“Oh c’mon, you’ve gotta go!” the chorus resounded. It was my husband’s sisters, begging me to come out with them to the Rusty Rudder on a warm August night in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.
By day vacationers dine and cocktail at “the Rudder,” enjoying the magnificent sunsets along the Rehoboth Bay. But on summer evenings, the open-air venue becomes a raucous hub of nightlife: a mixed crowd of vacationers in flip-flops and t-shirts, drinking cheap beer and rail cocktails and dancing to the music of cover bands.
On this night, the 80s cover band Love Seed Mama Jump was playing, which my husband and his five sisters had been going to see since they were teenagers. With a beach house owned by their family since the 1950s, they’ve been coming to this hamlet east of Washington D.C. every summer of their life. Their mom and dad would pack up the Chevy station wagon at their suburban Maryland home and make the two-hour drive as soon as school was out, not returning until Labor Day. My salt-of-the-earth in-laws are now gone but the house, with its original plumbing, reclaimed barn wood walls and brown galley kitchen, remains. And for 10 days each summer all of us come here for a family reunion affectionately dubbed Camp Chaos.
Five of the six siblings (one of the sisters lives in a nearby beach town), their husbands, and our 12 children pack into the 2-story structure built by their grandfather, sprawling across every single open space. There are three bedrooms upstairs and three downstairs, one of which has 8 twin beds. The “kids” (all now adults except one), still sleep together in the communal room, even the six footers like my 23-year-old-son. On any given night, you can see numerous feet dangling well over the edges.
As the evening progressed, each time I scrunched up my nose at the prospect of going to the Rudder, the women got louder. “Oh my God, we’re not leaving you behind this year, Linda! It’s your birthday!” Indeed, it was—and going to the Rusty Rudder was the last way I wanted to spend it. Point of fact: while my husband and most of his sisters love going to Reho’s local bars and live music venues, it’s not my jam. I’m social but I enjoy intimate discussions where I can connect. I find trying to make small talk with often times inebriated people over blaring, ho-hum music draining.
My husband’s younger sister, Ginge (the “baby” of the family), wailed, “You can’t not go!” Point of fact: I didn’t want to make them feel guilty about leaving me home. When my sweet, nightlife lovin’ hubby said with as much enthusiasm as he could possibly muster, “I’ll stay with you,” I tipped. “Let’s go,” I said, slipping my already stained Tretorns.
Twenty minutes later, we were at the Rudder. I spotted a sun-scorched crowd of twentysomethings queuing up. I couldn’t help but marvel that they resembled the exact hue of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Doesn’t anyone here believe that the sun causes skin cancer? The burly bouncer didn’t even give me a glance as we entered the bar. Happy birthday to me.
Inside, our family immediately hit the dance floor. Stacy’s Mom Has Got It Goin’ On was booming through the speakers and, from the screams of the crowd, you would have thought that Beyoncé had just arrived.
My brother-in-law, Jimmy, another near teetotaler, who I can always count on for amusing chitchat (and a ride home), asked if he could get me a drink. I requested a glass of ice water. “Are you kidding me? It’s your birthday! C’mon!” But I’d already had two glasses of wine with our celebratory dinner at home and I knew I’d feel a third the next day.
While the others danced in the mosh pit, Jimmy and I climbed up the stairs to be on the same level as the band, which offered a bird’s eye view of our family rocking out. At that spot, I could also avoid getting doused. I might as well have been on the ground, though. A heavily tattooed man, who appeared to have a lit cigarette both in his hand and dangling from his lips, dropped a cup of beer on my foot. Minutes later, a woman sloshed me with what smelled like gin as she passed by. “Sorry!” she quipped, flicking her wet hair and drops of sweat across my décolletage.
The band began belting out American Girl by Tom Petty. I had to admit, it was a pretty good rendition. I glanced down at my family in the mosh pit. By now they had worked their way to the front row. I spotted by husband’s sister Karen, number two in the sibling line up. At times she was dancing alone. Other times, with family or complete strangers. To her, it didn’t matter. Karen was ebullient—and it was great to see.
