In his defense, my little brother Joe was bored. We were crammed into a rental with my family, driving down to Avalon, an idyllic town on the Jersey Shore where my cousins' family has a second home, after flying from Houston to Philadelphia. He was steadfastly pressing his index finger into the center of my forehead, and with nothing better to do—despite my begging, cajoling, writhing, and general outrage—he’d kept the damn thing there for an hour.

Finally, the fight went out of me. I mostly forgot the finger was there. With it still firmly stuck to my forehead, I gazed out the window at the wetlands that signaled we were—please, God—almost there. Eventually he noticed. “You’ve accepted it!” Joe said, voice incredulous. That was that. He removed the offending finger.

I have three brothers—something that has imparted a few essential aspects of my identity. It made me tougher, for sure, and it made me appreciate fart jokes. It also  made me very, very excited to visit my dad’s side of the family for a week at the beach, where I stayed in a bunk-bedded room with my two older girl cousins.

Tara was already a tall, blonde, extroverted teenager when I was still a little girl. She was like a Pied Piper, always leading the rest of the kids on expeditions to the beach, to the arcade at the end of the boardwalk, to the waterpark in Wildwood, for a cone or a slice. My hero.

Her sister Pam, who had dark hair, like me, was just a couple of years older. People said we looked alike, although unlike me, she always had a tan and a boyfriend. She and I would giggle into the night from across our bunks, gossiping and listening to “Bitchin’ Camaro” over and over again on her cassette player. The coolest person ever.

They didn’t know what to make of my brothers, of course. The three of them occupied a single room of the house on these trips, along with my poor great uncle Max. The room smelled like feet and, often—sorry for mentioning them again—farts. Ah, memories.

I have so many memories that take place in and around that beach house, which Tara and Pam’s parents, Don and Linda, bought in 1984, an easy trek from their home in Philadelphia. And lately, as the team at Houstonia has been putting together our guide to owning a second home (see p. 51), I’ve gotten to thinking about how, over decades, the place has allowed our far-flung family—multiple generations, some still with us and some, heartbreakingly, not—to come together, feast on Jersey corn and tomatoes, play cards, hold body-surfing competitions, bicker, and laugh.

The house was a great investment, and not just because, in the years since my aunt and uncle bought it, property values have soared

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