Virginia Beach

Charlotte Pla


Class of 2017


Virginia Beach, Virginia

I’ve always thought of my uncle on my mother’s side as strong. He stands 6’6 and runs a small, contracting company in Waitsfield, Vermont. He is physically strong from the construction work and also emotionally strong; I never saw him cry in front of his daughter Emma when she was diagnosed with Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at the age of eight. In fairness, I also think Emma is strong. I never saw her cry until she lost her beautiful, thick strawberry blonde hair. The first summer after Emma lost her hair she wore hats and scarves —  never her head bare. Emma and I are the same age, and my mother spent many hours trying to explain her situation to me so that I would not make an insensitive comment about her baldness when we saw each other in the summer.

Annually, my mother’s side of the family congregates in Virginia Beach, Virginia at my grandparents’ red house on Chesapeake Bay. That house, on Ewell Road, is my favorite place in the world. Returning to Virginia every June means stepping off of the plane into a blanket of heat and humidity; but more prominently, it also means that my heart gets to relax. Throughout the year, an indescribable yearning to go home will frequently force its way into my heart, especially in moments of loneliness. With time, I’ve found this yearn unquenchable by the simple family life in my California home with my immediate family. I don’t know when Virginia started to play the role of “home” to me, but I’ve written it off as a byproduct of moving constantly as a child. Virginia has served as one of the only consistencies throughout my life and I believe that I consequently rooted myself within it.

We spend anywhere from two to three weeks in Virginia each summer, and in spring my mother takes one of us with her to see her parents. She usually tries to plan the trip over my grandfather’s birthday to help my grandmother bake a cake. In the summer, my mother used to travel alone with the three of us to Virginia while my dad stayed home for work. He would come for the last few days of the trip and then fly home with us. I remember him dropping us off at the airport and my mom bitterly saying goodbye, knowing that the following seven hours of travel with three incessantly complaining children were bound to get the best of her.

Even the airport in Norfolk is hot. We arrive and I immediately remove my jacket and tie it around my waist. I scoop up the hair that is already stuck with sweat to the back of my neck into a ponytail.

My grandmother always comes into the airport to pick us up at baggage claim, and we always see her before she sees us. She routinely hugs each of us and compares our height to her’s, even though we have long since surpassed her. The walk from the airport to the car serves as an annual reminder of the severity of east coast humidity, and I fully pit-out my t-shirt dragging two weeks worth of clothing and swimsuits behind me in a suitcase.

My grandfather waits outside of their white Toyota Sienna and smokes his tobacco pipe. Every summer my grandfather greets us at the car, hugs each of us, asks us “how are you?” and that’s it. He silently drives my grandmother and the four of us back to their home and then disappears until dinner each night. He isn’t social and he isn’t friendly. My grandfather was born in Middlesex County, Virginia and raised to be a racist conservative, despite his black, childhood best friend. He is a father to four children, my mother included, who all became liberal and two of whom moved to California, a Godless state in my grandfather’s eyes. He still uses the n-word and won’t act appropriately when talking to my aunt’s black husband. Despite this, my mother loves him. I’ve asked why before and she can’t give an answer other than, “because he’s my dad.” I’ve decided that’s a fair enough answer.

I reach the car with my suitcase and exhale, putting my hands on my hips. I see him stash his pipe into a plastic baggy in his chest pocket and head over to me.

“Hey Paca,” I bury my face into his flannel, my head touches about where the baggy is. I inhale tobacco and sweat and wince at the putrid smell. I love my grandfather too, but mostly because my mother loves him and I love her; so by the transitive property. I just don’t know if he loves me.

“Hey kid, how you doing?” he asks in his gravelly, sick voice.

My siblings catch up and my mother follows with my grandmother who walks slowly due to chronic back pain. He hugs them and asks them the same question to which we all grunt, “good.” Then he hugs my mom and she asks the question which he answers with the same grunt.

I try to watch out of both windows on the ride home to jog my memory of Virginia Beach. Familiar Wendy’s locations pop up and eventually the church that marks the entrance to my grandparents’ neighborhood.

Chance, my grandfather’s English setter, runs around the yard when we pull in. Since I was born, my grandfather has gone through five English Setters. He regularly hunts and uses his dogs to retrieve quail and turkey he has shot, and to point. His last two English Setters he bought as a pair from a breeder and named them Mike and Sadie. Sadie was the runt of the litter and probably wasn’t going to sell, so he bought her assuming he could use the extra help hunting. Sadie ended up being a burden due to multiple medical issues. This left room for Mike among my grandmother’s favorites and she spoiled him until he died, a few weeks after Sadie.

I am not so lucky making it from the car to the house without being bitten by a mosquito, but my grandmother always stocks up on Afterbite in anticipation of that. The week before we arrive, my grandmother always calls my mother and asks what food we eat and will want in the house. My mom lists off cereals, bagels, yogurts, and lunch meat for sandwiches to bring to the beach, which are always in the garage fridge when we arrive.

My grandparents don’t use their front door and haven’t for years. I drag my suitcase through the breezeway and up three stairs to a blue, side farmdoor with a rooster knocker. I open the door to a strong blast of air conditioning and the sound of Fox News which they leave on for Chance. My room used to be the small child’s room at the back of the house which I shared with my brother, but I have long since outgrown its twin bed and now sleep with my sister in what we call Mina’s room. Mina is my mom’s younger sister who lives in San Francisco. Her real name is Amelia, but my sister couldn’t pronounce that as a child.

