Those Ocean City Summers
When the six Covell kids were young, the fun of their Ocean City summers began when they made dramatic, feigned calls for help as their mom drove across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. “It was a tradition that I’m sure drove my parents crazy,” recalls 51-year-old Chris Covell of North Bethesda. As they reached the sections with vertical cables, “we’d yell ‘help, help!’ like we were trapped in a jail on the bridge until we reached open sky again.”
Beginning in the early 1970s, Mary Covell would pick up her kids on the last day of school, have them change into their play clothes in the car, and head directly to the family’s four-bedroom beachfront townhouse in Ocean City. They wouldn’t return to their home in Derwood until Labor Day. Her husband, Chuck, a homebuilder who is now retired, would join the family on weekends. “They jumped in the waves, dug holes in the sand, and went clamming and fishing,” says Mary, 79. She’d always befriend the nearby lifeguards and invite them to use the family’s house for lunch breaks. They became a “second set of babysitter eyes,” Chris recalls, and they’d often applaud when the kids looked to someone for approval after a particularly good boogie board ride.
Still, there were mishaps, like when Chris was 12 and got left behind at the waterslide park on 63rd Street. She was deep into a Pac-Man game when she realized that her family was nowhere to be seen. Trying not to panic, she started walking toward home along the coastal highway. The family soon realized their mistake and turned around to pick her up. Then there was the time that 4-year-old Matt, the youngest sibling, was on a center console boat with his teenage brothers and friends when the hull cracked down the middle in the choppy ocean. One of their friends had to swim Matt ashore to safety, then they rushed to get the boat to the marina before it completely sank.
The summers included regular trips to the library, with required reading lists from St. Elizabeth Catholic School in Rockville. “I made them write book reports and present them every Friday so their minds wouldn’t go to mush,” Mary says. Chris remembers the summer of 1982, after the conclusion of eighth grade, when she and her siblings were glued to MTV. Their mother looked outside on a sunny day and said: “No more. We’re done.” She unplugged the television and put it in the back of the station wagon, where it remained for the rest of the summer.
As teenagers, the Covells all had summer jobs: the old-time photo shop on the boardwalk; the beach stand that rented out umbrellas; the Good Humor truck. Chris and her twin, Kate Flaherty, who lives in Potomac, were both waitresses at Layton’s in Ocean City. “They were able to be independent much earlier—they didn’t need a ride,” Mary says of her kids. “They could get on their bike and go.”
These days, the family congregates at the same townhouse each year for several holidays. A competitive Ping-Pong tournament, complete with brackets, is a highlight of the Fourth of July weekend. The winner gets a “hideous” makeshift trophy that is part Ping-Pong ball and part pink flamingo, according to Matt, 41, who now lives in North Bethesda. He met his wife, Seanna, who grew up in Ocean City, in 1998 while working as a dock boy at the Bahia Marina; she was a gas girl, fueling up boats. They now bring their kids (ages 2 and 3) to the beach most weekends beginning in the spring.
Over the last four decades, the family has had to board up the townhouse several times ahead of a hurricane. They brace each time for the possibility that their home won’t make it. But the house has always survived, losing only the front steps a few times to the waves. Although a few of the siblings now have their own beach properties, their parents’ original townhouse is the big draw for everyone to hang out together. Says Matt, “We all get along and clamor to do it again and again each year.”
When Charles Carr Koones and Violet Ledig Koones were headed from Washington, D.C., to Atlantic City, New Jersey, on their honeymoon in 1931, they instead ended up staying in Rehoboth Beach. The couple loved the area so much that they purchased one of the first lots in Henlopen Acres a few years later.
The Koones family built a second, larger home named “Serendipity”—meaning good things found, but not sought after—in 1965 in the same development. That house was passed on to the next generation, Charley Kneller Koones, and his wife, Jane, of Bethesda, who enjoyed summers there with their six children.
