Outer Banks

Tears streamed down my face as I huddled in my corner of the backseat of our wood-paneled station wagon. I was crying as quietly as I could, not wanting to attract concerned attention from my parents, or ridicule from my two younger brothers. As the car sped north and west—across the causeway to the mainland, away from the Atlantic Ocean and toward my western Pennsylvania home—I was convinced that my 12-year-old heart would break.

The Best Week of the Year had come to an end.


I was nine years old the first time my family vacationed on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. That first year, it was me, my parents, my two younger brothers, and the family of a man my dad worked with. Three years later, my dad’s three brothers and their families had joined us on what would become an annual pilgrimage and a de facto family reunion.

Every year, we journeyed to Kill Devil Hills, to The Cavalier by the Sea motel at milepost 8.5 of Beach Road. It was a week I looked forward to all year, when I would reconnect with cousins who were so cool, they probably would never notice me in the school hallways if (a) we lived near each other and (b) were not related.


A typical day in my life during the Best Week of the Year went something like this:

The aromas of brewing coffee and frying bacon would greet me when I awoke, mixing with the scents of saltwater and Coppertone suntan lotion.

I would emerge from my bedroom, hair hastily combed, swimsuit on, to find Mom and Dad sitting in bamboo chairs at the Formica table of the main room, finishing breakfast and watching morning TV. My bare feet would shuffle across the grainy, sandy texture of air-conditioned linoleum. After slurping up a bowl of cereal, I would be out the door, a brightly colored beach towel slung around my neck.

A quick stop at the pool in the courtyard to see who was already swimming, and I’d continue on, under the archway and onto the beach. Stumbling across the already hot sand toward the crashing waves of the Atlantic, I would drop my towel next to the cluster of beach umbrellas where my tribe had already set up camp for the week.

nags-head-family-picUncle Mike and Aunt Mary would be sipping their morning coffee. Uncle Paul and Aunt Barb would be slathering suntan lotion on my littlest cousins. Cousins closer to my age would be stretched out on towels—exposed skin glistening with baby oil, as was the naive custom of the 1970s—or jumping the waves.

After lunch, my cousin Mike would start his latest sand sculpture masterpiece, and my brothers would help our younger cousins fill plastic buckets with plastic shovels-full of sand, building castles and digging moats.

As shadows grew longer, we would wander back to our rooms to shower and change clothes before dinner—hot dogs and watermelon by the pool, or fresh seafood at a nearby restaurant, or spaghetti and meatballs prepared in one of the kitchens.

Later, we would return to the pool, or pile into cars for a trip to ride go-carts or bowl or see a movie. We would play cards until bedtime.

Then the aromas coffee and bacon and Coppertone would signal the beginning of the next day.


Around the time I graduated from high school, our family stopped going down every year—but the uncles and aunts and cousins did not.

While I loved these beach vacations, and so did most of my family, my mother was never a fan of the sand, and she wasn’t a swimmer. She didn’t like the beach, but she knew what this week meant to the rest of us.

The last time my whole family made that trip together was in the mid-’90s. My brothers and I were now young adults. It was a hotter-than-usual summer, and biting sand flies and stinging sea lice and the lack of a discernible ocean breeze served as the proverbial heavy last straw. Mom made it clear that we were welcome to go back again—but she was done with beach vacations.


In July 2007, it had been more than a decade since I had spent that summer week with my cousins. As we approached the first anniversary of losing Mom to cancer, my family returned.

Everything felt so much the same. And completely different.

The swimming pool and the beach were mostly unchanged, as were the Cavalier’s cottages—even with cosmetic upgrades of indoor-outdoor carpeting and fancy new pleather furniture. Traffic on the Beach Road was heavier, and there were more restaurants and hotels and houses between the causeway and milepost 8.5. Cousins I had played with as children were now husbands and wives and parents, and their children looked forward to this week as eagerly as we had at their age. Our tribe still set up camp under the rented umbrellas near the ocean, and we now spanned three generations and seven decades.

But even as we made new memories, introducing my new sister-in-law to the Atlantic Ocean and teaching my 12-year-old niece to play euchre, I missed my mom. I was aware that memories had been made in my absence that would never be mine. I was 40 years old and way past the age of wanting to live in my bathing suit.

At the end of the week, driving my own car across the causeway, away from the Outer Banks and toward western Pennsylvania, I let the tears flow.

This was still The Best Week of the Year for my cousins. It just wasn’t mine anymore.


