Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #21: Bethany Beach

On the East Coast, or at least in the mid-Atlantic region where I grew up, going on a family beach vacation is a summer ritual right up there with baseball games, ice cream cones, and flip-flops. In Pennsylvania, where I spent my childhood, most families favor Ocean City, Maryland or the Jersey and Delaware shores. In Virginia, where I live now, the Outer Banks seems to be the favored destination.

For our family though, "the beach" has always meant one place - Bethany Beach, Delaware. For years, we rented a place there for a week each summer, and then when I was in high school, my grandparents bought a bayside cottage that I've visited at least once almost every year since, with family, and with friends from college, church small groups, and work.

While I've been to beaches in Maryland, New Jersey, Canada, California, Florida, Hawaii, and the Caribbean, it's hard for me to think of visits to those places, as amazingly beautiful as most of them are, as a true beach vacation. For in the same way that home, with its familiar, well-worn rhythms and rituals, is uniquely comforting, thirty years of trips to Bethany Beach has made it feel like vacation in a way that no other place does.

Part of that is its steadiness throughout the many changes in my own life. Sure, as my dad is quick to lament, dunes now prevent beachgoers from sitting under the boardwalk, and new, trendier restaurants like Five Guys and Baja Beach House have sprung up in recent years. But it is still a small beach, a family beach, and today, like twenty years ago, there are still the quaint, book-lined shelves of Bethany Beach Bookstore, the greasy comfort of Grotto's Pizza, and salt and vinegar laden DB Fries in their signature yellow paper tub.

But perhaps even more important to my conception of Bethany Beach as my vacation spot, it is a place that holds a lifetime of my memories, beginning with childhood visits to the rental house with the spiral staircase. Our family friends the Mellingers often joined us there, all six of us children crammed in the back seat of a station wagon at the end of each long beach day, sun-kissed and sandy, surrounded by piles of towels, beach pails, and boogie boards. When we weren't on the beach, there were bike rides on the boardwalk, endless games of pool and the card game War, and half-hearted attempts to fish and crab in the brown canal waters behind the house. And more often than not, my birthday happened that week, simple homemade chocolate sheetcake and candles, perhaps a present or two, surrounded by family and the closest of family friends. Pure happiness.

My teen memories of the beach are more introverted ones, long, lazy days of reading for pleasure, naps in the sunshine, shopping at the outlets on rainy days, people watching on the boardwalk. A welcome respite from honors classes, track practice, and college applications.

Then, for several years in college, my friends and I descended on my grandparents' beach house the week after exams for what at the time felt like the ultimate experience of community life: Techmo Bowl tournaments, National Geographic puzzle marathons that lasted until 2 a.m., puppy chow making sessions, football and frisbee on the still empty spring beach, laughter, and long conversations about life, love, the ever-looming future. Sweet moments of friendship, of life on the exciting cusp between adolescence and adulthood.

In recent years, the beach has become a place to both retreat from and explore the complexities of an ever-changing life. It is a place where CJ and my sister-in-laws have become, in a deeper sense, family. It is a place where I've gathered with friends to retreat, to pray, to fellowship, and in one case, to grieve. It is the place where I cuddled my baby niece while pondering the early days of the small life growing inside of me, the place where morning sickness first made me run to the toilet. Rich times, painful times, deepening times.

The future, as always, is uncertain. My grandparents are aging, and what might become of the beach house remains unclear. CJ and I are starting a family, and what sort of family vacation traditions we might institute with our own children are yet to be decided. I don't know if I'll spend as much time at Bethany Beach in the next 30 years as I have in the past 30. But I do know that I'm grateful for the gift of a home away from home, a place that has been the backdrop for so many scenes in so many seasons of my life, a place that will always be the storehouse for so many special memories.