Tradition occasionally bends down the Shore, but you need a pretty good reason to break it. What would you want to change? After a year of deadlines and data and not knowing what worry lurks next, here’s the escape key, a week of no surprises, its commitments as light as the sea breeze, its rhythms as sure as the tide.
It was the summer of 1969 when Leonard and Ann Giunta first drove from West Chester as a newly married couple, with their baby, Andrew, to spend some time at the South Jersey shore. Now—August 2010—they’ve got seven grown children, most with their own kids, and they still come every year. They’re a huge pack now, 16 adults and 14 kids. It’s always the first week in August, lately in Avalon, though there were years in Stone Harbor and, they still smile and remember, 1970s Wildwood.
The biggest rental house they could find in 2009 was a tight fit with 10 bedrooms, so now the family has broken into two divisions, like an expanding sports league, filling two immense houses on 15th Street, on the exclusive block where the addresses all have “East” in them: the block closest to the beach. Each of the houses rents for something like $5,000 a week. The split-up is a twist on tradition, but it will have to do. It’s a big expense for Len Giunta, now 69, but he works hard and does well, and this week spent smothered by family is how he takes his winnings.
It’s a hot, hot Saturday, just after noon. Andy, 42, and Edsel, 30, are hauling provisions for the week—cases of Gatorade, water, snacks—up the stairs to the second floor of what we’ll call the main house, where Len and Ann, these days “Poppy” and “Granna,” are stationed. If you’ve ever wondered what those crowded-together, supersized Shore houses look like inside, here’s the mystery unveiled: They’re filled with zillions of little bedrooms, usually spread over three floors. Everything seems new, but not new-new. Once-new. The kitchen/dining area is on the second floor, so you can take a coffee or beer out to the porch and, from certain angles, see the water.
“I can’t wait to have a baby, so I can opt out of the unloading,” Edsel says, mock-complaining as he hauls more food upstairs. He’s the only one of the seven adult Giunta siblings (four girls, three boys) who isn’t married. Two of the four sisters, Mary and Susie, are at the Shore very pregnant this year (Susie with her first). Matt Giunta and his wife, Kate, have brought their three-month-old girl, Gianna. Edsel is here with his girlfriend, Stacey, but Len won’t let them bunk together—part of having traditions is having rules—so Edsel is sharing a room with Father Michael Collins. Father Collins watched the kids grow up, as a priest at Archmere Academy in Delaware, where the boys went to play football, and he has presided over all the Giunta siblings’ weddings. He’s usually a guest for Shore week.
Jenna arrives in the kitchen with Alia, a three-year-old with Shirley Temple curls who’s scored the week’s first boo-boo—fell in the garage and scraped her chin.
“It’s not the last,” says Andy’s wife, Alisa. “Wait till my son gets going.” That would be Drew, the crew-cut-sporting five-year-old fireplug who seems just as happy upside down as right side up. She and Jenna start loading cheese into the fridge.
Len grabs Andy and says he’s discovered something that needs to be fixed. Tinkering is part of Len’s vacation. During the course of the week, he’ll repair the coffeemaker, the vacuum cleaner. He leads Andy downstairs to a TV-cabinet door that’s misaligned and advises him how to fix the hinge.
“I won’t tell you how to cure the common cold, and you don’t have to tell me how to fix a cabinet door,” Andy jokes. Len Giunta is an attending physician at Chester County Hospital. Andy helps run a company Len owns on the side that does construction, landscaping and property management.
Giunta Enterprises owns about 30 properties. Len likes to tell people he gets 90 percent of his satisfaction as a family doctor but makes 90 percent of his income from business. By any math, it adds up to comfortable.
Three of his children—Andy, Carol and Matt—work for the company. That’s a dad’s dream, right?
“It’s quite satisfying,” says Len, not known for displays of emotion.
The hands-dirty nature of construction and landscaping, and Len’s work ethic, help the business and the family keep a solid working-class vibe amid the prosperity.
“Dad came from zero. He lived on top of the grocery store that his dad owned, a tiny little corner in West Chester, and he just worked his ass off,” young Matt explains later. “The guy makes a gazillion dollars a year and still picks up trash every Saturday morning at all his properties.”
By tradition, Giunta Shore week isn’t officially christened until the men do a shot of Crown Royal with a beer chaser at Fred’s in Stone Harbor. So once the unloading is done, everyone knows what to do: They hop into two SUVs, and it’s down Dune Drive, past the frightening, obnoxious Utz mansion, to the tavern. The family ambles to the bar. Len orders a round of shots, and as the bartender lines up the glasses, he asks: “Is this your normal week?”
