Carolyn Hax: Sister wants guests at family’s annual beach vacation


Dear Carolyn: My sister and I live in different states but our families spend every Christmas together and take a beach trip to the same beach every year for the past 16 years. These occasions are the highlight of our and our kids’ year. Sometimes the beach is one week, sometimes two. This year it’s one because of college schedules and the soaring cost of vacation rentals.

My sister mentioned that she wanted her best friend (who lives in her same town) to come for a night. I said sure — it will be my sister’s birthday that night as well, and we have one extra bedroom. Then she mentioned that it’s actually her best friend plus the friend’s college friend and his daughter, who are going through some sort of tough time. When I said we wouldn’t have enough bedrooms, she said her best friend planned to camp on the lawn.

I am trying to succinctly identify what about this bothers me most so that I can try to address it, but am struggling. I am pretty sure I can shut down the camping on the lawn, as I’m confident it’s a violation of the lease agreement I signed — the friend can sleep on a couch or something if this all transpires. I think what probably bugs me most is that my sister is choosing to spend time with her best friend (and two complete strangers?), a friend she sees nearly every day at home, during a short window we have for our families to be together.

I think maybe a lesser concern is that I know the burden will fall to me to cook for and clean up after these people. When I asked my sister exactly what the plan was, so I could plan meals, she told me I’m too controlling and it will all just work out. In my experience, it tends to only “work out” when I’ve put the thought in and gone to the grocery store.

I’m rambling here. Can you help me sort my feelings? I’m sure there’s something I’m ridiculously non-self-aware about here.

Beach Bummed: No, I think you have a decent handle on your various resentments, plus all the evidence you need to justify them. Your sister is asking a lot. So have a good hard grump about it with a favored confidant who is not your sister.

Then drop it, for a few reasons.

First, it’s one night. Breathe.

Second, it’s your sister’s birthday. She wants what she wants and as annoying as it may be for you, granting people their annoying wishes on their birthdays is about as true to the essence of giving as you’re going to get.

Third, it’s the beach. Randomness works there better than it does just about anywhere else. Maybe the friend and the friend of the friend and the daughter of the friend will surprise you by being gracious and entertaining company. Grace invites grace. As for the food and cleanup, don’t martyr yourself. Order pizza, boil pasta, put birthday candles in box brownies. Your sister says it’ll be fine, so it’ll be fine. You and she have different styles, clearly. Don’t re-litigate that here.

Fourth, they already thought of banishing themselves to the yard, so you don’t have to do it for them. If your rental agreement prohibits it, then you must, too, of course — but if it doesn’t, my goodness. Don’t stand in their way! Having people on the couch sounds like maximum nuisance. Out to the backyard with the lot of them! But maybe that’s just me.

Fifth, let’s talk about we-do-this-every-year traditions. They are the best. Usually. But they can snap under the weight of change if you aren’t ready to be flexible. With kids in college, you’re already near the end of an era. The next era will likely bring all kinds of non-immediate-family extras and walk-ons from your kids’ increasingly independent lives, some you won’t know before and won’t ever see again after the week is over. If you treat your sister’s ask as the first of many instead of a onetime, unwelcome exception, then maybe you can use this time to build a welcoming frame of mind.

Last, maybe your families will turn out to be committed to sticking as close as possible to your 16-year precedents — and maybe this year’s exception will be the one that proves the need for rules.

If you go at your sister with all your objections now, before you even know what it’s going to be like, then you can sound rigid and judgy. If instead you have an example of being open and welcoming and having outside guests kill the vibe, then you — and your now-adult kids, even — will have standing to say, “Ehhh … we tried this, remember?”

I see No. 5 as more likely, but included No. 6 because your kids are (nearly) adults — and maybe the most family-positive choice you can make is, starting now, to step down as Gatekeeper. Let the “kids” have their say in the plans. Quietly set down the weight.

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