What a great piece by Pat Cunnane in the Review section of the Wall Street Journal’s Weekend edition!
ILLUSTRATION: PETER ARKLE
By Pat Cunnane
July 5, 2018 12:15 p.m. ET
Every year, not long after Memorial Day, one of the boys—my future uncles—would inevitably shout it, often on the drive back to the city. Stuffed into their parents’ station wagon, they would suddenly come to terms with the end of their first weekend down at the New Jersey shore (or as we Philadelphians say it, just “down the shore”).
It was my Uncle Harry, during one of those weekend trips in the early ’60s, who first realized that summer’s arrival also portends its end. It hit like the lightning that cracked through the muggy July afternoons. Then it spread among the siblings of the Dean family, like the sand they were supposed to kick off before creaking through the busted screen door out back and clattering to the front porch to watch the storm rumble by.
Summer’s inevitable passing became a kind of half-serious family joke for all the Dean children—five boys and two girls, including the youngest, my mother, Madeleine. By mid-June they were taunting each other about what they’d wear for Halloween. Soon after, you might hear my grandmother, indignant, responding to her morose children: “What do you mean, who’s bringing the stuffing to Thanksgiving?! It’s June 28th!”
Eventually, it became a weapon, wielded when somebody was getting a little too high on the ocean air. If my Uncle Bob came back to the family’s seaside house in Avalon, N.J., after a particularly exhilarating beach day, Harry would surely ask: “Picked your pencil case for school yet?”
These days, the declaration is often shared by text message, as we scattered relatives look for the right moment. My Aunt Maryann or I will get it going as early in the season as possible, sending off the two words at the height of an otherwise beautiful June morning. “Summer’s over.”
As family traditions go, this one may sound insane. Why deflate the pleasure of it all? But summer is different in the Northeast. The season’s impermanence—that fleeting window between Memorial Day and Labor Day—is what defines it. Romantic writers and painters have struggled to capture the wistfulness of that ocean air, the cloud shadowing those sunny skies; poets have called it forth with the squawk of the seagull.
At the Jersey shore and other beach towns of the Northeast, the monuments to summer are bike rental places and pizza stands, surf shops and dive bars—and most of all, that great summer highway, the boardwalk. Yet all stand vacant for most of the year.
And the beach changes in the off season. Pulling in on the Friday before Memorial Day, after a traffic-packed lurch down the Garden State Parkway, you never know what you’re coming back to: a favorite joint replaced by a new restaurant, a familiar beach now eroded, a previously invisible jetty jutting out from the sand.
From New Jersey and Maryland to Massachusetts and Maine, beach towns revert to a quieter mode in the off season. Locals get their streets back, and we seasonal visitors go away.
Not so across the country, where I live now, pulled by the Pacific to Santa Monica, Calif., a few blocks from the famous pier—a nonstop monument to summer. For most of the year, it’s paradise. The massive beach never changes, or if it does, you fail to notice because you’ve lived it every day, walking the sandy expanse in October just the same as in June.
But summer down the shore is better, richer. It’s a way to measure progress, to recount the year’s failings, to reconnect with last season’s friends and flings. The beach’s changes underscore our own. Another year gone. It’s the transience that matters, the brevity that bonds beachgoers.
The next generation of Deans—16 cousins, including me—is united by the same anticipation and grief that our parents felt in the station wagon, those pangs of summer’s looming end. There’s something in our DNA. Unprompted, my six-year-old niece Aubrey, recently texted my brother: “Summer’s over, Alex. Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way.”
I know what you’re thinking: Live in the present, you fool. For those who can, I implore you to do just that. Seize the summer; tell yourself it has just begun.
But for those East Coasters like the Deans, who are more comfortable anticipating, and worrying over, what’s next, be grateful for the good that comes with the bad. After all, for nine months, from September to May, we get to look forward: Summer’s almost here.
—Mr. Cunnane, a television writer and a former senior writer in the White House under President Barack Obama, is the author of “West Winging It: An Un-Presidential Memoir.”