Kenny, Boat and Sandbar

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Summers on the Cape

A few years after I was out of diapers, my parents found a summer vacation spot away from the Baltimore heat and humidity; friends introduced them to Cape Cod. It’s a place I’ve returned to for more than fifty summers now, accumulating memories that reflect the boundless joys and profound sorrows that inform family life. The summer rituals of interacting with nature and the outdoors have evolved as I have matured from early childhood to adulthood and then from my own children’s childhood to their adulthood.


Kenny and Susie, Kite Flying


First road trips . . .

When I was a child, my folks prepared for summer vacation by packing up our station wagon with bags, the four of us children, a roof carrier, and sometimes a dog or two. My siblings and I moved freely in the car cabin, climbing over the back seat to the rear of the wagon where we’d set up a sleeping zone with blankets and pillows. Before I knew it, I’d see the first signs of our arrival—the pink, green, and blue bridges running over Route 6—and then, I’d smell the pungent air of low tide.


Kenny and Nancy Wave Running


Planes and sand . . .

Our first summer rentals were in Eastham and Wellfleet. They were often tiny, boxlike cottages, clustered in the scrub pines at the edge of the dunes, like Mrs. Smith’s Cabins. There I remember sitting on top of a high dune looking out over the bay. Some nights we’d watch pilots from Otis Air National Guard Base practicing their bombing skills, dropping test ordinances onto a junk ship anchored way out in Cape Cod Bay. In those early years, the low tide flats were a favorite playground where we would spend hours digging our toes into the sand and playing in the waves. Beach sand occupied many of my days: digging moats and moving sand with my dad; walking onto expansive low tide flats with my sisters; and digging for razor clams with a green, collapsible army shovel and racing the elongated shells as they plunged down deep into the sand.


Dad and Kenny Digging Sand


Tide clocks . . .

The changing tides have always been a clock for me. The rising and falling waters, the exposed then submerged sandbars oriented our day outdoors as we floated on rafts at high tide or rode the waves on boogie boards at low tide. We kayaked on the Pamet River estuary at high tide and rowed and sailed in boats of various shapes. We walked along the beach and onto sandbars at low tide, searching for that next unusually shaped colored stone or shell. I even remember swimming in the arms of my parents when I was little.

I experienced the water, the bay, and the ocean, sailing and swimming, in so many different ways at different ages. My dad loved sailing his Rhodes 19 with us kids serving as his crew. Windy days could be tense when my dad would demand, in what sounded like a stern voice, that we move quickly, grab a sheet, pull up the center board, or reach down to pull up our mooring buoy. But most days were calm and freeing, almost hypnotizing with the water lapping rhythmically against the hull.


Dad and Janet Wave Ride


Gone fishing . . .

I’m not a fisherman, but I’ve cast lines into the bay while conversing with my sons, my extended family, and friends. I remember one summer, when I was in middle school, I joined a couple of older boys, brothers living next door, for a fishing expedition in a small boat just off our beach. It was hot, I’d applied barely any sunscreen, and we set off for several hours in a small aluminum boat. Regularly surrounded by schools of blue fish, it was impossible not to catch something that day. The older brother gaffed the blues into the boat, and we tried to keep our toes away from the chomping, razor-sharp teeth of the flailing fish. After several hours in Cape Cod Bay, we headed to shore with a pile of more than twenty blues bathing in a pool of their own blood in the boat’s bow. I also came home with, as they would say up there, “a wicked bad sunburn.”


Blue Fish, Josh and Kenny


The sun, light, water . . .

In 1973, my parents built a summer home in Truro. The house overlooks beautiful, rugged dune and marshland, the Pamet River, and Cape Cod Bay. It faces west and on clear evenings the sun drops down into the water and family and friends “ooh” and “ahh” at the ever-changing beauty of water, sky, clouds, and sunsets. Almost every year since I turned thirteen, I’ve returned to this spot. Some moments stand out in my memory, not all joyous. Just newly married myself, I was walking along the beach with my parents when they shared with me that their marriage was ending. The place is also particularly associated in my memory with my oldest sister Janet, who died during her first year of college and whose death left me sad, angry, and questioning. Janet loved this place, the landscape, the life by the ocean, the sailing. In the year before she passed away, my parents added a special room for her that overlooked the dunes and was a quiet refuge for her in the last summer of her life.


Janet Sailing


For me as a father for thirty years now, this same beautiful spot is filled with memories of my three children hitting the beach and the dunes, doing what I used to do. I recall plopping them, as little ones, into our canoe and exploring the back marsh with its teaming colonies of sideways walking fiddler crabs. Later, as my children grew and became young adults, we paddled and explored in kayaks, winding through the marsh reeds and the tidal river, surrounded by such beauty, such love, such sweet air. And that is what remains: the love, the beauty, the cycles of life, over and over.