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It always seemed to be the hottest morning of the summer. There we’d be, on our driveway surrounded by three anxious little girls, loading up the family station wagon. It was that iconic 1960s Ford Country Squire with the faux wood panels on the sides.

On these down-the-shore departure days, that poor beast of burden bulged with suitcases, beach umbrellas and the first round of non-perishable groceries. Poor Nancy, the youngest, always got stuck in the dreaded back-back. The rituals were woven into our family summer vacations in overpriced cottages that smelled of mildew, suntan oil and seashore. Unloading the Country Squire was fraught with the usual “It’s not fair – she’s getting all the light stuff!” from one or the other of the warring sisters.

How bizarre our arrival feels in these years when we drive down to Long Beach Island – just the two of us – in a sensible sedan now pristinely packed with the essentials for this stage of our lives:  enough clothing for all the “what-ifs” – our own fan just in case our assigned bedroom is stifling – and all of our various medications and gallons of sunscreen.

Our destination is a sprawling home on LBI that our three daughters, their spouses and their assorted seven children have rented for a  week for some old-time sisterly togetherness each summer. By dividing and conquering the unconscionable summer rates on this little island, our adult kids have upgraded from the jammed cottages of their childhoods. Good for them.

Our amazement continues to be the fact that these sisters, who we thought would surely slaughter each other before they ever got through high school, are now BFFs. They live complicated lives, yet are deeply committed to this annual odyssey, which they love. The old folks – Mom and Dad  – are invited down for two overnights. More would be challenging on all sides. Less would be disappointing.

It’s always exhausting, exhilarating, wonderful and humbling as we shift roles and play out the tidal pull of the generations. Now, they’re the bosses. They lead – we humbly follow.

“Be careful on these steps,” Jill, the oldest warns as she leads us up a perfectly manageable outdoor stairway as if we were toddlers in imminent peril. How many times had that word “careful” crossed our lips in those bygone summers? How many cautions about the dunes, the hot sand and most of all that deep blue sea as custodians of three little beachcombers?

When it’s time for lunch for an army of adults and children, Vic and I are always relegated now to the deck, and told to relax. Say what? All those years ago, we were Command Central for the tuna sandwiches and tomatoes, the treat of cold chocolate pudding with a squirt of fake whipped cream.

Our gang’s palates are a bit more sophisticated. Lunch is a medley of salads and dressings, multi-grain rolls and a special pasta dish created by Michael, the family chef. But we remember the summer when Amy ate nothing but smooth peanut butter on Ritz crackers for two of her three meals. Now she presents a flan.

We are watched over. We are reminded about sunscreen. And now, we’re not the ones scanning the ocean every third second to make sure that everyone small has a swimming buddy. It’s a new era and we’re not on the front lines.

We’re reminded of that the day we prepare to pull ourselves away from the ocean breezes, and the lovely, lovely comfort of being all together again. But one of the requirements of good guests is knowing when to leave. So we wave goodbye and head back to our own air-conditioned house, our familiar king-size bed, and the peace and quiet of our stage of life.

Our own beach days are enshrined now in the bank of memory. It’s both a regret – and something of a relief.

July 2013
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