When We Were Down Beside the Sea

There were probably more reasons not to go to the Outer Banks this week than to go. It’s a long drive, Beth is swamped at work and there’s a nursery school board meeting tonight, plus there’s an Open House at Noah’s school on Friday and Sasha’s having an end-of-summer-vacation pool party immediately afterward, not to mention Hurricane Bill had the potential to make driving treacherous. But my mother and stepfather had rented a house and invited us. I’ve been going down to Avon with them since I was eighteen years old. At first we went every year but in recent years it’s been more like every two or three years. The last time we went Noah was five and June was five months. And since I would find turning down an invitation to the beach roughly akin to chewing off one of my own limbs, we went. These were Beth’s terms: We’d come back Wednesday so she could attend the meeting and we could all go to the Open House and pool party and it would be a working vacation for her. The ratio of three beach days to two driving days was not ideal, but it was something. I said okay, probably more grudgingly than I should have.

“Beth must love you a lot,” my mom said as we were discussing her plans to spend two days driving and then most of the rest of her time at the computer. I think she does.

Day 1
We got a later start than we intended on Saturday morning because ten minutes into the drive I realized we’d left the diaper bag at home and we went back for it. (That would have been a convenient time to remember we’d left Noah’s suitcase in his room but we didn’t make that discovery until bedtime.) We arrived just before six, after a nine hour, fifteen minute drive that featured rain, intermittent traffic jams, June’s first-ever bout of carsickness and a half hour of screaming over video choices. Guess who screamed for a half hour? Hint: it wasn’t me or Beth or June. Beth went right back out to pick up enough groceries for dinner and the next morning’s breakfast, despite the fact that it looked like it was going to storm and she was feeling jittery from the stress of the drive.

Just before we put the kids to bed, I slipped down to the beach. Bill had stirred up the sea, creating waves that looked massive from the deck. I had to see it up close. When I got to the beach I saw the outer edge of the extensive dune system had been washed away, leaving tufts of sea oats stranded in what looked like the middle of the beach. Of course, the beach was a lot narrower than usual because the water was up so high. When I got close to the water I could see that what had looked like enormous waves from a distance was really a series of merely large waves, one on top of the other. There were waves close in and waves far out and waves every place in between with no breaks at all. The National Weather Service had issued a warning not to swim Saturday and Sunday and I saw why. It looked impossible.

Day 2
Sunday morning it was raining, but June, stalwart girl she is, was eager to go to the beach with me. While Beth and Noah went shopping for clothes for him, we made dribble castles in the rain, collected shells (June favored the white and purple ones, which she later presented to Grandmom and I found a sand dollar) and we compared the relative size of our footprints (conclusion: mine are bigger). We observed how quickly the water rushed up in the holes June dug with her little shovel in the waterlogged sand and I recited the following Robert Louis Stevenson poem:

When I was down beside the sea
A wooden spade they gave to me
To dig the sandy shore.

My holes were empty like a cup.
In every hole the sea came up,
Till it could come no more.

http://www.bartleby.com/188/104.html

She looked at me thoughtfully, as if surprised I knew the perfect poem for the occasion. “Say it again,” she said, and I did. On the way back to the house we saw a group of five pelicans fly over our heads.

That afternoon, the skies cleared and I took June down to the beach again with Mom and Jim. Beth and Noah were out shopping again. It turns out boys’ underwear is very difficult to find on the Outer Banks and they drove all the way up to the GAP outlet in Nag’s Head, an hour’s drive each way, to buy him some. At least they got to make a stop at Bodie Island Lighthouse (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodie_Island_Light), which he wanted to see. He was really good-natured about spending so much of his day driving and trying on clothes, better than I would have been in his place.

I didn’t stay at the beach long because I was cooking corn chowder for dinner. I’d picked that evening to cook because the no-swim warning was still in effect. Shortly before I went back to the house, Beth brought a newly outfitted Noah down to the beach and we admired his new shark t-shirt and Hawaiian print swim trunks.

Day 3
Monday I squeezed in as much beach time as I could, making four trips down to the water. On the first trip the kids made sand castle after sand castle and June lost her sunglasses. This is how it happened: The three of us were standing in the surf and Noah said he didn’t think she should be wearing them in the water because she could lose them. I don’t know why she chose this moment to listen to him, but she removed her sunglasses and promptly dropped them into the ocean. The water was shallow but foamy and flowing rapidly back and forth and as soon as they went under, they disappeared. I tried to make a grab for them, but I couldn’t see where to grab. Realizing what had happened, June burst into tears. Feeling responsible perhaps, Noah did, too. I tried to calm them both, telling Noah it wasn’t his fault over and over. Before I could tell June we’d buy her a new pair of sunglasses she stopped crying abruptly and before her brother did. “Can I get Dora sunglasses?” she wanted to know.

