EDITOR’S NOTE: For many families, summer is a time to take a break from our routines and put some effort into relaxing – often with our extended families. This week, Steve Willis shares just such a story of summer. Unlike his other columns, this one is a work of fiction — or as Steve prefers to call it, a parable.
Larry eased the Ford Explorer onto Highway 11 from the Lily Branch Road. In the morning dark, Rachel savored the coffee from her travel mug and said, “This is my favorite part of the drive.” In less than six hours they would be in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, but right now their three kids were asleep in their pajamas. The dashboard clock read 4:53 a.m. and they knew it wouldn’t be long until Sam would be asking, “How much longer?” Rachel had learned several years ago that the best way to start the Bridges’ summer vacation was as early on Saturday morning as possible. The night before Larry packed all the clothes, bedding, sand pails, goggles, snorkels, boogie boards and food so that they could put the sleeping kids in the car and enjoy a couple hours of quiet.
Larry and Rachel were always the first to arrive at the beach house that the family rented for two weeks of seaside getaway. They would set up for the rest of the family, get the air conditioning going, put away food and arrange rooms for George and Maggie, Rob and Anne and their boys, Matt, and the sometimes family friends who would join them for a few days. This year was the 30th year in a row that Rachel had made the trip to Myrtle Beach with her family. The annual pilgrimage had started when she was 4 years old and Anne was 2. George and Maggie took them for a weekend and stayed at one of the hotels. Five years ago the family made the decision to invest in two full weeks at the beach together. They saved and planned for it all year long, and by now the routine was well worn and everyone knew their parts.
Larry and Rachel inherited from George and Maggie the leadership roles of making reservations and setting up. The Bridges had stayed in several different houses over the years, moving to larger rentals as the family grew. There was talk from time to time about changing beaches from the overrun, commercial Myrtle Beach to something a little more scenic at the Outer Banks. But after 30 years no one really wanted to leave behind the memories and marking of time that had happened in that particular place. They had kept the routine simple, preferring leisurely laid-back days of relaxing on the beach from mid-morning until early afternoon. They took lunch to the beach each day. The kids collapsed later in the day while the adults sat on the deck and read books, watched movies and took naps. They took turns cooking seafood pastas and boiling crabs but kept the pace slow and easy. They made a couple of outings each year and had seen most of what could be seen, the boardwalk, the pier, the water park, the aquarium, the skywheel and lately the favorite was Ron Jon’s surf shop.
As Larry pointed the Explorer down I-81 south, he remembered the first time he joined the Bridges for their Myrtle Beach getaway. He and Rachel had been dating for a year and already he felt that this relationship was going to be the one. It was the summer between his sophomore and junior year at Hampden-Sydney College. He had already met George and Maggie but knew that a week with them at the beach was a trial run at being a part of the family. They made a place for him like he had been a part of the annual ritual for years. The continuity of this family and its traditions was something that he had not experienced because his family moved every two or three years following his father’s work. He had spent most of his growing up learning new places and new faces. That first week at Myrtle Beach felt like a homecoming party thrown in his honor. The next summer he proposed to Rachel as they took a long evening walk on the beach. He then did something that he had never intended to do when he had gone off to college. He had imagined that he would use his business degree to land a job with a large company and start his way up the career ladder. Instead he developed the electrician’s skills that he had learned working during the summers and then started his own business in Tabor as an electrician. George was a big help to Larry and introduced him to the business owners in town. Over time Larry felt like he had been adopted not only by the Bridges but also by Tabor.
“Hey Dad, where are we going to stop for lunch?” Sam was awake an hour earlier than his parents had hoped for. Rachel sighed and whispered, “Welcome to the Bridges’ summer vacation.”
By two o’clock they were in the house and unloading the Explorer. Rob, Anne and the boys would arrive by five o’clock and were bringing dinner for the whole crew. George and Maggie would not arrive until Sunday late afternoon. This Sunday was Rural Life Sunday at Lily Branch Presbyterian Church and George was playing the mandolin in a quartet that would lead the congregation in singing old favorites like “I’ll Fly Away” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” The quartet had taken to dressing up as characters from the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” George even looked a little bit like Ulysses Everett McGill with Dapper Dan hair gel and all. By Sunday night everyone was in place and had claimed their rooms for the duration. Matt was the last to arrive from Roanoke. He came bearing saltwater fishing rods, and the nephews were excited at the prospect of their first fishing trip at the beach.
