I see the words "beach town" on the page, and I am instantly transported to the beaches of my past. I smell the first suntan lotion I can remember — Sea & Ski — in the dollar-bill-green plastic bottle. Over the crash of the waves, I hear the raucous cries of seagulls fighting for potato chips and muted rock music played on transistor radios. It is sometime in the 1960s, and I am curling my toes into the powdery white sand of Pass-a-Grille beach in St. Petersburg, Florida. This is the Gulf of Mexico, so the waves are fairly tame, and it is always summer. My father is sunburned but gamely allows the five of us — my two sisters and two brothers and me — to clamber onto his shoulders, again and again, before launching us into the turquoise water.
A few summers later, I am back at Pass-a-Grille, in my powder blue bikini, finally a teenager. My girlfriends and I have driven here in Debbie's olive green Mustang, and the Sea & Ski has been replaced with iodine and baby oil. We're listening to Sly and the Family Stone, sipping Tab, wondering if any cute guys will come trolling by...
One summer later, I am parked in my first boyfriend's mother's Dodge Valiant, with the moonlight sparkling on the calm surface of the gulf. We are “watching the submarine races” after a movie date. He is 17, and I am 16, and we walk barefoot down the beach, holding hands, being careful to knock any telltale signs of sand from our feet before returning to the car. He wears neatly pressed khakis and a button-down shirt. And Brut aftershave. I wear shimmery blue eyeshadow and a minidress with money I bought working at the A&P.
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Two summers pass. It's the day of our high school graduation, and we are not quite 18. My friend Tom and I pack a cooler with “a six of nine,” aka Colt 45 tallboys, which we have bribed a stranger to buy for us at a liquor store on the way to the beach. All the other kids in our tribe have plans that day, so it's just the two of us. I drink two beers and am totally sunburned and buzzed, but we make a plan to go to the Sky-Vue drive-in movie the next night. In between pretending to watch John Wayne and The Cowboys, Tom kisses me for the first — but not the last time.
In 1976, Tom and I marry, get our first jobs and move to Savannah, Georgia. We drive out to the nearest beach, Tybee Island, and are vastly underwhelmed by the Atlantic Ocean, which is not blue but more the olive green of my best friend's Mustang. The sand is the color and texture of brown sugar, not the powdery white sand of the Gulf of Mexico of home. Still, it's the beach.
Tybee Island is a different kind of beach town from Pass-a-Grille. We find it frumpy and dumpy. No big hotels or condo towers lining the beach. But there is a little carnival and a row of souvenir shops, like Christy's Department Store and Chu's, where you can buy a live hermit crab or a dead starfish. By 1982, we own our first house, but the overaged air conditioner is no match for Savannah's withering summer heat and humidity. We dress our infant daughter, Katie, in a ruffly pink bathing suit and white sun hat, and drive out to Tybee for the afternoon, parking our tiny girl in the shade of her daddy's beach chair.
As our family grows to include our son, Andrew, we eventually take up jobs and lives in Atlanta but return to the Gulf beaches of St. Pete to visit family. At Thanksgiving, we rent the cheapest beach cottage we can find, and both sides of the family pile into houses with lumpy mattresses and faintly mildew-scented sofas to eat leftover pie and bicker over Trivial Pursuit.
We make irregular trips to other destinations: Fernandina Beach, where we celebrate Andy's first birthday in a beachside house built like a log cabin, and Grayton Beach in the Florida Panhandle during high school spring breaks, where we share monster houses with two and three families and warily observe as our glassy-eyed teenagers stumble back from late-night beach assignations, smelling like weed and Captain Morgan rum.
But Pass-a-Grille and neighboring beaches of our youth have a pull more powerful than a full moon, and we return there in July of 1999 after my mother-in-law's death. Following the funeral, our grieving families gather at a borrowed house perched amongst the dunes at Pass-a-Grille for a sunset farewell toast. Sons and daughters, cousins and grandchildren mill around on the deck, drinking, smoking and chattering as the sun slides toward the horizon. I try vainly to quiet the crowd, until one of the Pittsburgh cousins steps in, yelling, “Shut the eff up! We're praying for Aunt Dottie!”
Inevitably there will be more Pass-a-Grille sunset beach farewells over the years, as we mourn the loss of my parents, my older sister and younger brother, whose ashes we scatter into the waves.
In the meantime, Tom and I establish our own beachhead on Tybee Island. It's not the Gulf, but it's only a four-hour drive from our home in Atlanta. We buy a rundown, oceanfront cottage big enough to hold our growing family, including grandchildren Molly and Griffin, who romp in the waves and clamor for a walk to our friend Susan's gelato shop. I name the house Ebbtide, after a fictional beach house in Summer Rental, one of my earlier novels. This, I hope, will be the touchstone of their childhood beach memories.
Tybee is where I go now when I run away from home to write. Over the fall and winter, I burrow into our big bed with my laptop and, with the faint background music of rolling waves, conjure up another imaginary beach town.
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In the summer of 2014, Pass-a-Grille beckons once more. My oldest girlfriends and I are celebrating a milestone — our 60th birthdays. Debra, formerly Debbie of the green Mustang, flies in from Paris. Nancy comes from St. Croix, Linda from Lauderdale, Donna from Tennessee and Sue from Weeki Wachee. As I crest the bridge crossing Boca Ciega Bay, I catch a glimpse of the Gulf in the distance, and magically, a song comes on my car radio. Sly and the Family Stone. "Hot Fun in the Summertime." It is the theme song of our youth, and I take it as a good omen.
Once again my friends and I crowd into the biggest Gulf-front motel room we can afford. It is festooned with balloons and "Happy Birthday" streamers and a lopsided Publix birthday cake. Collectively we have celebrated our friendship for more than 50 years, but this year's festivity is tinged with a nameless apprehension. A parent is ailing, a terminal cancer is looming, a marriage is failing.
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Still, the beach is calling. We sit on the balcony, sipping boringly legal Champagne in our pajamas, gazing out at the waves lapping at the beach, until we can resist no longer. We troop outside to splash in bathwater-warm surf and sink our toes into powdery white sand. The softest breeze ruffles our hair, and we are no longer 60, but 16, the girls of summer once more. The years fall away, and for a moment I could swear I catch the scent of Brut aftershave. Or maybe it's Sea & Ski.
About the author: Mary Kay Andrews is the New York Times bestselling author of Save the Date, Ladies' Night, Christmas Bliss, Spring Fever, Summer Rental, The Fixer Upper, Deep Dish, Blue Christmas, Savannah Breeze, Hissy Fit, Little Bitty Lies and Savannah Blues. For more information, visit marykayandrews.com.