This ritual goes way back, Matt explains. Matt is 30, compact and muscular and intense, with a shaved head—looks like a mixed-martial-arts fighter. There’s a tattoo on his right shoulder: It’s the Crown Royal logo, with the name “Howard” written underneath it. It’s in honor of his grandfather, Len’s dad, who normally would be with them doing a shot, except he passed away in April 2010. Would have been 98. His name was Frank.
“He used to call every guy Howard so he didn’t have to remember their name,” Matt explains.
Then Len raises his glass and says a few words to christen the week. Nothing poetic, just a short and sweet toast to a great week. Everyone tosses a jigger of Crown down his throat. Now it feels like vacation.
SOME FAMILIES GO OUT to the Grand Canyon or Washington for summer vacation. Some don’t get together much at all. For the Giuntas, the dual comforts of family and routine are the annual prescription. It’s not as if they come from all corners of the earth. Only Mary and her husband, Dean, live outside the Philadelphia area (in New York), and the three boys all have houses within a mile of Len and Ann’s. But none would miss the week. “It’s not a command performance,” Ann tells me.
“No,” Len says. “It’s all volunteer. But because they enjoy it so much, they look forward to it. Believe it or not, even if they can’t make it, they usually do.”
“Someone will go to someplace else like the Outer Banks, and they always feel like they missed something here,” Carol Mehok, the oldest Giunta daughter, explains. Carol is a lively brunette with features from Ann’s Irish side of the family. She has four kids and is a business manager at Giunta Enterprises. At the Shore, she says, “You don’t have to worry about what to do next.”
Back at the house Saturday afternoon, the routine begins. Hit the beach, then the swimming pool. (The main house has one in the back.) Then dinner. There’s usually no TV during the day, no computers or video games. The grandchildren aren’t old enough to be obsessed with cell phones, and the adults manage to keep the checking of messages to a minimum.
By 4 p.m., Len is waist-deep in the ocean with grandkids Mark, Kaley and Luke. Tim Condon, Susie Giunta’s husband, has his niece, Emma (Mary and Dean’s girl), riding piggyback. Six women—Stacey, Kate, Jenna, Susie, Carol and Mary—are lined up in lounge chairs, glistening in the sun, trading pregnancy and delivery tips.
By five, there’s a crew at the pool. Andy is flipping nephews Richie, Luke and Sammy Forte (Jenna’s kids) into the water. Andy, who has a kind of friendly-neighborhood-Army-Ranger look, famously dislikes the beach. “I work in the sun all day—that’s enough,” he says. At a poolside patio table, Ann cradles the baby. Father Collins bums a potato chip off Alia.
“We’re confirmed for the 29th?” Matt asks Collins, who returns a sly, noncommittal look, just to give Matt a hard time. Of course he’ll be there to baptize the baby.
“He did our wedding, and he was on sabbatical in Belgium. We had to haul his ass back here,” Matt says.
“They did,” Collins confesses.
At seven, the family gathers inside and does what it does before the first dinner of every Shore week: celebrates Mass. Father leads in prayer; Andy and Tim do readings. They take Communion, and everyone shakes hands and hugs. Tim breaks out an eight-pound bag of tater tots, and soon burgers and hot dogs and ribs are flying. Around eight, Richie Forte, Jenna’s husband, whose family co-owns a mushroom farm in Kennett Square, arrives. To welcome him, the guys do a shot of Crown.
Each night, by tradition, a different sibling is assigned to make dinner. One night during the week, the siblings all take Len and Ann to a restaurant to say thanks, though the restaurants don’t seem large enough anymore; this year there was some pre-Shore-week debate about whether to bend the rule and just do it at the house. On Tuesday morning, the guys always golf. It would be tempting fate if Len didn’t take the grandchildren to Springer’s in Stone Harbor for ice cream, to Hoy’s for little toys. In their younger days, the siblings would see the Greaseband play at Jack’s Place on Sunday nights. There was Dippy Don’s for ice cream, Shore Bites for cheese fries. Ann recalls the usual teenage trouble over the years: “Two trips to the emergency room, issues with boats…. One time we heard the kids plotting to sneak out at night, so my sister-in-law and I sat on the porch and just watched them come out the back window and said hello.”