“It was a place to test your boundaries,” says their son, Charlie Koones, 57, who grew up in Bethesda and went to Georgetown Prep; his wife, Linda Grasso Koones graduated from Walt Whitman High School. The couple now lives in Los Angeles. The beach was where Charlie says he and his five sisters could roam freely—riding their first bikes and going to the boardwalk alone.
Friends came and went from the house—sometimes overfilling the dormitory (a large room with bunk beds that sleeps 10) and sneaking out at night to parties. Jane had a check-in sheet by the front door to keep track of the brood after she went to bed, but the house has lots of doors. “It was like a leaky sieve,” says Charlie, and kids signed in and out for one another. “Let’s just say it wasn’t a foolproof system.”
Now, the siblings and their families (about 25 people when they’re all there) squeeze into Serendipity every year for a reunion dubbed “Camp Chaos.” The family has organized scavenger hunts around town, and the kids put on their own “Rehoboth Idol” show for entertainment. The younger crew has kept up the tradition of antics in the dorm, playing late-night poker games and pranks on one another. The week also includes a crab feast, bonfire, intense games of beach bocce ball, and dance parties while making dinner, often to the sounds of Motown or Bruce Springsteen.
The noise generated from the sheer number of people in the house makes the week live up to its name. “With my sisters, talking over people is an art form. You can’t get a word in edgewise,” Charlie jokes. “The kids know it’s chaos—that’s their expectation.”
The family often gathers in Rehoboth Beach the weekend before Christmas for a quieter offseason visit. Charley, who died in 2012, and Jane, who passed away in 2015, are buried in a cemetery less than two blocks from the house. Last year, the six siblings were sipping coffee in the kitchen when they decided to put on their coats and take the short walk to Epworth Cemetery. After laying a wreath and saying a prayer, they started singing “Silent Night,” a favorite of their father’s. “It was a special spiritual moment where we were all together with the great tradition of love and family,” says Charlie’s oldest sister, Kris Veirs, 63, who lives in Bethesda.
Adds Charlie: “We were incredibly fortunate to have the parents we had. They have left behind this legacy that is incredible to me—of six kids who would rather be with each other than anybody else. That only happens when the parents make that happen.”
Funland, Thrasher’s Fries & More
Sandy Schonfeld couldn’t swim in the ocean during her first summer in Dewey Beach. It was 1962, she was 12, and the beach was full of nails and wood after a recent hurricane. She and her three younger brothers, who grew up in Bethesda, swam in a nearby lake instead, and enjoyed Funland, the amusement park that had just opened in Rehoboth Beach.
It was the first of many summers that she spent at her family’s beach home—later replicating some of the same activities with her two children after the house was passed down to her. “We have almost [a] mental checklist of the things we love to do. And if we don’t do it, we feel like the trip is not complete,” says Sandy, 69, of Potomac, who goes to the beach several times a year with her husband, Ed, 71. They are joined every summer by their two daughters, Diana, 36, and Laura, 39.
Funland—or “Un-Funland” as Ed calls it because of the noise, sticky floors and crowds—is always a must. Sandy recalls how happy the girls were when they were tall enough to ride the bumper cars and go into the haunted house. Diana and Laura still play a competitive game of Whac-a-Mole every year.
Then there’s the seafood dinner at Big Fish Grill, a stop at Nicola Pizza for Nic-O-Bolis, and ice cream from The Royal Treat. “If we were outsiders, we would say it’s really tacky,” Sandy says of the boardwalk area in Rehoboth. “But it’s our tacky, so we are OK with it.”
Laura says the family has traveled extensively, but there is something comforting about returning to the beach. “It’s the only place in the world we can truly relax,” she says. Their house is in the quieter part of Dewey Beach, closer to Rehoboth and farther from the bars. “There’s something about doing the same things over and over. …It’s so familiar. The crazier the world gets, the nicer it is to go back and have a familiar place with happy memories.”