I drag my suitcase through the living room, up one stair into the den, and into Mina’s room. I throw it onto the trunk at the foot of the bed and splay out on top of the duvet. I am jetlagged, sweaty, and hungry and fall asleep where I lie.

The following days all pass the same. We go to the beach and stay for six hours each day. Then we pack up our chairs, towels, and boogie boards and head back home to start dinner with grandmother at five. Virginia isn’t very fun until the cousins arrive. Maddie, Emma, and Claire are driven down to Virginia by their parents to see us each summer. Maddie is my older sister’s age, Emma is my age, and Claire is my younger brother’s age (my mother claims she didn’t plan that with her brother). They are my only cousins on my mother’s side and we all six get along very well with the exception of immediate family conflicts, there is never any cousin-to-cousin combat.

Emma didn’t come to Virginia the summers that we were nine and ten years old. The year before, she had fallen ill while in Virginia and was told to return home by a doctor. Once back in Vermont, she received her diagnosis and was immediately pulled from school for treatment in Burlington. She feared that it was something in Virginia that made her sick and she blamed the following two years of hell on my grandparents’ house. Over the summers that Emma was gone, Mina had the rest of us kids make one thousand origami, paper cranes for Emma. There is a Japanese legend that says making one thousand paper cranes guarantees you one wish and in the novel Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, a young girl with leukemia tries it. The cranes are currently strung together across the ceiling in Emma’s room.

Now Emma comes every summer and she has grown her beautiful, thick strawberry blonde hair back. My mother loves Emma’s hair and braids it after dinner some nights.

My mother lost her faith in religion when Emma was diagnosed with cancer. She stopped making us go to church regularly and eventually even stopped making us go on Christmas Eve. After Emma was declared cancer free, my mother didn’t pick religion back up, but I believe it’s because that’s when she herself was diagnosed with breast cancer.

The walk to the beach is very long and my sundress sticks to my back and chest with sweat. Each cousin carries a boogie board, a chair (if they so choose to use one), and one of the many beach bags my grandmother owns for us to use. My beach bag only holds one sweating water bottle, my towel, and my summer reading book, but feels like it weighs twenty pounds on my shoulder. The first man on the beach gets to choose the spot and today it’s Claire. Everybody drops their stuff in a pile and begins to set up for the day. I prop open my chair and recline it facing the direction of the sun. Then I lie my towel over the chair and sit down. I stare out at the ocean through the sunglasses sliding off of my nose from the oily sunscreen. I remove my sundress and lean back in my chair feeling the hot sun already burning my un-sunscreened body.

Our parents avidly remind us to reapply throughout our long day of swimming, boogie boarding, surfing, and napping. Maddie and Olivia apply tanning oil against my mother’s best advice and lie side-by-side on towels in the sun. They don’t bear any physical similarities, but have very in tune personalities. They act as an exclusive pair, not always letting the youngest ones tag along with them.

I see Will alone in the surf and empathize with the only boy on the trip. My brother is waiting for my father to arrive, they’ll go surfing once he does. The amount of time my father spends in Virginia decreases as we get older, leading me to believe that he only used to stay the whole trip to help take care of us. Now that we can dress and feed ourselves, my father figures he should be investing more of his time at work rather than on extended family vacations.

Claire occasionally gets in the water with Will, but as she gets older she becomes more like her sisters, Olivia, and I. Before, Claire was eager to spend time in the water and to drag our bag of sand toys to the beach to build castles. Now she lies around on the sand and has joined the girls’ circulation of tabloid magazines my mother buys to read at the beach. I believe her loss of interest in her otherwise characteristically childish behavior is in part to the absence of her father. My aunt and uncle stopped visiting Virginia at the same time as our family because it became too much for my grandparents to host all of us at once. Now my aunt and uncle just fly the cousins down and we drive them back up when we visit Vermont at the end of the two weeks. My uncle Graham used to play with Claire and Will for hours at the beach and now, left to her own devices, Claire isn’t as creative as her father.

I have a growing upsetting feeling towards us not dragging the toy bag out to the beach anymore. With every summer it seems that the family drops a new tradition or matures in some way that I had not readily anticipated. No more Fourth of July parade, no more Eggo’s for breakfast, no more toy bag, it all seems to chip away in light of us aging. Realistically if someone placed the toy bag in front of me I wouldn’t get on my hands and knees to build a sandcastle, but I do miss the excitement that the toys brought. Similarly I miss decorating our bikes and biking the parade with my cousins, and I miss making Eggo’s in my grandparents’ defective toaster.

Being in Virginia relaxes my heart’s strain to be there and to be home, but also serves as a reminder of my fleeting childhood. As my father stops visiting Virginia, as Claire stops building sandcastles, as the food my grandmother buys for us becomes more organic and adultlike, I feel as if my childhood is coming to a swift end. I panic some nights in my Virginia bed, scared that I didn’t relish enough in the sprinkler out front or that I didn’t swing high enough on the tree swing when my body was light enough to have done so.

It is difficult to come to terms with my mother’s family changing while we are apart, as I believe that the foundation of my love for Virginia lies within how we saw it as children. Every year my cousins have grown and changed, I miss my aunt and uncle, and the childish activities we used to take part in have grown more obsolete. Virginia Beach shaped my family dynamic and continues to reform it with each passing summer. I just wish it would’ve stopped changing four summers ago.

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