Each family has its own Vineyard specialty, a beloved summer-after-summer tradition that everyone cherishes and remembers during those empty winter days in February. Sometimes it is the patriarch’s birthday party. Sometimes it is the matriarch’s birthday party, especially if the house belonged to her family.  Sometimes it is a Fourth of July or a Labor Day event when far-flung family members assemble to celebrate.  One of our friends, who is not French, gives a lavish annual dinner party with many guests in honor of Bastille Day.

My  family’s tradition is to surf and picnic on Stonewall Beach, with no particular date and no limit on the number of times per summer. For those of you who don’t know Stonewall, which means almost everybody, it is a half-mile-long private strip on  Chilmark’s south shore. This is not a gaudy, several-hundred-thousand dollar membership beach like Quonsoo or Black Point. The tiny, unbuildable strip lots were bought for a pittance 80 years ago by a handful of wise people, including my stepfather Francis Sayre. The Stonewall Association, such as it is, is run by Trudy Taylor, whose house overlooks the beach, enabling her to serve as guardian against interlopers. Every couple of years Trudy calls upon us for a minute donation to maintain the dirt road down to the beach, pay for the membership parking stickers and make other minor fixes.

Stonewall’s most distinguishing feature, rare in beaches, is that you approach the sand and water by clambering over yards and yards and yards of multicolored rocks, ranging in size from round baseballs and softballs to flat slabs the size of home plate. This requires careful walking if you are lugging ice chests of martinis, beer and Cokes along with bags of food and beach towels. At the end of the stony field you have to slide down an eight-foot-high pile of rocks to reach the sand. If the tide is high, there is no sand, so we always consult the tide tables before coming. But if the tide is anywhere between low and middle, a stretch of sand greets the final ripples from great body-surfing waves.

Our family rule has always been that nobody can go surfing or have a drink until we have all collected enough driftwood for a proper picnic fire, a fire large enough to support the cooking of linguica, our obligatory hors d’ouevres, hot dogs, hamburgers and roast corn, with enough wood left over for post-picnic singing, drinking and talking.  

We have endless trays of color slides, mercifully shown only to family members, to prove that those many wonderful summers on Stonewall really happened. The best action picture I ever shot shows our Welsh terrier Snap in the surf. He loved to join us in the waves, and whenever a wave was about to break over him, he learned to jump straight up as high as he could. The picture shows his head just above a breaking wave and, thanks to the luck of the moment, his entire vertical body is visible underwater. Snap is long gone, but whenever that picture turns up on the screen, the family cheers him.

The population of our picnics varied greatly. When my brother Bill and all his family joined Eleanor and me and all our family, there could be close to 20. On the full-family picnics the food was always the same.  We took turns, with one family bringing the hot dogs and hamburgers, the other family bringing the corn. I remember one picnic when both families brought the hot dogs and hamburgers and nobody brought corn. Since I can’t remember whose fault this was, I suspect it was mine. On another occasion Eleanor forgot to bring the sliced red onion for the hamburgers. Shame! Shame! 

When just the two couples had picnics, we took turns trying to outdo each other on food. I remember a day when Eleanor and I did grilled swordfish, a ridiculous beach dinner. I don’t remember all the competitive back-and-forth dishes, but I do remember the finale. Bill and his wife Louise brought a beef fondue to Stonewall, complete with eight different dipping sauces. Enough! Enough! Back to hot dogs and hamburgers.

Eleanor and I, now enjoying a swimming pool at home, almost never go to Stonewall anymore. But whenever the children and grandchildren come for a visit, as almost all of them do every summer, they make a pilgrimage to Stonewall.

This column by Ralph Graves appeared in the Gazette in July 2007.