The family hasn’t updated the house much since it was built nearly 60 years ago—it still has its nautical décor and iconic knotty pine walls stained a light turquoise. “When we walk in the door, we can breathe a sigh of relief,” Sandy says. “It’s a retreat from our busy lives.”
A Really Big Family Reunion
Music often spills out from the screened porch of Sue and Frank Deckelman’s rental home in Bethany Beach. “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is among the favorites at the sing-alongs, where family members of all ages play guitar, banjo, violin, mandolin, flute and drums. “This is practically every night. And sometimes it doesn’t start until late,” says Sue, 81, who worries that they are disturbing the neighbors, although no one has complained yet. “We look out onto the sidewalk and sometimes people have stopped to listen.”
The Deckelman family’s annual beach getaway began in 1988, when the Chevy Chase couple had their first grandchildren. They wanted a place for their six daughters to gather as their families grew. And grow they did. Now, as many as 75 family members—including the Deckelmans’ 19 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, plus Sue’s siblings and their children—rent out seven houses within two blocks of each other for the last week of June. They’ve celebrated birthdays, engagements and new babies in Bethany Beach, and held “crab-uations” to honor new graduates. Last year, the youngest family member was a 2-week-old grandson, and the oldest was the 84-year-old patriarch, Frank, affectionately known as “Opa.”
It’s a big crew to vacation together, but it works, says Katie Grant, 56, the Deckelmans’ second-oldest daughter, who lives in Rockville. “My sisters are my best friends,” she says. Talk about the beach getaway starts in the fall, and rarely does anyone miss the family-oriented week that’s packed with tradition, but not strict schedules.
Mornings are for walks and eating doughnuts at Sue and Frank’s house. Parents with the younger kids head to the beach early with their wagons and toys to claim a spot for the rest of the family. There’s often some jostling for the shade, with the older relatives getting the coveted chairs under the umbrellas.
Wiffle ball games can get competitive, leading to arguments and even ejections at times.
There’s also been some drama in the water. One young Deckelman grandson had a false tooth fall out while diving into a wave, and Sue’s sister-in-law Libby lost her wedding ring in the ocean. Over the years, the Bethany Beach lifeguards have rescued several cousins who’ve ventured out too far. Once, one of the kids got caught in the waves after the lifeguards had left for the day, and an adult who was nearby ended up helping him. The scare prompted the family to ban swimming in the ocean unless the guards are on duty.
When it comes to dinner, the men usually cook and the kids roam from house to house looking for the best menu—maybe tacos, spaghetti or Cajun fare. Sometimes the sisters and their husbands go out while the older cousins watch the younger ones and take them to the arcade or Candy Kitchen.
One night, several adults were watching a late NBA Finals game when one of Sue’s brothers decided to double-check that the grill on the deck was off. As he came back inside, he thought the screen door was open and accidentally walked through it, causing him to fall face down and take the frame with him. The loud crash woke several of the children. “Fortunately, he was not seriously injured,” Sue recalls, “so we were all able to laugh ourselves to sleep that night.”
A map of the world hangs in the Germantown home of Nelson and Ellen Robin with pins that mark all the countries they’ve visited with their daughter, Rachel. Among them: Thailand, South Africa and Italy. After their far-flung, sightseeing-packed adventures, Ellen and Rachel savor relaxing in Rehoboth Beach.
The Robins first went to Rehoboth Beach with extended family in 2001 when Rachel, their only child, was a baby. The beach vacations weren’t without their challenges. Ellen’s mother, Barbara Poris, ended up in the emergency room most years with issues related to her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Still, she didn’t want to miss out and kept joining the family at the beach each year until she passed away in 2014.
Ellen and Rachel, 19, kept the tradition going, making it a mother-daughter getaway at the end of every summer since 2009. (Nelson quickly determined that he wasn’t a beach person and opts to stay behind.)
