As someone who has researched and written about family traditions for nearly 20 years, I sometimes feel guilty that some of my own family’s rituals aren’t as gangbusters creative and spectacular as those of the people I interview. I wrote in one of my books about an extended family in Baltimore that goes on so many expeditions and holiday outings, they refurbished their own bus! Other families I know travel to one exotic vacation locale after another, boasting of arduous climbs and clever original games played along the way.
I do love visiting countries I’ve never been to, and revisiting favorite cities like London, Paris and Rome. And I still hope to visit all the great American National Parks still on my bucket list. But I can finally now confess that my family’s very simple, humble summer visit to the Jersey Shore is a real highlight of every year.
This year, I had an aha moment about how the simple things we do together are just as important and satisfying as splashier, more distant excursions. We don’t own a house at the beach, but we rent one of a handful of houses again and again, just a hundred yards from the beach on Long Beach Island on the quieter end of the island. The more we go, the more it means to us, and we cheer as we drive over the familiar bridge to the long, skinny island we love.
Gone are the days when visiting the Hamptons or the Vineyard tempted us: we got sick of the crowds and the spectacle, the sense that everybody was preening and showing off. There’s something so relaxing in visiting a seasonal place that seems stuck in the past: there are neither glitzy bars and restaurants, nor any garish fast food eateries. There isn’t even a movie theater on the island any more, though you can trek into Beach Haven for a cool lecture on local ghost stories.
There’s the beach and the ocean, different and thrilling every day.
Posing my son’s childhood toy, a stuffed animal alligator named Gus, for silly photos — he loves the beach (and drinking beer.)
And the search for that day’s fresh food, whether it’s just-caught fish or perfect pasta from the local Italian market.
And our books and games and crafts.
Just the sheer joy of hanging out. At liberty to look and breathe and be.
I love my ritual of going to the local arts foundation and taking a Pilates or yoga class on the roof before breakfast. I love my first cup of coffee while I pick up the New York Times, and see all the other relaxed families, riding bikes or walking or jogging on the main drag.
Just picking out my special pile of books before we leave is a joy. I pack a mix of old classics I haven’t yet read with brand new books, mostly fiction, and we always go at least once a week to the small but excellent local bookstore because we want her to be in business forever. (Of course I always pack hand-sewing or quilting projects.)
When my son was younger, our summer rituals were different: for some years, we went to the Smuggler’s Notch family resort in Stowe, Vermont. We would scramble up and down the hills to our little apartment unit, explore the creeks and woods, and sign up for fun outings like a hike with llamas that included an ice cream break. Every year, we ate at the same little diner, Dunn’s, which had gargantuan farm-style breakfasts. At the end of the week, the same goofy but skilled magician would entertain the families in a green field. We called the pools with all the extra slides and waterfalls the “Special Effects Pools,” and our son loved them.
Now that my son is in college and I look back at all our summers, I think these relatively simple but repeated vacations are among the most memorable and beloved rituals that I helped shape for my small tribe.
Wherever you go with your family this summer, don’t beat yourself up that it isn’t grander or farther away. Allow yourself to relish that lovely slow time as you unplug and reconnect. It is more than enough: it’s a feast of current joy and treasured memory.