The sun went down. The colors on the Gulf of Mexico were nothing short of dramatic. Orange, purple, gold, electric red. All three women were watching the sun from the shore’s edge. But I was watching them.

My mother-in-law arrived at the beach rental cottage just in time for sunset. She was riding shotgun in a conversion van that was outfitted with a hydraulic wheelchair lift. Her friend, Robbie, was driving.

My mother-in-law (Mother Mary) leaned her head out the window and shouted, “We’re here! And I have cake!”

Cake? Did someone say Cake? I have sensitive ears trained for hearing important words. I can hear this particular word from across the state. Just like I can hear the words “five-dollar beer pitcher” from outer space.

Anyway, there was a lot of luggage to unload. A beach vacation is a major ordeal in my wife’s family. It requires coolers, boxes, bags, suitcases, industrial Tupperware containers, major appliances, heavy artillery, livestock equipment, etc.

My mother-in-law handed me a cake covered in a plastic dome. It was beautiful. She bought it from Dean’s Cake House in Andalusia. Mother Mary knows how I feel about Dean’s cakes.

Long ago, there was only one place in our town that sold Dean’s fare. It was across the county line at a service station called “The Happy Store.” I was one of their best customers. I would buy a caramel seven-layer cake for every wedding, baby dedication, baptism, bachelor’s party, bar mitzvah, 10-minute oil change, birthday, potluck, and Methodist funeral.

I have never met a man who didn’t like a Dean’s cake.

I thanked Mother Mary for bringing the cake.

“Remember,” she said. “You have to share that.”

Mother Mary sat in a special beach wheelchair made for sand. It looks like a regular wheelchair, only the tires appear to have been manufactured by NASA. My wife and Robbie pushed Mother Mary across the wide beach toward the water’s edge. I offered to help them push, but my wife said, “Girls only.”

Which is code for, “Go inside and fold the laundry.”

So I stayed behind and watched them from the patio of the cottage. You can learn a lot about families by watching from a distance. I grew up without much of a family. I’ve been watching other families from a distance my whole life.

The first thing I noticed about my wife and her mother was that they favor each other. I have seen old pictures of Mother Mary when she was my wife’s age. It’s uncanny. If I didn’t know better, I’d think the black-and-white photos were of my wife.

My wife and her mother both have smooth, almost Native American skin, and sincere eyes that turn into little slits when they smile. The same way Shirley Temple’s eyes did—only with more trouble in them.

My wife and I don’t have children, but if we would have been so lucky, I would’ve wanted them to look like her.

The sun went down. The colors on the Gulf of Mexico were nothing short of dramatic. Orange, purple, gold, electric red. All three women were watching the sun from the shore’s edge. But I was watching them.

My wife’s family has been vacationing here since the earth cooled. When we were newlyweds, these vacations suddenly became part of my summers. It was great.

Her family was different than mine. Louder. Bigger. More animated. A little rambunctious. My family was small, and fatherless.

It seems like a lifetime ago that I first met them. We would all sit on the screened porch, listening to the Gulf. We would talk for hours. We didn’t have smart phones yet, so there was nothing to do but chew the fat until someone eventually stood, stretched their arms, and said, “Better get to bed, got a busy day tomorrow.”

Which was always a lie. Nobody ever had busy days on summer vacation. But they said this just the same. Force of habit, maybe.

Then we would all go to bed, sleep like babies, wake up, eat a heavy breakfast, and do it all over again. The sitting on the porch, the fat-chewing, and the sunset-watching.

People get quiet when the sun lowers. Everyone is instinctively interested in sunsets and sunrises. It’s who we are. It’s in our blood.

I have spent hours in fishing boats with hard, rough-handed, cussing men who become little lambs at sundown. Blue collar workers turn into poets. Old men turn into philosophers. That’s probably what’s happening to me right now. I must sound like a fool.

But I watched the sun go down tonight, and I didn’t feel foolish. I felt glad. It wasn’t the sun that did this to me, but the three mama bears making the long walk back to the cottage. Good women. Strong women. I’m lucky to be in their company.

I wish life went on forever. I wish beach vacations were eternal. I wish everyone could be frozen inside a living photograph of their happiest moment. But life doesn’t work that way. It moves fast. Like rush hour traffic.

All three ladies arrived on the porch. My wife was covered in a thin film of sweat, salt air, sand, and was a little out of breath. She hugged me. She kissed my forehead.

“Hey,” she said. “Where’d all the cake go?”

