While out walking yesterday evening I smelled sunscreen as someone passed by. In an instant I was mentally back on the beach waiting for cousins to come down from the house so we could get in the water together. I was also reminded of something I once wrote about years of our family’s summer traditions:
It’s a rustic, waterfront cottage on the Chesapeake Bay in an isolated cluster of other old cottages a mile or so off the main road. It’s been added on to over the last fifty-plus years and is filled with second-hand furniture, hand-me-down linens, and old pots and pans. To do anything from use the kitchen stove to turning on the water pump requires knowledge of idiosyncrasies so specific that they’re passed down like family history. There’s sand on the floor, the smell of salt water in the air, and to me it’s perfect.
The actual owner is my uncle but we in the extended family like to call it “ours”. My grandfather and uncle purchased the overgrown waterfront lot in the late 1950’s and family at the time helped clear the land and build the original cottage. My great-grandmother even spent time there, so starting with her and moving down the line to my own two children means five generations of my family have enjoyed good times there. It became, and has remained for close to 60 years now, a fantastic escape for the entire extended Perkins family.
As kids we couldn’t wait to swim in the gentle waves of the bay. Over the years various combinations of extended family have stayed there together. By day we swam, played on floats, and walked to the marina counting ospreys and bald eagles along the way. By night we filled beds and arranged cots so that everyone had a place to sleep. Most nights as we slept in the crowded cottage one cousin’s sandy feet were in another cousin’s sunburned face, but no one could have been happier. We were family and we embraced the unity. It’s what we always did.
Old morning routines continued as adults cooked bacon and whispered over coffee so as not to wake us kids. I’ve often wondered just how many in our family, for decades, have watched the same sun rise over the same spot on the same horizon while the same scene of boats pulling in crab pots played out just off the beach. Over time, family who never knew their relatives who had passed away years earlier slept in the same rooms, same beds, and spent days on the same beach as those before them. We learned to appreciate the family history of that place. I hoped when I had kids they would appreciate that history and recognize this cottage as a place where most of the people in our huge extended family had gathered at some point. I hoped they would “get it”.
There was a satisfying comfort in growing up watching simple family patterns repeat as part of the experience at the bay. We’d stop at the same seafood shop for the same deviled crabs. A bushel of oysters or a dozen soft-shelled crabs for dinner was routine. Fishing from the beach and walks to the marina through tangled marsh grass and sun-bleached driftwood were part of us. At the same time every day we’d come in out of the sun for lunch. After some time back on the beach we’d all come in for supper. Our parents had done those things, and so had theirs. It’s what we did. I really hoped my kids would get it.
Sitting in the shade of a pine near the beach, older family members spoke often of the fun they’d had there when they were our ages. Many of their conversations began with “You’re too young to remember but…” or “Back in the old days…” Their spoken memories became part of our overall experience. And so did Rummy.
Granddaddy loved to play Rummy. He didn’t just enjoy it, he was a fiend. From an early age we were required, it seemed, to learn to play Rummy so that Granddaddy would have someone else to beat. He would play anywhere, anytime, but breezy evenings after a day of fishing and swimming were prime Rummy times at the bay. He played, my parents, aunts, and uncles played, and we cousins learned to play.
Years later as adults ourselves, my sisters and I started staying at the cottage together with our own kids. Decades old scenarios were now played out by our children. They swam with their cousins, walked to the marina, slept on the same sandy cots we had used as kids, and they learned to play Rummy. I found myself saying “You’re too young to remember but…” or “Back in the old days…” I wanted them to learn family things I had learned. We buy bait here because Granddaddy always did, we get groceries from that little store in town because we always have, or after supper we’ll walk to the marina like we always do. Simple familiar patterns became part of the good times there. It’s just what we did.
One evening after a day of swimming, my kids and I played Rummy. While we played we talked about the number of dolphins we’d seen that day, who had found the biggest horseshoe crab, and the other important bay things always discussed at the end of the day. I remembered as a kid having similar conversations with my parents as we played Rummy after a day in the sun. Simple times spent with family had come to mean so much and I really did appreciate and honestly cherish them. But would my own kids feel the same? So many things we did while at the bay we did “just because” everyone in our family had done them for years before us. There was satisfaction in that. Simple, decades-old traditions helped keep our long family history intact. Would my own kids feel that?
We continued our Rummy game and at one point my son shuffled the cards and said, “Funny how even if we never play Rummy any other time, we always play down here at the bay. Why is that?”
My daughter dealt the cards and said nonchalantly without looking up, “We’re Perkins. It’s what we do.”
“Yep.” My son responded casually as he looked over his cards. “We’re awesome.”
I never again wondered if they would understand and appreciate the simple but powerful patterns established over decades by a huge, close-knit family.
They got it.
Stuart M. Perkins