When I was growing up, my father and stepmother took us to Cape Cod for the month of July. "Us" was my two brothers, my stepbrother, my stepsister, and me. We were an unusually happy blended family, and the best thing about our month on the Cape was that it was a four-week stretch where we all lived together as a family: two parents, five children, the Hilderbrands.
We did long beach days—playing touch football at low tide, collecting sea glass, digging pools for hermit crabs, swimming out to the wooden raft off shore. We putted at the miniature golf, ate shrimp cocktail on the screened-in porch. My father would sometimes wake us up for a midnight walk, where we would ogle the zillions of stars. The two things I could count on was that we would go to bed with skin tight from too much sun, and there would be sand in the sheets.
My father died in a plane crash when I was sixteen, and those days on the Cape came to an abrupt end. I spent the summer between my junior and senior year in high school working in a factory that made Halloween costumes. I did piecework, assembling "ghoul kits" in a hot, sweaty warehouse, listening to top 20 radio, eating a brown bag lunch alone in the front seat of my car.
That summer, 300 miles from Cape Cod and missing my father terribly, I craved the long days by the ocean, the sunsets, the seven of us laughing on the screened-in porch. What I learned then is that sand in the sheets is a luxury. It was something I had, stupidly, taken for granted. I promised myself that the goal for the rest of my life would be that I would always have a real summer.
It took a lot of work. I moved to Nantucket in July of 1993. Once there, I worried that I wasn't going to be able to support myself: I took a job as the "classified ads girl" at the local newspaper, and then got a part-time job as a paralegal. But I had always wanted to be writer. Before long, I realized I needed to write about the things that had drawn me to this island, the things I loved—bouncing in my Jeep up the cobblestones of Main Street on a quiet Saturday morning, tasting a tomato sandwich with the tomato still warm from the garden (mayonnaise, salt and pepper, white bread), seeing the red beacon of Brant Point Lighthouse through the fog in the harbor.
Writing about the beach and living at the beach is now my way of life. But I am old enough to realize that no matter how many summers I experience or how deeply I enjoy them or how vividly I evoke them on the page, a part of me will always yearn for the summers of my youth, when my father was alive and I was whole, safe. Today, my most meaningful memories of the season are the early mornings when I drive my own teenage son to the south shore to surf. He jumps out of the car, unstraps his board, dashes for the water, then stops and turns to wave to me. Here I go! What I know for sure is that this summer too shall pass, he (like me) will soon have to grow up, and some day I'll be yearning for this moment. I wave back.
Elin Hilderbrand's latest book is Summerland