This Sunday morning, the grandchildren are playing board games and trading Silly Bandz, launching repeated raids on a snack closet stocked with Swedish fish, pretzels, animal crackers. Andy, in charge of cooking, walks in with grocery bags containing 23 pounds of chicken and four pounds of lemons.
Eventually Len stretches his arms and announces, “Well, we have a plan of action. I’m going to take my wife for a walk, and then we’re going to the beach.”
On the crowded beach, giant holes are dug. Every hour or so, like a cuckoo clock, a guy comes off the street, clangs a large hand bell and yells, “Ice cream!” Unlike Stone Harbor and Wildwood, Avalon doesn’t let vendors on the beach, and an ice-cream man can stay in one spot for only 30 minutes. Still, it’s not playing fair. Every time the bell rings, the littlest kids think, Excellent, it’s ice-cream time again. Richie and Carol lead a gang over the sand path to the end of 15th Street, where a swarm surrounds the truck. As kids place their orders, the driver keeps a mental tab of how much each family owes. He lets it slip that he has a master’s degree in math. Different ice-cream men and women come by ringing bells, but late in the afternoon, the math guy comes back for another turn.
Owen, Carol’s seven-year-old son, looks up.
“We had that ice-cream man,” he says, as if describing a been-there-done-that conquest. Or maybe it’s just like knowing the bartender.
SUNDAY EVENING AFTER dinner, Edsel and Stacey and Matt and Kate are sitting around the table on the balcony porch, draining a bottle of merlot from oversized Lucite goblets. The sun is sinking over Avalon’s grid of streets. Matt is holding baby Gianna. It’s a perfect, breezy night, and the wine starts talking a little.
Matt and Edsel are both 30. Edsel is part of the Giunta family, but he was born to another.
“I came from a lower-income family. Broken family. Single mom, six kids,” Edsel says. He wasn’t planning to talk about this. “And Matt was the opposite—six kids—”
“Spoiled rotten,” Matt admits.
They played on the same Little All-American Football team: Matt was quarterback, Edsel the running back.
“He didn’t live far away from me at the time, probably like a mile away,” Edsel says. “I was not in a safe situation. I needed to get out of the house a lot, so I was at their house a lot. I remember one time I ran from my house up to his house, no shorts, just boxers on. I knew where the house key was. I went upstairs crying. Ten years old! And I said, ‘Please don’t tell your parents what happened to me. I just need to sleep the night here.’”
What was going on?
“A bad older sibling—we’ll leave it at that,” Matt jumps in.
“He just, he beat the fuck out of me, what else,” Edsel says. There is a pause. “That’s the PG-13 version of what happened. I tried to live there, but it got so bad. I’ll never forget, I went to bed one night, I was, like, 12. I slept with a kitchen knife, and I swear I said to myself, ‘If this fucker comes—’” He realizes Matt is holding the baby. “Sorry. ‘If this sucker comes, I’m gonna turn around and stab him in his heart.’ I woke up the next morning with the knife on my chest, and I knew I had to get out.”
Stacey is crying.
Len Giunta took Edsel in. He wasn’t officially adopted, never changed his name.
“I always tell Stacey that I don’t know where I would be without them,” says Edsel, who’s now a bank loan officer. “I have buddies I grew up with who are all screwed up. But the beach, to me—nobody’s in control. We’re just here together as a family. This trip always reminds me of how fortunate we all are. We’re not a typical family.”
Matt has been wanting to say something. “He changed our life as much as we changed his. Edsel made us—I’m gonna start crying—he taught us to be less spoiled and appreciate what we have and—”
He starts breaking down. “My college essay, it was all on him. Half the places I got into, I probably shouldn’t have, but my paper was about him.”
Monday morning, Jenna and Stacey are out early riding bikes. Jenna, a triathlete, ends up doing 25 miles. At the beach at 11:30, Andy walks over the dune, and the family is stunned. Carol grabs a camera to capture the rare moment. That night, the dinner is a bigger party than ever, expanded to include neighbors and in-laws.
Tuesday morning, the Giunta men pull together enough friends to golf in three foursomes at Avalon Country Club. And Tuesday night, the siblings decide to bend tradition and do the dinner honoring their parents at home instead of a restaurant. At this dinner, Andy is usually called upon to make a little toast, which, according to Matt, goes something like, “Love is love is love.”
The moment arrives, and Andy raises a glass and makes his speech. Nothing poetic or over-the-top, just a short and sweet toast to family, to a great week. It’s a good toast—what would you want to change?