Vacation Therapy

It takes work to keep families strong. Work, and a good old-fashioned family vacation

We heard a loud pop as we bounced across the hard ripples of dry sand on the beach. There went the blokart’s tire. Our laughing died as we scrambled out of the bucket seats to take a look at what had happened. It was going to be a long walk back to the house.

August marks the sixth year my brother has hosted the family at Kiawah Island, South Carolina. A fun-loving guy, his life is stocked with plenty of gear, including these sail-driven go-carts. Our annual trip always includes a litany of family rituals. I’ll be dragged out of a beach chair to learn the latest line dance from bikini-clad nieces as the ocean crashes in the background. The guys will sail the catamaran, and there’s sure to be a good game of charades. We’ll see routines from last year’s ballet recitals and admire Will’s curveball. (Though only eleven, he’s intent on making the majors.) Even the surfboards will get put to use on the lazy waves. Add plenty of fresh fish, cold beer, and hollering at the kids to turn off the TV, and you have the makings of a classic family vacation bubbling with aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, and sisters. And despite too many cooks in the kitchen or detours into political disagreements, we’ll wander back to each other on the porch or under a beach umbrella, glad that we belong.

A lot of people gripe about their families, and I’ve done my share. But my siblings and I learned long ago — because our parents died too early — to value what we had. Our parents emphasized togetherness by what they did more than by what they said, piling us into the family station wagon to share adventures year after year. We traveled west through Indian reservations and into the sequoias, north into Canada, and south into the Everglades, discovering one another as we discovered America. After they died, we drew closer. Now our four families spend a week together at the beach each year, reconnecting and indulging our childhood sense of discovery and wonder.

Kiawah is a nature lover’s paradise. Once logged for pine, the ten-mile-long island remains covered in a maritime forest. Alligators favor the dark island waters that are visited by egrets during the day and white-tailed deer at dusk. A local nature conservancy maps osprey nests and tags bobcats. Birds are abundant: wood storks, herons, white ibis, warblers, and black skimmers. Sea turtles nest along the shore. There are miles of bike trails; my favorite leads to a wooden bridge overlooking a vast sweep of marshes edged by forest.

Here I observe things that I rarely see. One day last year, late in the afternoon, I was sitting under a beach umbrella reading. It was windy and I had my legs wrapped in a towel to block the sun, a long-sleeved white shirt covering my arms. The kids had gone in for showers and I was alone. I put down my book and looked out to sea; at a distance, my sisterin-law stood at the edge of a tidal pool. Her son was catching small fish with a net and releasing them into a plastic bucket. She, too, gazed across the waters. Squinting to see past her, I could no longer find my brother’s boat against the horizon; he’d been gone for hours. After patiently taking the kids out one at a time across cresting foam, he had left.

It was a moment that showed me something about her and about their relationship, about why, after decades of marriage, they thrive. She was comfortable with the tension of longing. He needed the freedom of a canvas filled by wind, of a clenched rope and water smacking his face. Of not saying where he was going or when he would be back. She understood that. Like a wave that brings in a shell and then pulls it under water just as you reach for it, I glimpsed a treasure.

On vacation, we shed the familiar surroundings that define us. People are like paint chips; they look different depending on the environment. Day to day we see each other against a background of possessions, or according to the relationships we’re in, or by the work we produce. But in the beauty of a South Carolina island, away from much that is familiar, distinctions sparkle. Although it’s fun to be together for Christmas Eve dinner, or Super Bowl Sunday, or even for shop-tillyou-drop afternoons, those cannot deliver the impact of a place that commands a sense of wonder.

An important thing I’ve learned about big-family vacations is that everyone needs privacy. As lovable as we think we are, no one can take us 100 percent of the time. This is especially true of family because we rarely exercise the same discretion with relatives that we show our friends. Early in the week of a vacation, this can cause reentry shock. On trips that involve crowded bedrooms or too much TV, I’ve made it through by finding places of retreat. Maybe it’s a bike ride or a rocker on the porch when others are napping; I have to have time alone.
A good vacation also depends on everyone pitching in, and not everything falling to the host. Sharing the cost is important, but so is doing something special. One of my sisters hosted a tea party on the porch last year for all the women and girls. She’s married to a pastor, and her large family is always just squeaking by financially. But she brings a special gift, her creativity. Every place setting was unique, with a gift book and a souvenir mug, napkin, and napkin ring. She made delicious homemade scones, and entertained us with readings from Porn for Women, a hilarious G-rated picture book — the cover shows a man vacuuming. Inside, one of the main characters (a husband), holds a newspaper and says, "Ooh, look, the NFL playoffs are today. I bet we’ll have no trouble parking at the crafts fair." It was low-budget fun and generated lots of laughter. Another sister, who has a lot of volunteer experience with fundraisers, set up a surprise sunset cocktail party on a dock overlooking the water. Thrown together with flowers from the farmers market, beach quilts, and small candles, it reminded us of how much fun it is to be surprised.

Everyone has something unique to offer. My husband grew up surfing, so he’s taught all the kids to surf, even six-year-old Margaret. That’s a bigger achievement than you might think, since the water is shallow and the waves nearly flat. Anne is a fitness guru, and she’s introduced us to healthful foods and wines. Greg, at fifteen, has shown us that a new generation can play a soulful bass guitar. And Cameron, since the age of five, has pointed out creatures in the sand and surf that only a scientist would notice.

I’ve heard it said about marriage that you’ve got to keep putting wood on the fire. Family relationships, like marriages, will lose warmth if you don’t make an effort to find common ground. As we age, this week together — a full 24/7 — puts a lot of wood on the family fire. We remember how to get along, how to keep our differences in perspective, and how to enjoy each other. The tears we shed are most often from laughter. Oh, how we need that joy.

And although everything doesn’t turn out as one expects, the fire burns. We’ve had some mishaps on our vacations, including the flat tire on the blokart. I felt terrible for pushing the group to go too far down the beach, and for single-handedly shutting down the week’s competitive racing.

But what a ride we had.

E-mail: Laurie Prince’s award-winning essays appear regularly in this magazine.

Categories: Feature, Life Lines, The Buzz