Amy bio YAH

19 Thoughts.

  1. I love stories that are from childhood and the beach. Gosh that was a lovely walk down a lane I often take only ours was Ocean City, New Jersey. Thanks so much. My dream as a 12 year old was to live at the beach and work on the boardwalk and never grow up. . .

    • I completely relate, Doreen! I even got to live in Ocean City, NJ and work on the boardwalk the summer I was 20. Best summer of my life!

      • Now that is cool! We always ate pizza and they tossed it right there in front of you and I thought, hey I’d love to work here! I’m glad you had that best summer Amy. Write about it! !

  2. Amy- That’s beautiful. And I love the picture of your family at the beach. I’ve never seen John (the younger one) looking quite so dashing. 🙂 You have a wonderful family. I miss your folks and I’m thankful for the times that I got to see them and all the Maczuzaks that I’ve gotten to meet over the years. You guys are a great bunch. I can see your mom saying that & it cracked me up because I’m with her on that (except I like to swim in the ocean with the kids, but that’s it). Thank you for sharing your memories.

  3. This is beautiful. We’ve never been the “extended family vacation” family – and that’s something I’ve always longed for. Thanks for sharing a bit of your story with us – even with the sad parts about places that stop being “yours” in the way they once were.

  4. This is a touching piece, Amy. I didn’t understand how deep my own sense of loss has been until I read this. I hope you will always remember Uncle Mike welcoming your Dad with a red-hot bloody mary (or vice versa if your family arrived first), flounder left-overs from our Cochina Beach cook-outs, laughing about the cookware that never changed year to year, and the fellowship and the laughs that we shared each time we gathered. I’m sure his friends believe John is exaggerating about our deep-sea fishing trip. I could go on, as you well know. The loss of your Mom and Dad make these memories that much more precious. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Thank you, Uncle Paul. So many wonderful memories and so little space! 🙂 The Cochina Beach cookouts (and the flies), the all-you-can-eat Friday night meals at The Wharf (when it was still there), the go-carts, going with Aunt Barb, Kathy, and Kathy to see “Grease” when I was 11-going-on-12 and still too young and innocent to get most of the innuendo, shopping at the outlets on rainy days, the paper bathmats… I’m so glad the tradition lives on.

  5. Time marches on, I guess. I know that I speak for all the Maczuzaks that still make the trip, your parents, you, your siblings, and their families are missed every year still. This brought a tear to my eye, because I know what this week still means to me (and my kid, who has now pledged to never miss it again). P.S. I’m pretty sure Mom would have abandoned the Cavalier years ago too if left to her own devices.

    • Thank you, T. I never say never about returning again–I suspect that 2007 trip is the hardest it could ever be. Although I’ve not been back since losing Dad…

      • Happy to hear that a return is not out of the question! There are probably non-beach sitting things that we could organize a rotating slate of cousins to do with you… I mean, we don’t know what they are, but I’m sure they exist.

  6. Amy, you really captured a sense of loss here that is universal, even though your story is so wonderfully specific. This summer my husband and daughters and I are spending a week at a Lake Michigan cottage we rented several summers in a row but haven’t been back to in four years. Now our girls are all teenagers, and while the nostalgia of the place is appealing, I’m also aware that our experience will be very different. Somehow I need to prepare myself to hold that sense of loss with an openness to what is new.

    • Thank you, Kristin. I feel like this piece has become a metaphor for me of the experience of growing up and growing older. The Outer Banks experience is one of many I could explore.

  7. How beautiful, Amy! Your attention to detail and the way in which you put your heart on paper touched me deeply. Thank you.

      • So many reactions…
        -I love the Outer Banks, so I could picture exactly where this was.
        -With both my folks gone, too, I know some of what you touch on. The things that brought joy may do so again, but often their quiet absence can be the only thing your heart hears. So even when in a happy place, the grief you think is yours alone in that place clouds your experience of the joy others are experiencing.
        -You can’t go home again, and it stinks. You always thought you could, even if it would be different. But sometimes, it is just to stark.
        -Even so, and here is where I’d encourage you to return, smile and go back. Make new memories. They won’t be the same, but maybe some day they’ll be telling the stories of the time that Aunt Amy or crazy cousin Amy did ______. You can’t make the memories like that from a distance.
        -And when you do return, give me a heads up. ‘Cause that’s never too far from my neck of the woods, and I’d love to come hang out for a few moments. Maybe I can show you some of that off-sand stuff that only the Outer Banks can offer!

        Great stuff, Amy!!

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