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CAPE COD '04

Weathering Vacation

The annual summer jaunt to the Cape is usually a restful week of reading, swimming, and bonding. But it wouldn't be complete without at least a little family feuding.

WHILE I WAS GROWING UP AMID THE rugged, manicured lawns of Framingham, my family's annual Cape Cod vacation always loomed on the horizon like a prize for eating a year's worth of Mom's asparagus souffle. Even the name, Cape Cod, had such tangy promise in it. To a 9-year-old in the mid- 1950s, a two-week stay on the Cape seemed vaguely patriotic, too.

Our vacation always kicked off with the car-packing argument. For our two weeks at a cottage in Dennis, my mother packed everything but the oil burner, while my father, a minimalist by default, was willing to hit the road with his shaving kit and a clam rake. I sat in the back seat of our Ford, a brooding only child playing tick-tack-toe against myself while waiting for my father to give in. This was known as compromise in our family.

The ride to the Cape took forever on old Route 3A. Both my parents smoked, so the front seat always looked as if old blankets were smoldering. It never bothered me, though, because everything was safe in those days except polio and Russians.

It wasn't until we reached the crest of the Sagamore Bridge that our vacation officially began. The air shifted to a heavy sweetness, and my mother began rattling off what lay ahead -- clamming, swimming, cotton-candied nights at the drive-in. The fun stretched forever, just as the road seems to when you are at the crest of the Sagamore, heading onto the Cape.

By day three, it was the vacation that seemed endless. We were a close-knit family back home, but none of us was used to spending all day and night with one another. It wasn't long until the way I chewed gum irritated my dad, the way he said words as he burped irritated my mother (but thrilled me), and the way she cleaned our rented cottage daily irritated everyone.

When it comes to removing family members from their traditional environment, theories are as abundant as oysters in Wellfleet. Gordon Barney, a psychologist practicing in Eastham, says, "A vacation on Cape Cod can be a tricky thing for family dynamics. It might be very relaxing, because family members step out of their habitual roles and get to spend much more time with one another. Or not."

My parents' solution, before any of us knew psychologists existed, was to keep ourselves busy -- separately. My mother headed out to the carnival of Route 28, where the outlets and gift shops were strewn from Bass River to Hyannis. I'd get dropped off at a summer day camp for a few hours and play with the other kids who grated on their parents. My dad's uncanny radar for an Elks Club or a VFW would kick into gear, and he'd find his way to one, sort of an indoor day camp for dads.

That went on for the first week, until the inevitable freeloading neighbors from back home arrived to visit for the weekend. They'd show up with blaring horn in our cottage's driveway, waving frantically at the kitchen door through their windshield. Peeking out of the window, I would feel my heart sink when I saw it was the MacKays (not their real name), neighbors too cheap to get their own place but who always loved ours.

The MacKays, in particular, didn't just stay over, they took over. Comprising an overly upbeat mother and father plus an annoying chubby daughter my own age, they had the crust to bring their dog, Pinky, along. The mutt was the size of a large, hairy dictionary, with drool like an indoor sprinkling system when he shook.

Evidently, my parents liked the MacKays enough to let them in the door. I knew right away that they had sold me down the river -- I'd have to play with Miranda, the doughnut-eating cherub. Her favorite space in our cottage was the 19 cubic feet inside our refrigerator, where she would spelunk for the last piece of cake, the final glass of milk, or the lone Popsicle. When they left on Sunday, my parents and I had bonded again, albeit in shared irritation over the MacKays.

The second week of our Cape Cod vacations was always better than the first. For one thing, we appreciated one another more, because none of us were MacKays. We went to the West Dennis beach together. We played a few rounds of miniature golf in the late afternoons. In those days, we putted through red barns, a tiny windmill, and a couple of Happy Whales, nowhere near the theme dramas you find today.

The days of our final week would tick off relentlessly. By Thursday, the things we liked doing so much took on a somber note, because we knew we were doing them for the last time -- our last Hyannis ice cream run, our last swim, the final basket of clams from Kreme 'N Kone. But we were a vacation-tested family by now. On Saturday, when we crammed our old junk and the new gift-shop stuff into the car, we were ready to go back to our lives at home.

I'm happy to say we practiced our Cape Cod summer vacation so often and well that my parents eventually bought their own cottage and retired there, though they still got their share of visiting MacKays. I would come and go from various young man's adventures, but whenever someone asked me where I was from, it felt exotic telling them I lived on Cape Cod.

Time has a way of connecting all those unraveled family vacations into a single childhood of summers. And if I could just have one more of them again, I'd give my last Twinkie to Miranda and treat her like she was Hopalong Cassidy's girlfriend. Now those family summers seemed pitched with laughter and as safe as low tide. They stretch out in memory, one summer after another, like that endless road from the top of the Sagamore Bridge.

Michael Lee is a freelance journalist and fiction writer who lives on Cape Cod.

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