In her youth, Karen was known as the tall, green-eyed, raving beauty of the bunch. It wasn’t really that she was prettier than the others. It was more her joie de vivre spirit and almost haughty self confidence that set her apart. You just couldn’t miss her in a crowd. But in recent years Karen had fallen on her luck. She suddenly lost her husband and, as someone who had spent the past 20 years as a stay-at-home mom, it turned her life upside down. She re-entered the work force and had to sell her family home. I pondered all of this keenly watching her swirl and sway, sporting a toothy grin all the while.
Since that dreadful spring day when Karen’s husband died, we’d all been waiting for her to get her mojo back. Maybe not all of it, but some of it. A hint of a twinkle in those piercing eyes.
As I watched her twirl with someone who looked a lot like the bouncer, suddenly it became crystal clear. I understood why she loved coming to the Rudder each year. There, on the dance floor, you could see it: Karen’s mojo was back. She was the Karen of her youth, celadon eyes a-blazin’, laughing and singing, shaking her booty with swagger a plenty. She swung her shoulder-length locks and pranced like Mick Jagger on her darkly tanned legs. On Monday morning, she’d get up at the crack of dawn to drive home to her sales job, but tonight, she was an American Girl. Oh yeah, all right. Take it easy baby. Make it last all night.
Another sister-in-law, Katie, suddenly appeared. She’s the “bubbly blonde.” On several past occasions she’d persuaded Love Seed Mama Jump to let her come on stage and play tambourine. “I’m going to get up there soon,” she vowed, placing one hand defiantly on her hip. “How are you gonna ask them, Katie? The music is so loud and they’re aren’t even looking our way.” “Watch me!” she shouted back, locking her eyes on the band.
Sure enough, when the music paused, Katie boldly stepped forward and caught the drummer’s eye. He seemed to recognize her, stepped forward to exchange a few words and, a few tunes later, motioned for Katie to come on stage. The band had just kicked off the Beatles’ I Saw Her Standing There. He handed her a tambourine and, in a performance that could have been straight from a Go-Go’s concert, Katie rocked out. Well, my heart went boom when I crossed that room…and I held her hand in mine.
Katie, a mortgage broker by day, pounded the instrument on her thigh and shook it over her head, grinning ear-to-ear. Again, an epiphany. The normally cheerful Katie had been a bit blue at Camp Chaos this year. Her brother-in-law had been hospitalized for months and doctors hadn’t been able to figure out what was ailing him. But at the Rudder, like Karen, Katie seemed to revert to her teenage days—a time for most of us when illness, loss and worry were only remote concepts, marked, for the most part, by parents talking in hushed tones. In this moment, Katie’s beloved parents were alive and her family all together again, with nothing but the future sprawled out like a blank canvas. And Katie held the paintbrush.
Seeing my sisters-in-law get what amounted to a visceral taste of their youth made me feel a bit envious. For the past few years—particularly since my sons became adults— I’ve longed to recapture that distinct feeling I used to have in summer—not just when I was little but when they were little. School would let out and it was game on! Endless possibilities for fun and discovery. When it comes to getting older, the thing I hate more than wrinkles is dwindling options. No matter how deeply I’ve inhaled when we vacation now at various spots by the sea, I can smell it, but I can’t feel it.
I looked down at my husband and the petite Ginge in the mosh pit howling at Katie waving her tambourine. I could see Ginge—who loves us all being together perhaps more than anyone—getting knocked around, trying her darndest to steady her cell phone to video Katie on stage. When the song ended, the family converged. Excited to re-watch Katie’s big moment, I gestured at Ginge’s cell phone, “Hey, did you get it?” Ginge smiled, closing her eyes, and nodding to herself. “Oh I got it all right—every single minute of it.”