Extra Pulp: Beach Boys

When an impromptu family beach trip falls short of idyllic, Laura Anders Lee embraces the extraordinary.

A few years ago, my husband, Bryan, and I decided to take a last-minute trip with our sons to Clearwater Beach over Memorial Day weekend. It was nearly impossible to be spontaneous with a 3- and 5-year-old, so we felt a little giddy pulling away on a Saturday morning with everything we’d need for the next 24 hours in the back of the car.

But our initial excitement faded fast with traffic stacked up for miles on I-4 and the sky dark and ominous to the west. Ninety minutes turned to two hours, and when we finally pulled into the parking lot at Sand Key Park, rain spattered the windshield. I had lost my patience somewhere before Tampa, and all the nerves in my body were on high alert. We finally got out of the car and onto the steaming pavement. Bryan unloaded what seemed like the entire contents of our garage onto the beach cart. The rain had stopped, but I was hot and irritable, and he was taking forever.

“Did you have to bring the umbrella and the tent?” I snapped, and right on cue as if my words possessed the power, the cart collapsed, everything falling onto the parking lot.

We collected our belongings and had started toward the beach when William, who had been running circles around the car, suddenly became a limp fun noodle and had to be carried. And Anders, who struggles with sensory issues, stopped in tears because sand had gotten into his shoes and he couldn’t take one more agonizing step. We trudged along, the short walk to the Gulf seemingly taking longer than the drive over. Bryan and I finally found a spot on the beach and began the cumbersome process of unloading the cart and applying sunscreen to two moving targets. We shared a glance of mutual frustration. Is all this effort even worth it?

The dark clouds remained inland, and for three hours we enjoyed the sunshine. Clear, blue and perfect to the touch, the water lived up to its name. But we were hardly the serene subjects of a Corona commercial. Instead of lounging in our beach chairs or floating mindlessly on a raft, Bryan and I actively played the roles of camp counselor, referee, swim coach, lifeguard, waiter, sandcastle architect and boogie-board launcher. The one minute I sat down to relax, Anders plopped his wet, sandy bottom in my lap.

When it was time to go, the walk back felt twice as long. In the parking lot, I pressed the wrong shower button and blasted my dry cover-up, forcing me to crouch down in the passenger seat to perform the magic trick of simultaneously putting on new clothes while removing my wet bathing suit underneath.

We drove to the hotel, and at the front desk, I looked down at myself—damp, disheveled and desperate for a hot shower. Our room wasn’t ready yet, so we did what any other parents in our predicament would do: We took our kids to the pool bar. And just when I thought I couldn’t feel grimier, a seagull pooped on my arm.

That night, I lay awake in our room. The clock glowed 1:02, and as I listened to the soft sounds of my sleeping family around me, I replayed the scenes of the day. Yes, there had been frustrating moments and short-fused tempers. But running through it all was a colorful highlight reel: William spotting dolphins in Tampa Bay on the drive over. Taking a walk with Anders to the jetties and witnessing his joy in everything. Rubbing William’s warm back until he fell asleep under the tent. Bryan cleaning the bird poop off my arm and promptly ordering me a frozen margarita. Eating ice cream on the boardwalk after dinner. All four of us snuggled together in one room, the boys singing a made-up song, “We are a family! We are a family!”

The next morning the sun streamed through our windows, and my optimism was bright. By 8 a.m. we were back on the beach, recharged and ready to resume our roles. Bryan pulled Anders on the boogie board, from the calm blue to the gentle white breakers, and I helped William start another elaborate sandcastle. I took a deep breath of sticky, salty air and soaked in the happy scene.

Our days at the beach may not feature the calm setting of a Corona commercial. But happily, our life with the boys is miles away from ordinary.

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