecting shark's teeth.
"You look like an orangutan," Mom observed.
Once I found a five dollar bill floating in the surf. I spent an hour on the boardwalk that evening, deciding how to spend it. Lynn suggested a necklace, fudge, a snowglobe with palm trees. I chose a coconut carved to look like a shrunken head.
"You put that thing somewhere in your room where I don't have to look at it," was the only comment.
It sat on my dresser until I went to college, at which point it disappeared.
So Zaberers is gone, the Pontiac is gone, the Friendship 7 is now condos. Wildwood has changed, but many of the old motels are still there. The boardwalk still has its amusement piers, Douglass fudge, and tram cars (Watch the tram cars, please. Watch..www...watch the tram cars, please.) My sister and I are both mothers - and best friends. And we took our kids to the beach.
My son cut his foot on a shell and had to be carried, crying, over the hot sand to wash his foot at the street shower, then carried back to the beach towels. It's a long walk. My niece and nephew fought viciously over who would ride in the stroller and who would push it. We loaded ourselves like pack mules with chairs, coolers, rafts, sand toys, diaper bags, blankets and towels, walked to the beach, and then listened to them all fight over toys, kick sand on everything and complain of boredom after 15 minutes. One would stand at the water's edge and cry from fear. The other would plunge in and happily try and drown herself. They didn't like sand, struggled like greased pigs while we tried to daub every spot of flesh with suntan lotion, and left stinking piles of shells in drawers and suitcases. They ordered food and then threw away at least half. They had to pee but didn't want to use public restrooms. My son would go to the arcade, ostensibly to play video games, and end up gambling with a bunch of old ladies. And winning. We are never going anywhere again. Ever.
When they got older, two of them sneaked out of the room in the middle of the night; seeing a police car they ran. One tried to climb over a fence and gashed his leg badly enough that an ambulance had to be called. (The middle-of-the-night knock on the door that every parent dreads.) OK. This is it. We are NEVER going anywhere again. Ever. I'm serious.
Looking at my toddler granddaughter, I realize that soon I will be doing it all over again. Because
"We are NEVER going anywhere again. Ever." is family code for "We'll be doing it again next year. Same time, same place. And we will have a good time, or die trying."
Oh... what about my neighbors, you ask?
Hell, they've never even been to the beach.
I pity them.