To avoid traffic, the women drive to Rehoboth on a Monday, park their car at The Avenue Inn, where they stay, and walk everywhere for the next four days. “Everybody is very warm and friendly. We always see somebody we know,” Ellen says. The first stop after they arrive is The Ice Cream Store. They spend two full days at the beach, and often grab pizza at Grotto’s for lunch and eat dinner at their three favorite restaurants (Confucius, Henlopen City Oyster House and The Blue Hen). For several years they frequented a pottery store where they painted dolphin and seahorse figurines that are displayed at home alongside a bowl with seashells on it that’s used to hold fruit and candy.
Another must: a photo of Rachel in front of the outdoor sign at The Coffee Mill. The first year, she was an infant in her stroller; in 2019, she was just getting ready to head off to the University of Maryland. Some of the photos are in albums, but most are digital, and Ellen and Rachel look at them on their television. “At some point we realized we had so many [photos at The Coffee Mill] that then it became something we’d go out of our way to do,” Rachel says.
Before heading to the outlet stores on the way home, their final beach treat is Funland, where they’ve played enough games over the years to win plenty of stuffed animals. But as Rachel has gotten older, some things have changed. “Now when we get the prizes, we find a cute kid to give them to,” she says, “after we ask their parents.”
A Thanksgiving Tradition
Gabe Albornoz proposed to his wife, Catherine, on the sand in Rehoboth Beach in July 2004. “He made a darling scrapbook of things we had done—with tickets and pictures,” recalls Catherine, 40. “He had tied a ring to the last page of the book.”
Catherine says she was surprised, although she suspected something when he showed up in Rehoboth with a new white-and-tan-striped beach shirt and white pants, an outfit he’s kept and worn on a few anniversaries since.
After the proposal, the two ran around town to share the news with friends who were working at their summer jobs, and with Catherine’s grandparents, with whom she was staying. “It’s a very special place for us,” Gabe, 44, a Montgomery County
councilmember, says of Rehoboth.
The Kensington couple’s parents both have beach homes in Rehoboth, providing places for Gabe and Catherine to stay with their four kids (ages 3, 7, 10 and 12). As a family, they bike and play miniature golf together. With grandparents as built-in babysitters, the couple often enjoys evening walks together and occasional date nights out at their favorite restaurants, including The Cultured Pearl for sushi.
Beach traditions have evolved for the couple over the years. Their extended family often comes to the beach for the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. Every year, Gabe and Catherine participate in an informal 5K run in downtown Rehoboth the Friday after Thanksgiving that the family started more than a decade ago.
The race goes back to when Catherine’s youngest sister, Seton Gardner, was in high school. The family usually ran in Bethesda’s YMCA Turkey Chase, but decided to spend the holiday at the beach. Wondering what they would do instead, her older sister, Grace Weisser, of Chevy Chase said, “It’s fine. We’ll just chase Seton,” explains Gardner, now 30, who lives in Kensington. As a joke, Gardner ran a 5K route with everyone behind her. The next year, Weisser gave her a full-body turkey costume that she’s worn every year since.
“It’s a scene. Kids are screaming: ‘Turkey! Turkey!’ all through the town. I’ve never been caught,” says Gardner, who usually hops on a bike to stay ahead of the runners. Last year she was pregnant for the race. Soon after the start, she dropped out, hid in the bushes and took a shortcut to the end. She always cheers at the finish line where people spill over to her parents’ house nearby for an outdoor party with Maryland crab soup.
The family invites about 50 friends and relatives to the private race—some are on bikes or in strollers. Everyone who participates is asked to donate money to Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania, where Gardner’s grandmother went to school. The winners get gift cards to Grotto Pizza, a chocolate turkey and other swag donated by the university.
Recently, Gardner happened to mention to a co-worker that her family has this crazy Thanksgiving ritual at Rehoboth Beach, where she’s chased in a 5K. “You’re the turkey!” the woman said. “We always wondered what that was!”