By Carol Roche
It all started 67 years ago when Bessie Bonney, my grandmother, thought that buying a parcel of land with two old circa-1898 beach cottages (and supposedly a garage and a shed as well) would ensure her growing family would blossom into a tight-knit group. Bessie and my grandfather had five children: four girls and one boy…my father. They owned a business in town and through hard work kept that business thriving during the Depression, WWII, the Korean War, and into the 1980s.
Sadly, I never knew my grandfather. He passed away before I was born, but his strong, driven wife continued the business with my father, my aunt, and my uncle. It was after Grandpa John’s death that Bessie realized her beach vision. In 1955, she bought her place on beautiful Long Island Sound and the legacy began.
The two cottages became four, with the larger two located directly on the beach. Like most beach cottages, they were each given a name: The Old Squaw, meaning Sea Duck, The Surf Coot, meaning a Surf Duck, and the Wild Duck, meaning a Mallard. Last but not least, the fourth cottage was named The Owl after a special summer tenant.
When I was born, I was welcomed by a brother and at least ten first cousins! At that point, we were the third generation to be blessed with the beach. Bessie’s brood grew to 22 grandchildren over the next ten years.
Our family “compound” of simple cottages meant summers of stubbed toes, sunburned noses, sea glass searches, and tidal pool treasure hunts. From sand castles, swim lessons, sailing, and water skiing, the summers with my cousins were filled with endless hours of fun in the sun. Too bad Nana Bess didn’t invest in the Coppertone Company—all of us kids could have at one point or another been that famous little child in the Coppertone ads.
Of course, along with the fun came chores and rules to keep the place running smoothly. Sweep the sidewalks and decks, raise the flag, and shuck the corn. Fill the foot tub with water, and never, ever forget to wash those sandy feet before entering the house. Drink your milk with dinner and you might earn a six-ounce bottle of Coca Cola and a jelly doughnut for dessert!
Years flew by, and soon I was having a family of my own. So were my cousins, and thus the fourth generation was born. All in all, there are 47 who can call themselves second cousins. My four children grew up enjoying the same simple pleasures of beach living that I did (with a few less sunburns). By this time we added kayaks and a small Boston Whaler to pull them tubing and bring them out fishing. Those family holiday parties meant grilling for so many people that I lost count. Traditions like the family egg toss on the 4th of July continue on to this day, and there is even a trophy for the winning pair each year.
Now, fast forward and my four children, along with many more of the fourth generation are married with children of their own. There are 30 more (and counting) of what comprises the fifth generation, who now play with their third cousins on the sand where their parents, grandparents, and great grandmother buried their toes. I take such joy in teaching my six grandchildren about all things beach-related. They all know my love of sea glass and shells, and like me, love to search the shore for salty treasures.
The Bonney Family Beach, or BFB as it has more recently been dubbed, still remains a simple place. Nestled among the large beach mansions, we are proud to be one of a handful of what were once all family places. We still breathe in the summer smells of flowering Privet hedges and fresh salty air. We respect the water and appreciate nature. We still wake up to see the sunrise and walk the reef. We cover our legs while enjoying the nightfall and watching the ever-shining beacon from Penfield Lighthouse. We know how lucky we truly are.
Let’s do the math. Nana Bess + 5 + 22 + 47 + 30 equals 105, not including spouses. I’d say that her vision was a powerful one. Beach. Family. Memories. It is all I can ask for.
All illustrations by Carol Roche. All photos courtesy of Carol Roche.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine September/October 2022 issue.