When I think of all the places my family has travelled, all the beaches my children’s tiny toes have touched, I am in awe of all God has done. What a precious, blessed life we live as a military family. With this life comes sacrifice but so many other families sacrifice more than we will ever know. I know my children will not remember much about their charmed first few years so I hope this blog will sometimes help to piece together their story.
Tripp’s first forays on a beach were in Chiclana de la Frontera, Spain. A small coastal beach town, just south of Rota Naval Station. A group of us had gone for the day and the men were laying around, their American-ness evident by drinking beer from cans and playing frisbee before flopping down on “Budweiser” logo towels. I was a new Mom, I was loaded up with the latest beach gear for babies. We had the pop-up tent, the 6 coordinating swim outfits, the sunscreen, the hats, the diapers, nursing cover, sand toys, Baby Bjorn. We had it all. I don’t remember much about that day except trying to crouch down in the pop-up tent to nurse Tripp and holding his pudgy 4 month old body as he felt the sand for the first time. He was unsure and kept pulling his feet up, not comfortable with this new texture. He seemed to like it but he wasn’t impressed either way. It was a perfect day for us though, introducing our first born to the mystery of the ocean in the country where he first called home.
Throughout the next almost 2 years we would make numerous trips down the southern Spanish highway, 110 degree heat blazing outside. I learned we needed much less gear but always kept a pail full of sand toys in the trunk. Some days we would hop over the dunes in Rota for a quick hour in between errands and appointments. Other days we would load up with friends for a full day of sand, ocean breezes and pizza at the village pizzeria, Pizzeria Blanca Palomo, in El Puerto de Santa Maria.
A precarious beach town on the far eastern edge of the Alicante region was a place we met my parents for a week. Hudson was comfortably nestled in the womb and Tripp was a bit more adventurous. The views were majestic, the boardwalk was busy but not crowded and our sweet 15 month old suckered us into nightly extravagances of ice cream, balloons, sand toys and massive blow-up soccer balls.
Tripp still took a solid nap every day so my mom and I were able to lay out at the pool at the rental house while Joe and my Dad went off exploring the local golf courses. Tripp made friends with a beautiful little girl at a Thai restaurant on the boardwalk and enjoyed the endless playgrounds on the sand. It was a magical trip.
Leaving the boys’ place of birth was hard but exciting at the same time. We didn’t know what Belgium had in store for us but we knew the weather wouldn’t be the same. In a country where they measure sunlight in hours and not days we knew our days of pool parties and beach vacations were behind us. But as is life in the military, a new location affords a new set of travel opportunities. One of our first long trips as a family while living in Belgium was to the southern coast of France to a tiny little town called Hyeres. Our apartment overlooked the marina and despite the chilly, end of February, weather we bundled up and made the best of the nice days.
The town was almost entirely boarded up for winter but that also meant we had free reign of the boardwalk, the scarce open restaurants and plenty of time to watch the ships come and go from the apartment balcony.
We took full advantage of our location and took a day trip over to St. Tropez, because who can visit southern France and never see St. Tropez? The off-season didn’t stop the tourists or yacht owners from enjoying the unseasonal warmth and we wandered the overpriced boutiques, scenic jetty and stopped at every street musician we saw. Tripp has always been enthralled with street musicians and this one was no exception. Paul, the older, mysterious guitar player loved the attention so much that he gifted Tripp a purple guitar pick that Tripp still has to this day, 4 years later.
This time Loli was the one in my belly and Huddy was much more excited about the beach.
We found a quiet piece of beach, off the beaten path, half by accident and half by luck. Tripp and Huddy wandered around with their pants cuffed and enjoyed the sun on their faces. They quickly found some bamboo stakes and fashioned them into swords as boys so often do. Watching the boys explore in the sand and get lost in their imaginary worlds was the highlight of that day.
Belgian beaches are actually a hidden gem. They have adorable quaint beach towns on the western coast and the weather, when it’s behaving, can be quite glorious. Another advantage is that because Belgium is such a small country, day trips to the coast are easy and convenient. We took a few day trips during our 4 years of living in Belgium. Knokke-Heist, Koksijde, Oostende. These were days filled with beer store stops along the way, crusty baguette lunches, ice cream before the long car ride home, boardwalk playgrounds, seashell searching and a jumble of Dutch and French being spoken around us. This was Lorelai’s first foray into beach life and she was hooked. She wasn’t discouraged by a chilly breeze and would waddle her way down to the shoreline, proceeding to drench her diaper and onesie. Her fair skin made us pack it up after a few short hours but the kids had a blast digging and running.
Knee deep in chemo treatments, bald and puffy, I knew I needed something on my horizon to look forward to. Two friends and I started planning a week long trip to Normandy, France, about 6 hours southwest from where we lived. We rented an old farm house, quaint, rustic with perfect space for the kids to play outside and in. We visited WWII destinations by day and ate like kings at night after the kids went to bed. No internet for a week was a balm to our souls and we rehashed hysterical, memorable life stories over bottles of red wine in our jammies. On our last full day we visited the American Cemetery and wandered around the immensity and heaviness of the place where so many of our veterans lost their lives. On our way out of town we stopped at Omaha Beach. It was brisk that day, and the water was freezing. But children don’t feel the cold like adults do and the brisk air didn’t deter our kids from playing with nothing but a discarded ziploc bag in the water for hours. A few French children, in their winter coats, hats and gloves, sat on the sand as they watched ours intently, wading through the water, barefoot. None of us had the heart to scold our kids for catching a cold or getting their last pair of pants wet. The joy they had that day, exploring the French seaside on a beach their forefathers helped to reclaim was the perfect ending to our week of bonding and spending time together.
Now, after 8 years of living overseas our lives look much different. No longer are our vacations peppered with foreign languages, unknown menu items and exotic excursions. We were ready to pack it up and head back to the US. We missed our families, drive through Starbucks, wall-to-wall carpet and closets. But our desire for adventure still sits, deep-rooted, in our bellies.
When the military calls, you answer and sometimes you have only a few places to choose from. Texas, California and southern New Jersey were are only options this round and it was a hard pick. Neither of us had ever lived in Cali or Texas but we knew New Jersey was the right choice. The proximity to my side of the family was a no-brainer and we were hearing decent things about New Jersey and the base here. Despite living out of suitcases and military foot lockers for 3 months before finding our current home we fell in love with southern Jersey. We settled in Medford, a quiet lake town with a beach-town-pricey supermarket, mom-and-pop restaurants, a family-run hardware store and friendly people everywhere. The lakes drew us in and the summer felt too short. Early dinners made way for bike rides to the lake. Fishing poles were purchased, sand toys were lugged, tadpoles were caught. We lived at the lakes our first summer here and Tripp asks everyday how many “sleeps” until the lake opens again. We drive by “Beach 1” everyday and have no doubt that this coming summer will be just as magical as our first. I feel so blessed that my children are making so many memories in this great town and that they are still getting to put their toes in the sand.