Why Families Head to the Shore Every Summer

Same town, same rental house, same feuds, same flip-flops.

When I first moved to New Jersey and started talking to residents, even my own in-laws, I was surprised at how many families vacation together at the Jersey Shore. By that I mean, Arlene and her husband and three kids, Meg and her husband and two kids, Stephanie and her husband and two kids, etc.

I grew up in Pittsburgh, and we went to Stone Harbor for one week each summer, and to Cocoa Beach, Florida and Disney World for two weeks in the spring or winter. My parents, especially my father, grew up with very little money, and never even went on a vacation until they were adults. Maybe this is what led them to spend their income like this: We had second-hand furniture and used cars; my Mom manically used coupons and shopped for deals. Clothes from shops at the mall were a special occasion. But they partied and vacationed like rock stars. When we went on our vacations, we ate every dinner out at restaurants, and not fast foods or Applebee’s-like chains. We stayed in beautiful places right on the beach. Vacations were opposite world from our normal life.

One of the objectives of my family’s vacation, especially for my parents, was to get away from their relatives. I grew up in a family that was grossly intimate, maybe too much so; we spent every Sunday together, sometimes from brunch until after-dinner dessert. I had an uncle who drank too much, twin uncles who fought with each other every time they were in the same room, a grandmother and grandfather who barely acknowledged one another, and my own mother and her sister were frequently not on speaking terms. I thought all families were dysfunctional, to a degree; how could all these families go on vacation together and not blow up?

Well, now that I have lived here 25 years, I see that they do, in fact, blow. People who live in New Jersey vacation at the Jersey Shore so they can get home quickly. People invite Drunk Drunkerson Brother hoping he won’t come, but he does, and so all of the other patterns play out as well, and something’s gotta give. A friend of mine told me she wakes up in the morning, and sits on the front porch of her Shore rental with a cup of coffee, and plays a game with herself, guessing who will not be joining her because he or she stalked off in the middle of the night.

When my son was about eight, he was invited to join a family for three days in Ocean City. I trusted the family very much and said OK. On day two the mother called and told me they would be leaving early. She said she could usually make the three days with her sister-in-law but that time, things broke at two.

Real storms hit as well: Last year, my week at the beach was the week the earthquake hit, and Hurricane Irene cut our week short.

Still, we persist. I am down in Beach Haven this week with my boyfriend, my three kids, my father and his girlfriend, three of my 14-year-old son’s friends, and my boyfriend’s 22-year-old nephew. The second half of the week we will be joined by my brother and his very, very pregnant (with twins!) wife. Every year for us has many of the same players, but some different constellations, and we’ve had drama, but never (yet) a departure.

Maybe I sound pathetic, but I just love it here. Everything about it. Even though I have to bring sheets and towels and food and there’s no maid service, everything is better at the Shore: I’m doing a load of towels—at the shore! I am taking a shower—outside!

Things somehow stay the same at the Jersey Shore. The guy with the blow-back hair has been around since the ’70s, the guy with the puka shell necklace is still here, and so is everyone else in their sherbet-colored flip-flops on their sherbet-colored beach cruisers.

Maybe that’s all part of it: Families rent the same house for 20+ years, no matter how beat-up it gets, no matter how beat-up the families get, because that familiarity is worth something in itself. We want to go to the same Jersey Shore town and eat elephant ears and clam chowder from our favorite shops. We come to get away and feel at home at the same time, glad to touch base with something as big as the ocean and as small as the same Sunglass Hut. My sister and I used to hide pennies in cracks in the closet and wood floor of our rented beach house bedroom, in order to see if they would still be there the next year, our own kind of talisman aimed at things staying the same, at coming back.