The Chatter

How a Beach Trip With My Grandkids Taught Me to Let Go

With the help, and in loving memory, of Sticky and Gummy.

About six weeks ago, during that late summer time sandwiched between camp and school, my husband, my sons in-law, and I, took five grandchildren to the beach. (Three shared grandchildren and the in-laws’ other two.) They ranged in age from 4 to 10.

At 7 a.m. on day two of the trip, as we adults sipped our first cups of coffee and the kids pleaded for more Pop-Tarts, my 10-year-old granddaughter hand-delivered an invitation to each of us that read,

“Come to Sticky’s and Gummy’s funeral. It’s in my room at 7:30. Wear black.”

Sticky and Gummy were the 5-cent slimy, crystalline creatures that she “won” at an amusement arcade the previous evening. (Given the amount of money we spent, I could have flown to Vietnam and bought them directly from the manufacturer.) The figurines met their demise when one of my grandsons stretched them to the point of dismemberment. My granddaughter screamed, “Why did you do that?” Her brother apologized, “I was just playing. I didn’t think they’d break.” She accepted his apology but insisted on a proper funeral.

Just as the caffeine began to kick in, she shooed us into her makeshift bedroom, a walk-in closet with a mattress, where all nine of us scrunched together to pay our last respects. My husband delivered the eulogy.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to celebrate the short lives of Sticky and Gummy . . .”

I tried to keep a solemn countenance but couldn’t. The in-laws caught my eye and began to giggle. Soon, even the kids registered the absurdity of the situation and we all broke into full-belly laughter. It was the first time, since our arrival, that I had let myself relax.

Taking my grandchildren to the beach in my 60s was a far cry from taking my children there in my 20s. The walk from the condo to the water was longer. The softer, potholed sand was harder to navigate. The beach chairs and umbrellas were heavier. The sun was hotter, and the noise was louder. I no longer enjoyed small hands wielding big shovels burying any of my body parts in the sand. And I didn’t want to fill and refill buckets with water for castles that couldn’t help but collapse. I just wanted to read my book.

I could deal with the commotion, heat, and exhaustion. It was the responsibility for their safety that put me over the edge. We spread our blanket in front of the life guard’s feet. We forced the kids to wear Coast Guard-approved life jackets. We sprayed them every hour, from head to toe, with SPF-100 sunscreen. There were four adults watching five children. And I was still a nervous wreck.

I dragged my beach chair to the shallow waters. Sitting upright, I shaded my eyes with my hand, and tried to keep track of all five children. Again, and again, I counted out loud, “One, two, three, four, five. One, two three four five . . .” I watched for the undertow that would sweep a child out to sea; the jellyfish with the poisonous sting; the fin of a great white; or, the kidnapper disguised as a fellow beach goer.

Grandparent angst is not limited to vacations. For me, it began with the birth of my granddaughter. I quickly learned that, in addition to my own angst, I had to deal with a higher authority—her parents. I had to follow their rules (at least in their presence) and use pre-approved contraptions, like the “one touch collapsible” stroller—it took months before I learned how to finagle it into my trunk.

And the regulation car seat with all its straps and belts—I never did figure out how to install that. In desperation, I paid a local firefighter to install it for me. I called him again when my daughter-in-law told me to change it from back-facing to front-facing. For years afterward, we took my husband’s car if we were driving another couple to dinner. I wasn’t messing with that car seat.

Now, my grandchildren were past the infant and toddler stages. This vacation was an opportunity to connect with them as people. Yet, I had allowed hypothetical dangers to distract me from actual joys. Our laughter at the funeral for those cheap figurines slapped me into the moment. If I wanted more of those moments—I needed to ease up.

For the remaining couple of days, I allowed myself to be present. While we dealt with strep throat, pink eye, and sea lice, we also converted the kitchen island into a Ping-Pong table and held tournaments. We built sand tunnels and collected seashells. We had a salami and egg cook-off and dessert at every meal.

After breakfast, on the last day of the trip, my grandson turned to me and said, “Bubbie, can we stay here forever?” I hugged him and answered, “Forever, no. But, hopefully next summer.” I’m already looking forward to it.

When we buried Sticky and Gummy, I buried my angst. Well—most of it at least.