beachHere’s what my ideal beach vacation would consist of – books read, magazines conquered, lolling time sitting in a beach chair late afternoon/early evening, walks, spontaneous light meals made with fresh food, open windows to let in the ocean sounds and salty air, and a hush over the house most evenings.

Ahhh …

Here’s what my recent beach vacation with my parents, sister, brother-in-law and 11-year-old niece consisted of over the course of a week – a raucous annual tradition of Trivial Pursuit with a house full of guests, pulled pork on delicious squishy white flour-laden rolls, pizza, stromboli, brownies, pasta with meat sauce, crumb buns, potato chips, Doritos, Oreos, danish, pasta with broccoli rabe and sausage, a chocolate mousse bomb topped with chocolate ganache, blaring TVs in the house all day, scheduled meals that require I leave the beach in a prime hour, and air conditioning to the point of floors cold to the touch.

Add in a doting but controlling mother whose sole joy in life is to cook and clean, a father who’s bored to tears by all things beach and doesn’t know what to do with himself, a small space chosen for its proximity just two houses from the beach, a brother-in-law whose lowest volume is set to ‘bellow’ most days, and you could begin to wonder why in the hell I sign on for this voluntarily year after year.

This year I counted my blessings that there was no political convention happening during our vacation, as I am the lone liberal in a house full of Fox News junkies. Thankfully we’ve had the good sense to make the TV politics-free at the beach to keep the tension to a minimum. This year my one brush with politics there was my brother-in-law telling me he hadn’t formed an opinion in the Michael Brown case and then unleashing everything he’d learned via conservative media and challenging me with this: “If you were on the jury, based on what you know right now, how would you vote?” Much to his chagrin, I stood by my “I’ll wait for the facts, thanks” stance.

I’m not a masochist, I swear.

Because here’s the thing. Lots of other stuff was going on during this vacation.

That house full of people playing Trivial Pursuit was exhilarating. Boys vs. girls. It’s an annual tradition. We squeezed in two games this time and the dreaded boys won both. I’m not very good at trivia, but I do get a major kick out of knowing that Paul Hewson is actually Bono and that the publication edited by guys named William Shawn and David Remnick is The New Yorker (score one for the liberal – ha!). And I also enjoy teasing my brother about “pulling answers out of his ass” because, well, he does and it’s impressive.

Every day of our vacation, with my brother-in-law being an early bird to the beach and me being more of a noon-ish beach person, I would wander on at my leisurely pace to find him and my sister and niece. My umbrella was already set up. He’d packed water and snacks in the cooler for all of us. He’d staked out our turf and he’d done it well. We fell into a nice rhythm. The only time I moved from the chair most afternoons was to shift with the shade of the umbrella. The weather was so good we couldn’t have ordered up better, especially given that past vacations have been spent eyeing and gauging hurricanes that may or may not come our way.

My brother had brought apples, peaches, bananas and clementines when he visited, so I did my best to keep to those as snacks. Interspersed throughout the week were conversations, long and short, deep and not – on the porch that runs the length of the house, laying across beds, sitting around the kitchen table, on the beach, on evening or morning strolls along the promenade.

Family time.

Among the bouts of drama and exasperation were meaningful and relaxing moments. My mother deep in her puzzle book while I flipped through the huge September issue of Elle, both of us on the porch and chatting and people watching in between. A few stolen late afternoons by myself on the beach, reading and chilling.

One evening my sister and brother-in-law went to Atlantic City and we watched my niece. She’s on the autism spectrum, is very social, and writes and draws voraciously. I mean, almost non-stop. Right now she’s into drawing pictures of people standing in line (For what? Ask her and she’ll give you a thousand possibilities). She also writes about all measure of things, but typically the thoughts are unrelated.

I decided to take the opportunity to teach her the real meaning of writing a story. I explained that we were going to write about an experience. Unprompted, she put a title at the top of the page: Gina’s Day at the Beach.

“What did you do there?” I asked her.

“I went in the ocean,” she wrote.

“What else?” I said.

“I had cherry ice,” she wrote.

It all started spilling out – I made a sand castle. I talked to Aunt Nancy. I found seashells. I took a walk with Mommy. An entire page of her day at warp speed. We got up and went in the other room so we could show Grandma, who of course made a fuss and suggested maybe another story could be about her summer. The kid ran with it. Two stories in under an hour.

It was amazing.

I took her for a ride to get ice cream and she was happy as could be.

“It’s a beautiful night in Lavallette,” I exclaimed as we rode. My sole intent was to get her saying it so she’d come out with it at some time in the future and make my sister laugh. It didn’t take, but it was fun trying.

Family time.

Almost everyone I know in my generation has lost at least one parent at this point. What they say over and over is to appreciate people while they’re here, even the fights.

If there’s one thing I know how to do, it’s listen.

There’s the ideal vacation and then there’s the ideal vacation. It’s important to recognize the difference.