Summers By The Sea

August 2013
Written By: 
Denise Mullen

A seaside vacation can bring out the best in you



I have always held that a childhood filled with summers at the ocean or in a lake cottage is a sacred privilege.

This all came home to me when we recently attended a friend’s beautiful beach wedding on Oak Island, North Carolina.
Guests booked into vacation homes just steps from the ocean, and we were lucky enough to snag one simple wooden abode with a front porch, Atlantic waves within sight and saturated with the smell of sea air.

As soon as I walked through the door and into the wood-paneled kitchen, a floodgate of memories opened.
Like so many beach houses and cottages my family stayed in over the years, it smacked of “summertime easy.”
Kitchens cramped with a table and too many chairs, furniture worn but comfy, bathrooms makeshift-serviceable. But who cares? You rinse off under the outdoor shower and practically live on the porch that’s littered with flip-flops and towels and found shells.

I can vividly remember, at one lake cottage of my youth, jumping out of my nightgown into a swimsuit, throwing down a bowl of cereal and then running outside, down a hill and diving into the water. Every morning.

By today’s parental standards, we kids were practically unsupervised.

We produced our own underwater movies, took the boat up the river to go catfish fishing or downstream to the mouth of a huge lake. When we got hungry, we anchored and swam to a snack shack on one of the beaches.

It was Bohemian life at its best. The ultimate cure-all for a long school year of sitting still and listening and fitting in.
At the beach house or cottage I felt free to be entirely me, hair sun-streaked and wild, tanned, creativity oozing from my very pores.

Fellow cottagers, cousins and friends rotated in and out all summer long. We rode bikes to the tennis courts. We had bonfires, dance-offs, board game competitions, fishing rodeos, variety shows and our own secret society with secret names and hush-hush meeting spots.

We went to sleep to the purr of fans and woke to the squawk of blackbirds.

You were paroled from cleaning your room, because there was no point. Blankets and pillows lined the floors to accommodate overnight company.

Summer meals were simple and delicious and messy. You cooked on the grill and treated outdoor ants to kernels from corn on the cob, hot dog and hamburger remnants and the juice from a farmers market watermelon. Hands and faces seemed forever streaked with mustard or a thin film of ice cream, but a good swim took care of it.

We created our own little world and joyously lived in it.

And as the season deepened, we let the intrusive telephone ring off the wall more often than not, resenting anything that reminded us of life outside our summertime play world.

In all my years of people-watching at the beach, I’ve never seen spats or arguments or dog fights. In fact, the only time I’ve witnessed children fussing and crying is when they’re told they have to come inside, or worse, to get ready to return home.

I do have a few vague memories of family trips to visit relatives, exploring historic sites and screaming on rides at amusement parks. But, frankly, they all pale when compared to time spent on the water.

Even as a pre-teen, I secretly felt sorry for my pals who were hyped on the whole Disney vacation fantasy. Their parents filled their heads with visions of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and threw all their free time and money into that one fleeting week on the ‘big red boat.’

And then back home they came for the rest of the summer. Done.

When we’d get together before school started, except for a few memorable moments and amusing anecdotes, they never had much to say or rave about. Fun, yes. Life-altering, not so much. Mickey Mouse, nice guy.

I would be thinking about the best ghost story told around the bonfire, the fish my cousin caught and how good it tasted, the corn roast, the sandcastle we built, our magic show, fireworks over the ocean.

These summers of freedom did make it more difficult to re-enter a classroom and sit still, but I hit each new school year refreshed, swimmer toned and with a little more self-confidence than the year before.

After all, how could a nasty remark from a sniveling classmate possibly touch the summer queen of a secret society who starred in her own underwater hit movie?


Photographs Courtesy of Wayne Aiken and Denise Mullen