Life is a gift. It doesn’t last very long. And neither do Dean’s caramel cakes.

31 comments

  1. Katherine Young - August 26, 2019 5:26 am

    Fine, fine ending! That’s nothing new. It just especially delighted me.

    Reply
  2. treygregory - August 26, 2019 5:27 am

    No, they don’t. Better enjoy it while the chance is there, today. Diets are for tomorrow, and never for vacation. 😀

    Reply
  3. Deena - August 26, 2019 5:32 am

    Dean’s Cakes – as good as Grandmama’s! Finally getting them in my area during the holiday days!!!!

    Reply
  4. Jake - August 26, 2019 7:23 am

    Dean’s caramel cakes are my favorite and we have them at all our family gatherings. My nephew put his piece in the microwave for a few seconds and I told him that was unAmerican, but he made me try it and after I finished, I stood up and sang the national anthem!

    Reply
  5. Linda clifton - August 26, 2019 8:08 am

    I’m laughing!

    Reply
  6. Nell Thomas - August 26, 2019 10:39 am

    Great story. Tell her to bring two cakes next time- one for the guy and one for the girls.

    Reply
  7. Camille - August 26, 2019 11:26 am

    Dean’s 7 layer caramel and 7 layer chocolate cakes are to die for! I have eaten a ton of them and now I am a diabetic and can only dream and drool~

    Reply
  8. Nancy shields - August 26, 2019 12:27 pm

    Such special times. I, too, come from a small family and married into a large LOUD one. Aren’t we lucky??

    Reply
  9. Bobbie - August 26, 2019 12:39 pm

    No you don’t sound like a fool talking about those sunsets. I lived on the Cape (San Blas) for five wonderful, not long enough years, and I do not believe there are more beautiful sunsets anywhere! Every day, a different one, just breathtaking. I remember thinking it was like God would try to outdo Himself with a palette of colors belonging only to Him! I hope Heaven has beaches and sunsets for people like us, Sean. You are so blessed to have these beautiful memories with family, and to have many more to look forward to. And they are equally blessed to have you in their life. A special blessing is a mother in-law who brings you Deans cakes. I’ve never had one. How far is it from Atlanta to Andalusia ? I’m gonna check and see.
    God bless you for the joy you bring to so many.

    Reply
  10. Richard - August 26, 2019 1:06 pm

    Sunrise-Sunset. So goes the day and so goes life.
    What takes place in between is up to each of us.
    Thank you Sean, for another reminder of some of the important things: God’s faithfulness(Sunrise and Sunset),
    and family.time together.

    Reply
  11. BJ Shell - August 26, 2019 1:22 pm

    Wait. Who carries Dean’s in SoWal?

    Reply
  12. Shelton A. - August 26, 2019 1:29 pm

    I’ve had cakes from Dean’s and I hold you blameless. A person can only wait so long for another piece…it’s their fault for watching the sunset from the beach. You should have left 3 small pieces for the ladies though. Life with Jamie goes better that way.

    Reply
  13. Jess - August 26, 2019 1:33 pm

    Sean, you wrote “I wish life went on forever.” Amen to that, brother. It’s a blast and I’m having a great time, but I know it won’t last forever that’s why I’m glad I’ve got Fay to share it with me. We’ve been sharing things for more than fifty years, and I wish we could have fifty more years together. Matter of fact time is rushing by much faster than rush hour traffic as you wrote. When I read “rush hour traffic” I thought of Atlanta rush hour traffic and that often crawls at the pace of an elderly snail. I do enjoy your writing, Sean. Keep up your excellent writings because so many people love it.

    Reply
  14. Edna B. - August 26, 2019 2:24 pm

    I agree, life is a gift, and I’m thankful for every new sunrise. You’re a very lucky man to have to wonderful women in your life. Enjoy your day, Sean. Hugs, Edna B.

    Reply
  15. Helen - August 26, 2019 2:24 pm

    Your cake experience remind me of my wiener experience. My Louisiana red wieners. I am waiting on some now. My son went home (to Shreveport, La.) and since I can’t drive or ride that far, I always look forward to chewing down on the red wieners when they return. Just to think about your cake experience make them a go together. Cake and red wieners. What a treat and I can’t wait until they get here this evening. I wish you could try the red wieners and then have some of that delicious cake. What a treat that would be. Wish me happy chow time when they get here.

    Reply
  16. GaryD - August 26, 2019 2:46 pm

    Things to do list: Find a Dean’s cake.

