Tiny Houses, Big Memories: My Family’s 40-Year Tradition at the Jersey Shore

The humble community of Ocean Beach III has hosted our family reunion for four generations and counting.

Illustration of large family on a beach vacation overlaid on a calendar

Illustration: Clare Nichols

Like swallows to Capistrano, every summer for the past 40-plus years, my father, his six children, and, eventually, their children and children’s children, have flocked from as far as California and Michigan to a tiny Jersey Shore community as nondescript as its name: Ocean Beach III.

It doesn’t seem like much of a draw. If you don’t blink as you travel down Route 35 South between Bay Head and Lavallette, you see rows of nearly identical bungalows lined up like soldiers between the highway and the sea. In the early years, we all crammed into the largest of these tiny houses, 27 East Tuna Way, which my father, known to all as Pops, rented for the last week of every June. As time passed, we fanned out, renting bungalows for our own families on nearby streets, all named for fish.

Inside, the cabins aren’t just cramped, but flimsy; once one person is up in the morning, everyone’s up. Like camping, you bring your own towels and bedding. When it’s your turn to cook dinner for 30, you have the kids run from cabin to cabin to collect flatware and big pots for corn.

Though poking fun at the bungalows’ lack of amenities is a summer ritual, I’ve come to realize that their downscale interiors are actually assets. At Ocean Beach III, outdoors, not indoors, is the place to be. The kids, juiced by their unaccustomed freedom, run barefoot on the sandy streets, rounding up cousins they might see just once a year to ride bikes, go crabbing, or chase the ice cream truck. The beach is our sunny, spacious five-star family room, with natural air conditioning and unobstructed water views. After coffee and crumb cake, we wander over the dunes to our usual spot, the circle getting wider and the conversation more interesting with each arrival. In between body surfing and wave bobbing, we catch up on one another’s lives and watch the little ones, who morph in the blink of a year from babies to toddlers to adolescents, digging for sand crabs. Supper is eaten at long tables pushed together in the front yard; afterward, the kids drift into the street, where drivers actually respect the 10 mph signs, to play badminton or handball. Soon, we’re back on the beach for more games and talking as the sun sets. For a week in June, we’re royalty in our own Kennedy compound, minus the mansions.

In January of 2022, our beloved Pops passed away. The ache in our hearts hits hardest as we pull onto the streets of OB III, tires crunching in the sand. But his beach tradition sustains us. No one dreamed it would last through new babies, cross-country relocations, school, sports and work conflicts, and yet more babies. Over the years, we toyed with changing to a different week or even a different venue—maybe a ranch out West or a beach community with swankier houses. But Pops just kept quietly renewing the lease at 27 East Tuna, so we kept renewing ours. And our precious beach week continues, immutable as the tides, calling us home every June.

No one knows New Jersey like we do. Sign up for one of our free newsletters here. Want a print magazine mailed to you? Purchase an issue from our online store.

Read more Jersey Shore, Shore & Travel articles.