Everyone comfortably slipped into the beach routine on Monday morning. The slap of flip flops resounded throughout the house. The kids feasted upon white powdered doughnuts for breakfast. There were no rules during these two weeks as to what a child could eat. The usual dietary laws of health and wholeness were suspended for 14 days of bliss. Rachel bought bags of powdered doughnuts 10 at a time from the local Food Lion. It was a wonder how Doritos and doughnuts could fuel a child until dinner time when even young boys finally returned to the table for something more sustaining. Sun block was slathered upon little bodies each morning. Showers were required each evening. That wasn’t negotiable. Emily endlessly played with Legos on the patio. Larry lounged in the hammock in the afternoons reading the sea tales of Patrick O’Brien; this year he was reading, The Far Side of the World. Rachel who read throughout the rest of the year only read one thing at the beach, People Magazine. It was the Bridges’ summer vacation in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. What could be finer?
It wasn’t until seven days into the getaway that a demand for a break from the routine arose. Sam and Bobby had conspired Saturday morning to insist that it was time for an outing. Larry looked at Rob who said, “I’m surprised that it didn’t come earlier.” Larry said to the boys, “Alright, where are we going?” In unison the boys shouted, “Ron Jon’s Surf Shop!” In 10 minutes they were loaded into the Explorer as Rob whispered to Larry, “We got off easy, you know.” In another 15 minutes the boys were admiring surf boards and making polite inquiries about what kind of budget they would be working with this year.
Larry was browsing through the aisles, sporting a week of stubble and wearing an old faded, thread-bare Ron Jon shirt, swim trunks and flip flops. That was when he heard, “Hey Larry, is that you?” He pivoted 180 degrees to discover a man dressed in a black pin stripe suit standing next to the shelf of Coppertone sunscreen. “I thought that was you. Larry, it’s Brad Lewis from our Hampden-Sydney days!” With a glimmer of recognition, the two shook hands and began to catch up on the intervening 13 years since they had been freshman suitemates. Brad had started his career in Lynchburg moving to Greensboro, North Carolina, then Charlotte. He was living in Atlanta now and operated a large string of Dick’s Sporting Goods throughout Georgia and South Carolina. He was at a business conference that someone had colossally screwed up because it was supposed to be in Charleston, but at the last minute had to settle on the Sheraton in Myrtle Beach. Brad was still the eligible bachelor, owned a condo in Buckhead, drove a Range Rover and skied in Jackson Hole in the winter.
“So, Larry, what have you been up to?” Larry told Brad about Rachel and their three children, yellow Labrador, his small electrical business and the town of Tabor. He didn’t try to compete or convince Brad about how happy he was with his life, just described enough details to give a picture of it. Brad’s only response was, “Oh, no kidding.” Larry congratulated Brad on his success and said that maybe they would see each other at the 50th reunion. Brad was on his way out the door when Sam tugged on Larry’s shirt holding a gigantic super soaker water gun. “Dad, can I get it? Can I get it?” Larry laughed and responded, “Sure, just remember who bought it for you when you fill it up. It wasn’t your mother!”
For dinner that night Maggie pulled the pork barbeque that George had prepared. It was a beautiful evening for devouring sandwiches, baked beans, corn on the cob, and cole slaw on the deck. April brought out three watermelons that the boys could not resist eating and then smearing all over each other. This of course led to a super soaker and water balloon launching battle which both children and adults took part in.
The second week went as well as the first. Once again, the beach pilgrimage had been made and enjoyed by all. Yet every pilgrim returns home, even to the protestations of sunburned children. The next Saturday after lunch, cars were loaded and caravanned together on the trip back to the mountains.
When Larry turned the Explorer right on to Lily Branch Road from Highway 11, the red summer evening sky was a welcome sight. Then another right up the gravel drive and the family was home. Rachel and Larry turned around to see Sam, Bobby and Emily all sound asleep. “Hey, let’s let them sleep,” said Larry. He put down the windows and Rachel pulled out two Adirondack chairs and pointed them down the driveway looking out on Lily Branch. They sat, holding hands and reminiscing over the past two weeks of vacation until the red sky went down underneath the trees. What a gift to be at home.
“We forget, or never knew, that there is an alternative view of human life that sees membership in community as the central feature of a successful and prosperous life.”
Steve Willis is a Presbyterian (USA) minister who pastors small town and country churches. He currently serves New Dublin Presbyterian Church in Southwest Virginia. His writing about the resilience of rural churches and communities includes the book Imagining the Small Church, Celebrating a Simpler Path (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012). He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and lives with his family in Bedford, Virginia, where from his front door he can be hiking the Appalachian Trail in 15 minutes.