    Reply
  17. Ala Red Clay Girl - August 26, 2019 2:57 pm

    “I wish everyone could be frozen inside a living photograph of their happiest moment.” You’ve put into words something I’ve often thought. Beautiful! Dean’s cakes – why have I never heard of them before?

    Reply
  18. Karen - August 26, 2019 3:07 pm

    I miss my family’s beach house at Alligator Point. Hurricane Michael took it away 😢. We gathered every year the week of July 4th. Some of us tried to recreate it on the Atlantic coast this year, but it wasn’t the same. But I have Christmas to look forward to when 62 of us get together! 😄 Sean I am happy that you have expanded your family connections through Jamie. Bless you all.

    Reply
    • JB - August 26, 2019 4:13 pm

      I grew up vacationing in Carrabelle. Going shelling at Alligator Point was one of the highlights of the time there. How lucky to have a vacation house there and so very sorry that its gone.

      Reply
  19. Connie Havard Ryland - August 26, 2019 3:11 pm

    Another beautiful read, on a day that’s anything but. It’s storming here. Vacations are not something routine for me but I’ve seen the sun rise and set on rivers while I’m fishing, and that is truly a magical sight. Love and hugs. Enjoy your vacation and all your lovely women.

    Reply
  20. Linda - August 26, 2019 3:36 pm

    I think this is my favorite story until my next favorite comes a long. Speaks to me in so many ways. I do think you had a wonderful family, just a small family. Your Mother could have been bitter and uncaring, but from what I have read she worked ever so hard to take care of you and your sister. Both families have woberful attributes. But I must admit I would love to vacation with You guys.

    Reply
  21. Debbie Lawrence - August 26, 2019 3:59 pm

    This post put me right back vacation with my family and mama’s caramel cake. Caramel cake and apple pies were her claim to fame. No matter where we went, she was asked to bring one – or both!
    My husband and I have vacationed in many ritzy five-star hotels, but none can rival the simple, laid back ones on Cape San Blas and Alligator Point with our family and dogs – and caramel cake! Thank you for reminding me of happy times. Keep writing! We look forward to reading your post every morning.

    Reply
  22. JB - August 26, 2019 4:11 pm

    Nothing my husband loves more than a good caramel cake. I may have to drive to Andalusia.

    Reply
  23. Linda Moon - August 26, 2019 4:21 pm

    Watching families from a distance can be an interesting and beautiful phenomenon, especially if they’re different from one’s own family. I will be visiting with and watching family later this week because the life-traffic is rushing fast for all of us now. I hope somebody there bakes a caramel cake, because Dean’s Cake House in Andalusia is too far away from where I’ll be. Your Mama Bears are lucky to have you, you Self-proclaimed Foolish Philosopher!!

    Reply
  24. Susan Smith - August 26, 2019 6:10 pm

    “Chew the fat” an expression not heard often these days but one of my father’s favorites. I could hear him saying those words! Thanks for the memories.

    Reply
  25. Toots Rogers - August 26, 2019 7:13 pm

    If you ever go through Andalusia, be sure and stop at Dean’s Cakes. The Dean’s cookies are better than the cakes!

    Reply
  26. Ellen - August 27, 2019 1:00 am

    I tried and tried and tried, but I just can’t. You and all them have said it all. Thank you.

    Reply
  27. Teri Gresham - August 27, 2019 3:55 am

    My husband and I have owned here since 1998 and have finally retired here a little over two years ago. We have looked forward to this for quite sometime. We have such fond memories of our family here. When we didn’t live here full time, a stop for a Deans cake was a must as well as fresh cracked pecans around thanksgiving on our way down. Thank goodness there are a few places that sell Deans cake in the Destin area. And thank goodness for beach wheelchairs. Without them my mother would not be able to be part of what is best about the Emerald Coast. Thank you for reminding me about the special place we call home.

    Reply
  28. Ruth in AL - August 27, 2019 12:24 pm

    Your last few posts make me think you and your wife would be great parents. You have so much love for each other, your family, your niece, your dogs and all others You have love to share and love to spare. I almost wept when I read about you and your niece and her sweet little ham hocks. I’m not messing into your business, but I just feel it in my bones!

    Reply
  29. Tammy Moody - August 27, 2019 4:35 pm

    Make sure you tell God that you want your mansion in Heaven to be on the beach – He’ll understand! Love, hugs, and dreams of Dean’s cakes…

    Reply
  30. stephanie jewell - September 5, 2019 9:53 pm

    wonderful warm story – enjoyed every word!

    Reply

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