I’ve written about the beach before. About dinner picnics. About July along the Long Island coast. There is no stopping my reminiscing when it comes to the sea shore, for my people are water people. Not the Maine coast type. Those people just want to look at unrelentingly cold waves. No, we are people clamoring to be in the waves before breakfast. We are people who live to body surf in warm waves until last light. We are also the people who stay in the shadows during the sun light hours. Fair-skinned Irish. Sunburners. Our beach hours came after 3:00 pm, the magically approved time according to our father, the fairest of all.
Our doctor father worked in The City, yes, New York City. Growing up I was unaware there was any other place called the city. We may have been living in New Jersey, but we were New Yorkers at heart. Our father took his two-week holiday in August, which meant July’s long hot days were spent splashing at the nearby pool. But some of his workdays where shorter, so here and there, on those lucky days, we piled into the station wagon headed to Jones Beach. As we drove east on the Robert Moses Causeway, we watched bumper to bumper carloads of sun-swept people heading home. Carting old blankets, baskets and bags of food and drink, piles of towels, and a mess of kids, we bounded onto the beach. Seagulls were landing all over the sandy shore, picking through the daily debris, stray sun-worshippers still there, each with a transistor screeching the top 40, the tide either high or low but regardless pounding along a near empty beach.
Our parents were strong swimmers, and we all learned as early as we could make our way to the neighborhood pool and get signed up. There was no mention of fear when it came to water. We thought little of being flipped upside down and rolled within a wave until surfacing along the shoreline. In fact, once getting on one’s feet again, you could see the same broad smile on any of our faces. Water brought us together. We dove in to lose ourselves and miraculously find our way back.
Perhaps all my siblings have near death experiences in water. I should ask. Mine is a hazy memory. Slightly augmented by one of my older brothers who shared the moment. Unlike today, where families are small manageable groups, I grew up when parents were far outnumbered by their offspring. And were young. The only manuals around were not suited for the changing times. Families were flying about living life’s lessons together. One beach day I watched my older brothers race and dive into the waves and furtively followed suit without their strength or ability. By the time one of them glanced back and realized where we were, far from shore and within a strong undertow, he knew what I didn’t. All I remember was being completely surrounded by the white cap of waves and loving that I swam so far. I don’t remember him diving down under me, desperate to keep me afloat, nor my parents’ frantic waving from the distant shore. Time was timeless back in childhood. Eventually there was a bulky arm wrapped about me, tight under my chin, a strong body gracing mine as waves pushed around us. No memory of my brothers, only this tan man using his free arm to wrestle us against the tide. No idea I was being rescued. Only a sense of great accomplishment over my triumph. Who might remember it otherwise? Not sure, but I imagine just about all of them there waiting might. I am confident I was back in the waves shortly after being carried on to the sand.
Beaches in my later years included my own children. I was the one holding small hands and lifting them before waves splashed up and over. I was the one coaxing them into the surf and showing them how to play within the forces of the tide. Beaches came to mean exotic locations, like the Black Sand Beach of Maui, or the coral reef of St. Martin. Beaches also meant ponds and lakes and rivers found along side country roads. Always arriving at water’s edge at the end of the drive. Always an inescapable desire to dive in.
A few years ago I asked my then preadolescent niece, who was on a swim team, what she thought about while doing laps. In my adult life, this was one aspect of winter pool swimming that had started to get to me. Those back and forth, lap after lap, monotonous swimming for exercise, afternoons. She looked at me. What do I think about? Nothing, she declared. I pressed further. Don’t you get bored? Eventually? Don’t you want music or something to occupy the silence? Again she had that look. No. I leave everything behind. She, with a sparsity that is her signature communication, perfectly articulated the abandon she allows herself in the water. A break from her teenage angst. A break from worry over her parent’s impending divorce, her struggles with a new school system, with all that stuff life leaves at her doorstep. She reminded me of sensations I hadn’t felt in a long long time. Stuff that kids swim in.
The next time I came to water I dove in and left my mind behind. I watched the bubbles rise to the surface as my hands slapped downward. I watched the light shoot down into the dark water I was skimming on top of. I allowed weightlessness to enter my overwrought brain and travel down my tense spine. I remembered my childhood beach at dusk and all of us near drowning in joy.