Woodson Harvey column: Creating memories — and our families

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 25, 2021

By Kristy Woodson Harvey
For the Salisbury Post

Growing up, the last week in July was the week I wished would never end. Because that was the week my grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins loaded up and headed toward the coast. We spent our days with toes in the sand and our nights playing Scrabble and spades, eventually falling asleep by the light of the moon, the crashing waves a lullaby.

This annual trip began well before I was born and lasted until I was 32, until the first year my grandfather — by then, well over 90 — could no longer make the five-hour trek. It was a tradition that made memories and built lives — because our grandparents didn’t just give us the gift of a beach vacation.

They gave us a family. A real, true, honest-to-God unit of 25, give or take, who don’t just see each other and make small talk at Christmas. My cousins and I remember the year we bought hermit crabs, the year we got horrible mosquito bites and the year we learned to skim board. The year Raymond got the very first bright yellow DiscMan and taught me the lyrics to Green Day’s “When I Come Around.” The year Catherine talked her way out of that speeding ticket — two weeks after she got her license. The year Grandmommy nearly took the Scrabble Champion title from Sidney and me by approving Thomas and Rutledge’s use of the word “spinecones.” They are little, nothing moments. But they are also everything.

When I was young, I couldn’t have put into words that what I loved so much about those weeks was how indelibly they connected me to the people closest to me. It is only in retrospect that I can see how those trips shaped me, how they made me who I am at the very center of myself. I can walk out into a world that can be harsh because at the very heart of it I know there are people I belong to.

I don’t know if Grandmommy and Grandaddy knew that those nights we spent around a wide-plank, roughhewn dining table eating ham and string beans we had snapped ourselves would turn us into lifelong friends. I don’t know if they realized that visits to the local ice cream shop and hunting for ghost crabs with flashlights, the moon painting bright and white on the water, would meld us into a strong and unbreakable unit. But they did. They have.

I don’t see my extended family every day, don’t talk to all of them as much as I should. But I carry them in my cells, in the very marrow of who I am, not just because we share DNA but because we share stories. I bring what growing up in a family like mine meant to me onto every page I write. It is the common theme, the firm foundation of not only my books but also of myself.

I know that not every person gets to have a family like mine. I know how incredibly blessed I am by the connections I have. And, this year, in my new-this-week book, “Under the Southern Sky,” I got to explore a little more fully what it means to be a family, what it means to have ties that bind and bonds that can never ever be broken.

In my latest novel, I plunge my characters into the fictional town of Cape Carolina, where the water is clear and the secrets run deep. It’s a story about motherhood in every shape that takes, but it’s also a story about sticking close to the family you already have, and about supporting those we love, even when we don’t entirely understand them. And maybe that’s what I learned from those idyllic summer trips: We don’t always have to understand each other to love each other.

But those summers taught me something else, too: Closeness and fierce loyalty are things you choose, not things you’re given. And they can be bestowed on the kind of friends who become like family. We can build our own family by being the kind of person who sticks by the ones they love no matter what — and by finding friends who will do the same.

I have been blessed by that kind of family too, the kind we don’t have to be born into, but the kind we choose every day, all day, over and over again. The childhood friends who I know I can call in the middle of the night — and whose 2 a.m. calls I always answer. The town I grew up in that always is, always was there, cheering me on. The man I chose to spend my life with, who I knelt with in front of a priest and prayed that we would always be this happy. The people from all ages, all places and all stages that we have picked to go through life with, the good and bad, the ups and downs. And, most of all, biggest of all, the little boy I carried who bears the name he shares with his father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

Because family isn’t just one thing. It isn’t only the cousins you played hide-and-seek with or the grandmother who patiently attempted to teach you to make her famous caramel icing. It isn’t only the parents who went to every tennis match and called out spelling words. It can be the neighbor or stray kitten or elderly dog, teenager or baby or Facebook friend who we help out when it matters, who becomes a part of our heart little by little or all at once. Because family — with all its beauty and all its flaws — is something that we all get to create for ourselves. The people who help us face our toughest life decisions. The ones who bring us joy. The ones who carry our biggest secrets as if they were their own.

Obstacle by obstacle, thread by thread, memory by memory, we begin to weave the fabric of our family, however we find it. My characters in “Under the Southern Sky” begin to realize something that I learned during all those summers by the shore, something I deeply hope we all discover at some point: Family — the one you’re born into and the one that you create — is always closer than you think.

Kristy Woodson Harvey is a Salisbury native and the USA Today bestselling author of seven novels. Signed copies of her new release, “Under the Southern Sky,” are available from South Main Book Company.

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