What is it about family that causes us to brave airline travel Armageddon to be together? I believe part of it is to reconnect with those who helped form us. The other part is to physically observe how everyone is faring and exposing ourselves to the wide circle of living styles, attitudes, and idiosyncrasies that make up a family. Oh, and the characters—family provides us with a contrast in characters that surpasses any Netflix drama.

This summer, I took a solo trip to visit my family in Long Beach Island, New Jersey—not to be confused with the Jersey Shore of MTV fame where unnaturally bronzed Guidos fist-bumped and humped daily. Rather, Long Beach Island is a lazy seaside town further south that has been welcoming families for over 75 years. It’s the idyllic beach getaway with surf shops, bike rentals and seafood shacks dotting its one main road.

My courtside seat to family life began with being delivered to the airport by my husband whose truck left skid marks on the pavement after his long embrace goodbye. Note to self: we all can use some time apart. First destination—my aunt’s house in South Jersey, so I flew into Philadelphia.

“ …my oldest brother and I are like peanut butter and jelly, so when we connect, life is good.”

You Had Me at Woof

My aunt is a woman in her early 60s who has recently retired from a demanding career in the healthcare industry. She and her two Golden Retrievers, Sebastian and Isaac, greeted me at the door like I’ve been missing for years. Once the squirrely cuties calmed, I took in the orderliness of her home. She takes pride in her space and decorates it simply with a touch of country. Rustic signs such as “Think Pawsitive” and “Dogs Welcomed, People Tolerated” adorn walls and shelves throughout. It was then I realized why she replied a while back, “No more dog stuff, please,” when asked what she’d like for her birthday. I suppose there is a point in life where you just don’t need anything, so people find your interests and give you something related. At one point in time, my husband enjoyed watching “Finding Bigfoot,” so now our basement is a shrine to the furry beast. FYI, they never find Bigfoot.

I will say, retirement is treating my aunt quite well based upon the towering pile of novels on her “donation” table and empty wine bottles in the recycling bin. Retirement sounds like a blast to me!

“A Teething Baby Is So Much Fun” 

—Said No Mother Ever

Next on my travels was a beach house visit with my sister and brother-in-law and their 6-month-old teething baby. I forgot how much drool can escape a little human when those top teeth come in. I flashed back to a visit from my mother when she was babysitting for my youngest. We arrived home early and found a bottle of whiskey on the counter, cap off. I knew my mom was a vodka and cranberry drinker, so I was confused. Later to learn, “I just put a little on her top teeth and she’s been sleeping for hours.”

“He is usually such a happy little guy!” claimed my sister as she furiously bounced the red-cheeked munchkin on her knee. Every time her weakening leg stopped, a squawk pierced the ocean air until the knee picked up again. We all took turns appeasing my nephew until he finally passed out from exhaustion.

This house felt completely opposite of my aunt’s peaceful cottage, but I discovered a different type of happiness there. I watched as my sister, who was once the child I cared for, tend to her family (including myself) with such compassion and heart. Need something to eat? Sunblock? A drink? I witnessed the supportive interactions with her husband and felt honored to be a part of their world. It was a warming sight to see, especially because I live so far away and rarely witness the day-to-day.

I jumped in when needed and took care of the two exhausted parents. Encouraging taking time alone, baby boy and I nuzzled quite a bit while I prepared meals, which were so appreciated my eyes filled with tears. I only gave parenting advice when asked, then snuck out to purchase a bottle of whiskey. If they didn’t want to try it on the teething cherub in the next room, they could drink it themselves. Win-win.

Two nights with a 6-month-old were enough for anyone who didn’t own the child. I adore my sister, but there is a swift window for visiting a house with an infant. So I hopped in my trusted rental car and was off to my oldest brother’s beach house where my nieces and nephew (early 20s) looked forward to their hip Auntie Sandy’s arrival. Well, at least that is what I tell myself. Plus, my oldest brother and I are like peanut butter and jelly, so when we connect, life is good.

Baby Back Ribs on the Beach

I was fortunate to have some quality conversations with my nieces and nephew while on the beach, during dinner prep, and taking in sunsets. My brother and I took some epic walks and fished the surf. However, this house visit became awkward because my sister-in-law’s 92-year-old father was there and, boy, did Pop Pop’s verbal filter go out the window.

I’ve known Pop Pop my whole adult life and learned of his recent health decline from my brother. I didn’t hear much from the nonagenarian initially; I thought he was one of those old folks who just existed and quietly observed the world. That is until he found me alone in the kitchen doing dishes on my second day and curtly asked, “When are you leaving, Sandy?”

“Oh, hey Pop Pop.” I thought he was going to say how much he enjoyed seeing me with the family, etc. Maybe we were going to have a nice conversation. I like old people. I replied, “I was planning on heading out the day after tomorrow. It’s been so nice to be here!”

“Okay,” he states without looking at me, “I have friends and some family coming tomorrow, so you’ll have to be gone by 9 am.” He then turns and ambles out of the kitchen on his swollen ankles.

My jaw fell open. First, what 92-year-old still has friends who can visit? Second, did he really just kick me out of the house? I normally believe the elderly have the right to do and say whatever they want since they’ve survived on this planet for so long. But I’m a sensitive person, and his words were a punch in the throat. I couldn’t help but feel unwelcome.

I kept the Pop Pop exchange to myself as I played miniature golf with my brother and family that night; I didn’t want to cause any rumbles in the house. I just wanted to go home so I made up a story where I needed to go back to my aunt’s house due to flight changes. After hugging everyone goodbye, I put on my sunglasses and headed back to my aunt’s house outside of Philly.

While I know I shouldn’t have taken anything to heart from an old man who ate saucy baby back ribs from a sandwich baggie at the beach, my ride was solemn as I processed all that transpired. Mostly, I had never felt so welcome yet unwelcome at the same time.

Only Mermaids and Dogs Welcome Here

As I pulled into my aunt’s driveway, I was greeted once again at the glass door by two fluffy Goldens and my aunt smiling brightly behind them. She had ordered my favorite cheesesteaks from Masso’s and uncorked a Merlot upon sitting to eat. The remainder of the evening was spent swimming in her glorious heated swimming pool. I flipped and splashed about like a dolphin and spent a great amount of time floating on my back admiring the leaves on the mighty oak whispering in the breeze. My hair floated about me like a mermaid’s, and I felt more at peace than I had in weeks. But I was ready to go home—Colorado home—but this proved to be no easy task.

Long Road Home

To get to Colorado, I navigated two canceled flights, 10 hours at the airport, a lost iPad, an Italian Uber driver with meatball recipes, and two more nights “stuck” at my aunt’s house. I had to dig deep for patience as travel is a finicky beast. However, the beauty of traveling is that there are always stories to tell and if you’re open, many opportunities to smile. One simple example being the crafty homeless man on the corner in Philly whose sign read, “Ninjas kidnapped my wife; need money for Karate Lessons.”