Summer signoff.

Yes, I know we are a couple weeks into fall already, but to be fair- this is one of the first years that it has actually felt like fall in DC in early October. Last year our final trip to the splashpad was mid October and it was over 90 degrees, and we usually sweat until November. And usually, I am holding onto summer with every ounce of my strength. But this year, fall feels like such a blessing, a reprieve from endless unstructuredness of COVID Spring/Summer. I blame it on the lack of splashpads this year. What’s the point of endless summer if I can’t semi- neglect my kids in Navy Yard while drinking Philz coffee and chatting with my mom posse? We did get one Navy Yard splash outing, albeit accidentally. We were scooting o the boardwalk and saw that the flooding rains the night before had filled the basin and my kids were trying to swim in it before I could stop them.

We ended summer as we have done since having kids – a trip to the beach over Labor Day. We go with good friends who have kids the same age as ours, because anyone with young kids knows that the best way to get a break is to add more kids. Technically we still had to parent in the logistic sense – overseeing safety and meals and basic hygiene – but we didn’t really have to do any actual entertaining. I was able to read an entire novel in just a couple days, a true vacation luxury.

Here is what we have learned about beach vacations with kids. The difference between a fun trip, and one where the fun maybe doesn’t outweigh the hassle, comes down to one thing: direct beach access. I’m talking, open your door and walk out and be on the beach in minutes. Not across the road, not a block away, but THERE IMMEDIATELY. There is already a lot of chair schlepping, sunscreen application, toy negotiations, strong opinions about sand, nap schedules, short heat tolerance, etc. You want the beach to be as easy as possible to access.

Other beach vacation sanity savers include outdoor showers (because sannnnnddddd everywhere!), not going to the ocean (Chesapeake forever! No current! Minimal waves! Shallow for a long stretch!), and renting somewhere with all the beach toys/chairs/kayaks. Also – endless snacks. We lucked out with an amazing Airbnb this year, booked in January long before we had any idea that life would come to a screeching halt… and then more or less stay that way. The friends we vacation with also happen to be in our quarantine pod, so our kids have gotten even closer in the past months.

One morning we woke up and looked outside to see crashing waves. This is pretty abnormal on the Chesapeake, even more so on the Northern Neck, which is where we were – a little strip of Virginia where the Potomac River meets the bay. It was bright and windy and the kids desperately wanted in the water in spite of the cold wind and waves. We all headed down to the beach “just to look” at the waves… but you can see that clearly didn’t happen. Before long, all four kids were running in and out of the surf, a mess of soaked pajamas and little sandy bodies.

Two nights we made s’mores under the broiler and carried them down to eat by the water, watching the bay turn violet. We filled a bag with shells on the last morning and the kids and I decorated some and displayed others when we got home. Sandcastles were built, legs burried, dolphins spotted in the surf, and one morning Etta and I just sat in chairs right at the edge of the water, holding hands and listening to the waves lap at our toes. Moments like this, moments of sun and sweetness and sand and play and connection are why we go to the beach every summer.

And coming back from the beach, I felt ready to say goodbye to summer a full month earlier than I usually do. Ready to carve out a routine and trade sunny adventures out for cozy evenings in. Ready for the fresh start that comes with the school year.

Sometimes I wonder what my children will say when they look back on the Pandemic. What will they remember about this strange time, a time that has been so much longer than any of us planned, long enough to stick in their memory. I know they will remember hard things, scary things, painful things. Henry, like many other kids, asks questions that hurt my heart, asks about why he’s not allowed to hug people, and does he still have friends, and when will he be able to go to church or school. It’s impossible to shield him from the reality of illness and death.

But I also hope that my children will look back on this strange season and see so much that was beautiful and normal. I want them to remember jumping waves in their pajamas and eating s’mores at sunset. I want them to remember a summer that was so different in so many ways but still ended in the way that we have come to love so much.

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