The game always starts this way: My sister-in-law Erika gathers everyone in a circle on the beach. When we have a good-size group—there are eight kids between our two families—someone releases a bucket of ghost crabs in the middle. The minute the critters hit the sand, they scatter in all directions. Whoever stands still the longest as the crabs scamper toward our feet wins the game.
Left: The cousins play in the surf, three blocks from the family’s home in Watersound, Florida.
We usually play it around dusk, just before we pack up our gear, hop on bikes, and head back to the beach house our families share. Just three blocks from the sand, the three-story home is a project Erika and I embarked on a couple of summers ago, soon after learning that she had breast cancer.
Left: Homeowners and sisters-in-law Erika Klein (left) and Andrea Alexander
We had just discovered the lot, an idyllic parcel in the community of Watersound, Florida, when she received the diagnosis. It's a shock for anyone, but my sister-in-law was young. She had four kids. How would she get through something like this? We didn't know.
And then we did. Instead of putting plans for the beach house on hold to focus on the long fight she had ahead, Erika decided that building a retreat by the shore would become part of her treatment, a therapy of sorts. Soon, we were scheduling calls with our builder to coincide with the long car trips to and from her appointments. I'd pull up a chair next to her while she received chemotherapy, and we'd choose room colors and shop for furniture on my iPad. We bookmarked photos for inspiration and talked through materials, plotting out every inch. The house slowly took shape over those months, giving Erika something joyful to think about, a happy place she could envision taking her children when this was over.
Left: Walls in this sunny living room, and throughout the threestory home, are painted Vanilla Milkshake by Benjamin Moore. The creamy shade moderates the bright seaside light. The sofa and armchairs are from Pottery Barn. The area rug is from West Elm. The artwork above the fireplace is from Z Gallerie.
We saved our hands-on projects for the spring, when her treatment had finished. Erika began sewing pillows and draperies and trim, and I stenciled art to hang on the walls. As her strength returned, we painted stripes on the bunk curtains and spray-painted dining chairs in watery hues. We hung curtains and sanded furniture. She was thankfully—amazingly—phasing into remission, and the rooms were coming to life.
Left: For a cheerful, ultra-casual vibe, Erika and Andrea spray-painted wooden side chairs from Restoration Hardware in varying shades of blue and green.
It's been three years since Erika was diagnosed. Today she is healthy, and the house is as we envisioned it—colorful, loud, and lively.
Left: Iron bunks from Restoration Hardware painted to blend with the walls reinforce the airy feel of cousins Anna (top) and Maggie's room. The flooring was reclaimed from the side of a barn and sanded down. The floral comforter is from Land of Nod.
Our children range in age from 6 to 18. We are a tribe of sand castle builders, bicyclists, Jet-Skiers, skateboarders, Ping-Pong players, fishermen, and crafters. We dive for sand dollars and we cast nets out into the surf. We follow dolphin pods on paddleboards and dig each other out of the sand.
Left: Alongside the driveway, a pair of outdoor showers flank a bonus laundry room for sandy suits and towels. The striped curtains are from Target.
And when the sun heads for the horizon, Erika gathers as many of us as she can into her circle and spills out the ghost crabs, and we play the game again.
Left: The dining room, designed to comfortably seat both families, serves as a lively hub for kickstarting busy beach days. Here, Erika's sons Tommy (left) and Cooper fuel up.
Number of hand-sewn pillows in the house: 32
Signature family dinner: Burgers on the grill, fresh summer salad, s'mores
Most coveted beach toy: YOLO board
Best ocean catch: Giant horseshoe crabs
Best breakfast in Watersound: Our kitchen, where bacon pancakes were born!
Left: The rug is from The Land of Nod. The porch swing is custom.