The Yardstick of Summer Vacations

The seagull watches my husband and me pack a big-wheeled cart and rope it to the back of the Aprilia, our trusty red and white dirt bike that always gets us there but first lets the town know we’re coming. My husband is wearing his sunshades and I, my straw hat, as we chug along our quiet beach road, pulling the teeming cart behind us. The walkers-by part. They want to stare longer, and relief covers their faces when my husband toots the clown horn, letting them know that their laughter is welcomed.

Summer vacations are like measuring sticks. They return each year, bookended by the end and beginning of school years, and, showing us how much the company has changed, though the sand and sun are the same.

Our family spends summer vacations on the idyllic island of Nantucket. There we measure our children against the children of the previous year. The change is as vivid as the Nantucket roses that climb the gray, shingled homes.

When we first started coming to this island, our children were all beach pail and diapers. They surrounded us in the sand—stooped low to the spider crabs, stretched high to the waves. Their voices pierced over the endless drone of the lawn tools that shaped privets and lawns, and their clothes breathed fresh of salt and sand.

I’m sitting on one of those beaches on this island we have loved for its eighteen-year promise that things will remain always the same. The wafts of quiet voices reach my ears in a rhythm of echoes that ride the endless waves into shore. A dad throws a ball to his young son while I dig my toes a little deeper into the sand, daring myself to hold on. There’s a longing inside for those days when we’d go to the beach all together; a longing, a call, like a seagull whose caw is absorbed by the wind.

Back home in our cottage, the old piles of beach toys by the door have morphed into heaps of teenage-sized flip-flops. The heaps tell the story of the comings and goings of my children’s friends as they spend the week with us here in our cottage—six of them at the moment of our home’s biggest gorge.

The old photo of the five of us heading to the beach—father, mother, two brothers with sister in the middle—is different now. If you were a seagull on the roof, no longer would you watch us pile into the old Volvo with the leaky air conditioner and the battery that requires disconnecting at each rest if it’s going to agree to start the car again. Today, the Volvo is headed to a beach somewhere on another side of the island. It’s filled but with the scant beach things of eight grown children.  While they putt along in our jalopy, I imagine their laughter from soaking the car behind them with a rear windshield sprayer that has been reversed.

Our trips to dinner are no different, except that our side-street town is even quieter then, and we make even more of a show. My husband rides in his dinner slacks and shirt, white cable knit sweater tied around his neck. I wear a dress with heels, purse over my shoulder, hair sprayed in an attempt to look sane when I arrive at the restaurant. As we drive past people who part ways and giggle at us, I yell out, “Our kids have the car!”

I don’t know why I feel the need to explain why two “fifty-somethings,” dressed to the hilt, are riding a muffler-less dirt bike to an upscale restaurant in a town so quiet that construction is banned during the summer months. I’m not sure why I chuckle to myself and hold more tightly to my husband’s waist, ducking my face behind his shoulder while he double-toots at the crowd. Something feels different this summer. Even though we are all here together, we are not. It feels like we’re on the verge of losing something old or perhaps even gaining something new.

Back at our cottage later that week, the flip-flop pile dwindles as friends leave, two by two. I change sheets on the beds; wash wet towels scooped from the old pine floor; rinse glasses. I will watch the pile recede, and I will know when we are together again.

The house is quiet now. The shoe pile is gone. Two pairs of flip-flops are lined up on the stairs—a small concession to us for hosting their friends. The Volvo waits on the white shell driveway between the shapely privets. Tonight we go to dinner as a family, learn the stories of their week. We pray grace over our meal, and I’m thankful for so much.

The distant waves speak to me in murmurs, as do the white-haired couples on beach chairs surrounded by their grown children and their tiny new ones. “Don’t worry. They will return,” I hear. It’s the silence between the waves that gets me most. I am torn between relief that my children have grown into independent adults and loss for the passing of the days when vacations were spent with them.

I gather a handful of small, smooth stones and pour them from one palm into the other. Back and forth, back and forth, like the waves, like the flow, like the growings, and the goings and comings. I take a flat shell fragment I found in the sand and place it on the wooden arm of my beach chair. I drop the pebbles onto the shell, piling as many as will fit until they tumble off and I feel the need to bring them back again.

Out there, horizontal lines run across dark water, marking depth or movement or distance. I’m not sure. I find the same lines across the stretch of beach sand. Life copies itself and repeats. I make more lines with my finger in the sand. These lines lead back home where we find our two youngest children, resting on the couch. They are listening to music together, their tanned legs intertwined. Letting them go is just one more act of parenthood, one more time we’re asked to give of ourselves whether we want to or not.

Until that time, maybe we’re finding our own way. Little by little, we’re becoming independent again as we feel the gentle pull of our growing children, a tiny bit further away each summer, like the ebb of the tide. Suddenly, I’ll look up from my book, and the water will be out, far away from my feet in the sand. I’m thankful for the increments that prepare my heart.

Guest essay written by Julianne Palumbo. Julianne’s writing has been published in The Manifest Station, YARN, Literary Mama, Kindred Magazine, Poetry East, Motherwell, and others. She is the author of Into Your Light (Flutter Press, 2013) and Announcing the Thaw (Finishing Line Press, 2014), poetry chapbooks about raising teenagers. She is the Editor of Mothers Always Write, an online literary magazine for mothers by mother writers. You can find her at and