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.