My wife, Liz, and I recently returned from a week's vacation on balmy Amelia Island, Fla., with my son, John; daughter-in-law, Cassie; and their five kids.
I'm not a beach person. I can think of 100 destinations more appealing to me, most involving museums or Civil War battlefields.
That is, unless the grandkids are going. Then, I'm in, beach-wise.
This was the third straight year that all nine of us, plus Cassie's niece, Macy, have vacationed together at a seashore.
This time, my oldest grandchild, Harper, 6, started working her angles a week before we hit the road south.
Liz asked my favorite part of staying at the beach. I said it was the mornings, when I drive to Starbucks for a steaming Americano.
"Papa, can I go with you when you get your coffee?" she said.
How sweet, I thought. She wanted to start her mornings alone with Papa.
"Why, sure you can, honey. Absolutely."
"And do they have a Dunkin Donuts? And while we're out, will you buy me doughnuts?"
I saw the real point: I was merely a means to a chocolate-iced, glazed donut.
Nonetheless, once we'd arrived at the beach, several mornings I delivered a dozen doughnuts to John and Cassie's condo. Harper never again suggested she'd like to ride with me. I was supplying her fix as it was.
Gosh, she has growing up. At the beach, she spent much of her time body surfing on boogie boards with an 11-year-old friend she made. At least the pal was a little girl, not some boy. I dread those future days.
Harper's mom overheard her tell this friend about me.
"He's my papa," she explained. "But you can call him Paul."
Meanwhile, Cassie's niece, Macy, a student at the University of Kentucky, taught my grandson Hudson, 4, a motto.
Hud swaggered around, flexing his nascent muscles and crowing, "Sun's out—guns out!"
He also shoveled sand. Not with a small plastic toy shovel, but with one that had a wooden handle and a big yellow blade.
He'd dig a scoop of sand that weighed nearly as much as he did, lug it down to the water, gripping the shovel's handle near the blade and high on the neck, like a ditch-digger, and fling the sand into the surf.
Then he'd stalk back up the beach, dig another shovelful, and repeat.
He wasn't building anything. He was filling up the ocean, I guess. Doing his job.
On the other end of the little-man spectrum, jolly Harry, 8 months, learned to crawl while we were away. That was a long-awaited and much-applauded event.
Mainly, however, he sat on adults' knees and grinned and ate. His appetite and his belly bear uncanny resemblances to mine. Bless his heart.
Liz and I invited the four older children to spend a night at our condo.
Thrown together in the same room, they might go pig crazy at bedtime, so we plotted a divide-and-conquer strategy.
Come sleep time, we'd separate them into smaller groups, easier to control.
Liz, also known as Gigi, would take two or three kids and have a slumber party in one bedroom. I'd camp out with the remaining one or two kids in the other bedroom.
It was sound in theory, except when bedtime came. No one wanted to camp out with Papa. This was totally a Gigi night. They all jostled into her room, which left it too crammed for me to bed down there.
Feigning disappointment for my own self-preservation (but secretly tickled I'd scored a quiet room to myself), I said, "Well, shoot, nobody wants to stay in my camp. Suppose I'll head on to bed. 'Night, Gigi."
At which point Hagan, 2, piped up: "I'll stay with you, Papa."
She followed me.
"I will never leave you," she declared, her face a picture of sincerity. "I love you."
My heart melted into goop.
For about five minutes.
That's how long it took Harper to realize she missed her daddy and start crying. Then Hudson realized he also missed his dad. They came to my room to weep, at which point even Hagan — that same "I will never leave you" Hagan — started sniffling.
I texted John. He came to retrieve them.
Only Hadley, 5, saw the night through with Gigi and me.
The next morning, as I left on my coffee mission, I said, "Hadley, you interested in going to Starbucks?"
She grinned. "Yes."
At the coffee shop, I said, "You want something? Milk? A muffin?"
She shook her head no.
Back in the car, I said, "I bet you'd like Dunkin Donuts."
"No thank you."
"You mean you just wanted to hang out with me?"
I looked in the rearview mirror. She nodded yes.
My heart turned to goop again.
And thus we passed another vacation at the beach. The waves splashed into the sand and rolled up the shoreline. The tide pulled them out to their anonymous depths, as it has done relentlessly across the millennia. The sun beat down.
In the photographs we brought home, the older grandchildren appeared taller, and sturdier, and blonder than last year. Plus we had that new baby to enjoy. My hair had grown thinner and grayer, my eyes baggier and darker, my shoulders rounder and softer.
I'm not a beach person. But over time, you learn to take what love you can find, wherever it lies, for whatever moments it lasts.