SOUTH BETHANY BEACH, Del. -- At the best beach vacations, nothing much happens. The days drift past, and after a while you can't remember whether it's Tuesday or Wednesday.
The O'Neill family realizes this. In fact, they approach their annual reunion with an almost Zen-like ability to do nothing more than watch the waves and reconnect with siblings and cousins. Their story serves as a model for anyone who wants to avoid the whining, sniping, open warfare and general angst typical of family gatherings.
Of course, there was the Year We All Drowned Almost, as Erin Henderson, 53, one of Christine O'Neill's nine children, labels it. (Don't try to keep the nine children and 13 grandchildren straight. There are too many of them living at the South Bethany oceanfront house, which the O'Neills rent one week a year along with auxiliary quarters up the street.)
But that year, early in the '90s -- they aren't sure exactly when; the summers run together -- some large number of family members were playing in the surf, and all of them got caught in a wicked undertow.
"We were laughing and falling down and trying to crawl out, and we kept getting pulled under," explains Erin, who is caught up again in the drama of the moment. And the final crushing blow: One O'Neill -- nobody's quite sure who, and no one will admit to it now -- stood on the shore and took photos of the family drowning. They still have the snapshots.
Finally the lifeguards came running. With their help, or maybe just before they got there, everyone ended up on the hot sand, flopping around and gasping for breath.
In honor of their rescue, or perhaps their almost rescue, every night since when the lifeguard goes off duty, the O'Neills toss him a can of beer from the deck. For almost a decade. It's become a family ritual, as important as applying sunscreen to the kids before they go out on the beach.
The Year We All Drowned Almost is fine for reminiscing about, but no one wants that kind of excitement again. For entertainment the O'Neills tend to stand at the railing of the deck and gaze out at the gently undulating sea. Christine, a widow and the family matriarch, gets one of the two high stools. She sits there with her binoculars on her lap watching a wave break against the shore, and then another one break against the shore, and then another one ...
"I love to read," she says with a sweet smile, "But I never do here. There's too much else to do."
7 bedrooms, 5 bathrooms
Twelve years ago, when someone came up with the idea of a family reunion at the beach, only one stipulation was made. Mike Flinn, 50, a son-in-law, insisted that the house be on the ocean so they wouldn't have to lug the striped umbrella and folding chairs and drinks and towels any distance to get to the beach.
The first house the real estate agent showed them is the one the O'Neills have rented ever since, a weathered cottage (on the outside, at least) with seven bedrooms and five baths called Palmy Daze II. Those who arrive first get a bedroom. The rest bunk out on the couches or at a second, smaller house a couple of blocks away. They come from Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Georgia and Virginia, and Ellicott City, Silver Spring and Gaithersburg in Maryland. Not everyone, of course, makes it every year. Some are in computer work, some are contractors, a couple are students, and one is a doctor.
Even the O'Neills aren't sure who is and isn't here this year. When they try to name them all, they lose track. "Maybe we ought to count who's missing," someone says, but no one actually gets around to it.
The house is furnished as anonymously as a motel room, with a TV tuned to ESPN for the teen-age boys. A couple of them are usually glued to it. (Otherwise, they sleep and go to the boardwalk and hang out with the girls across the street.)
Erin, who's the organizer of the reunion, has made just one home decor-type improvement: When the landlord wouldn't put in a screen for the flies (with justification -- the house is air conditioned), she went to a tackle shop and bought mosquito netting, sewed sinkers on one end to hold it down and tacked it up in front of the door. It flutters gently in the breeze. The door now stays open most of the time for the week.
The heart of the house is a rectangular dining room table that seats 14. Here's where everyone eats, first the kids, then the grown-ups. Each night one family is in charge of getting the meal on the table and cleaning up.
And this is the place where the O'Neills gather for the most important event of the day: happy hour.
The bartender is Kip O'Neill, 48, bigger than life. "The word raucous comes to mind," says his mother judiciously. The drink of choice is mudslides, a lethal combination of ice cream, Kahlua and vodka whirred in the blender.
If you ask Kip's sister Peggy Flinn, 49, for any advice on holding a family reunion at the beach, her answer is terse: "Keep the mudslides coming."
That gets the rest of them chiming in:
"Share the chores."
"Don't sweat the little things."
"Have enough space."
The main event
If the O'Neills' vacation revolves around any activity, it's the day the men go off to play golf. Ask almost any of them why he comes back to the beach year after year, and he'll answer "the golf." (Sometimes he'll say "the golf and the mudslides.")
"We buy some snow cones, we play some golf," says John O'Neill, 44, who has a great tan and wears sunglasses in the house.
This year the men have tried a new golf course, Bear Trap in Bethany. Given the intensity of the game, the name is appropriate.
"We began preparing for it psychologically five or six weeks ago," says Brian O'Neill, 57, with a wolfish grin.
"It's a very friendly game," says Peggy, doing a masterful job of keeping any trace of irony out of her voice. "Everybody's trying very hard to win, particularly now that the nephews are in contention to be top dog."
The nephews are Sean, 23, Mark, 17, J.P., 16, and Brendan, 16. It's hard to imagine they care very much about beating their dads and uncles at golf. True, Brian raised the stakes when he bet his son Mark a tank of gas for his car against washing the old man's car. (The car got washed.)
The women don't take part in the golf outing. That's the tradition. Some summers they spend a day shopping in Rehoboth's outlets, but not always. They mostly sit on the deck or beach and read, do needlepoint or watch the porpoises.
"There's not much change," says Peggy. "The beach is never crowded in front of the house."
"Because we put our chairs out early and intimidate everyone," says Stephanie O'Neil, 55, a cousin by marriage whose last name is spelled with one L (for reasons she doesn't want to get into). She went to nursing school with Erin and has come to the reunions from the beginning, although her husband the FBI agent doesn't.
One year, Peggy and Erin remember, they did have a very competitive tennis match with two in-laws who were serious tennis players.
Peggy and Erin won. The in-laws didn't come back. And tennis is no longer on the list of events.
The meaning of the week
It's the last full day that the O'Neills have the house. Already some are drifting away, those who have to be back for work on Friday or are due to attend some other event.
Down on the beach, Conn, 44, an Ellicott City contractor in real life, lifts his 5-year-old daughter, Megan, up and down, up and down in the surf while John, a real estate appraiser from Gaithersburg, lifts his 5-year-old son, Eddie, up and down, up and down. From the deck they look like cheerful mechanical toys. The motion lulls the watchers into a kind of contented daze, or perhaps it's just that everyone's energy has run out with the end of the week.
Mike and Kip went early this morning, leaving a goodbye note on a napkin. Stephanie is in the process of leaving, which involves saying goodbye to everyone on the deck, going back in the kitchen and eating a hot dog and then coming back out and saying her goodbyes a second time.
"Goodbye, ocean," she says last.
The kids are digging a hole in the sand and watching the surf fill it in. The grown-ups watch them with lazy interest.
The sun is bright in an absolutely cloudless sky. "We always have two or three rough days," muses Erin about the weather, "but the last day is always perfect."
The closest anyone comes to expressing what a week of living together does for the O'Neills as a family is Sean, 23, who's just graduated from Christopher Newport University in Virginia.
"We sit around on the beach and catch up on everybody's lives," he says.
"We have a great time in the week together," his grandmother adds. "But we always say if it was two weeks it might be a different story."