The kids wanted to return to the house soon after that, even though it wasn’t close to lunch time yet, so I hustled them back, showered and dressed them, foisted them off on my mother, and went back to the beach for my first swim of the trip. The water was still very rough, but the waves were spaced out so I thought I could manage. Even so, it was a difficult swim. It took a lot of patience and effort to get past the breakers to my favorite place, where the waves are swelling and just starting to curve. I did it, but after only a few waves I got pulled back into the rough surf and I decided to call it quits. (I grow old… I grow old…. I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled– http://www.bartleby.com/198/1.html.) I returned to the house, had lunch, napped with June and then Beth took a break from her work to take us all to Dairy Queen and to go sunglass shopping for June.

The swimming was better that afternoon. In fact it was the best swimming I’ve had in years. It was close to low tide and the waves were very big, but gentler now. I faced them and jumped up into them right before they broke and they sucked me up their slopes and dropped me down. On the way down, I fell through the air for several seconds before I hit the water, laughing out loud. After I tired, I placed myself just to the side of where the big waves were breaking and I stood sideways, watching the late afternoon sunlight paint their swelling surfaces silver and gold.

I returned to the beach that night after the kids were in bed. With no boardwalk lights, the beach in Avon is darker at night that Rehoboth Beach, but the darkness lets you see more clearly what light there is—the stars sprinkled across the sky with the Big Dipper in the West, the tiny phosphorescent creatures twinkling in the wet sand and in the shallow water, the lights of the fishing pier, the bonfires crackling on the beach, the beams of light from flashlights held by kids tearing around the beach looking for the crabs that come out of their holes at night. As I walked along the water’s edge, looking at the stars, I felt a rare awareness that I was walking on the surface of a planet among many other planets, at the edge of a continent among many other continents. It didn’t make me feel small. It made me feel grounded.

Day 4
Tuesday morning Noah and I went out to breakfast, just the two of us. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I had an Avon tradition of slipping away one morning before anyone was up and having breakfast alone at the Froggy Dog (http://www.froggydog.com/). I’d always get the same special: two fried eggs over easy with grits and a biscuit. After I’d eaten I’d linger at the table, drinking my coffee and reading or writing and then I’d leave the waitress a big tip for monopolizing the table. The first time Beth came with me to spend a week with my folks at the beach, the summer after I graduated from college, I took her. I still go every year we’re there with different combinations of people, but I don’t read or write at the table any more. I chose to take Noah this year because although I am frequently alone with June, he and I don’t have much one on one time.

It was a fun meal. We talked about the upcoming school year and whether he’d prefer Spanish in the morning and English in the afternoon or the other way around (English in the morning he said, so he could ease into his day). We tried to decide whether the art on the wall was a painting of two unicorns walking in the surf or a doctored photograph of horses. (Painting he said, but I thought it might be a photograph.) He bounced in his seat along with the music, a mix of 70s and 80s pop. I wondered if I would need to explain what a “macho, macho man” was while the Village People tune played (http://www.sing365.com/music/lyric.nsf/Macho-Man-lyrics-Village-People/B4F3065622CA393F48256DF20009B350), but he didn’t ask. When he needed help cutting his pancakes and spreading strawberry and blackberry jam on them, I thought about how delayed he is in self-help skills, partly due to his sensory issues and his ensuing lack of co-ordination but also because he’s in his comfort zone having us do this kind of thing for him and doesn’t often want to try to do it himself. Usually Beth helps him while I’m helping June so I don’t reflect on it much.

We walked back to the house, picked up June and we all went to the beach. I was sitting on the wet sand with June on my lap, when Noah came over and asked me a question (he wanted to know if my watch was waterproof and if I should be wearing it so close to the water). I turned to look at him and missed a big wave. June got knocked right off my lap and ended up about a foot behind me. I grabbed her out of the water. This happens to her a lot– she’s so little and the waves are so big. In fact, just the day before when I was back at the house cooking dinner, my mom was sitting in a beach chair near the water with June on her lap when a wave went right over both of them. That time she wanted to go back up to the house, but this time, she shook it off pretty easily.

After lunch, a nap and another trip for ice cream, I took both kids to the beach with Mom and Jim. I had a swim, very nice but not as glorious as the day before. Then I waded back into the shallow water and played with the kids. This time it was Noah’s turn to get knocked over. He was going in even deeper than he had in Rehoboth and jumping around in the waves. When they knocked him over he would just laugh, as long as he kept his head above water. His face went underwater once, and he came up with all his hair wet and slicked down except a dry stripe sticking up on the very top of his head, like a Mohawk. He was serious and subdued for a few minutes, but he regained his good humor quickly.

The kids moved up the beach to where Pop was sitting. They built dribble castles (together and separately) while I sat and watched the ocean. Too soon it was time to go back to the house for dinner. Noah was cold and he needed to use the bathroom, but none of us wanted to leave. Noah wanted to go deep into the surf and let three waves crash into him before we left. Then I rushed into the water and dove under one last wave, not knowing if I’d get to swim again before we left the next morning. Then as I turned to go, I heard another one forming behind me and I dove under that one, too. When I finally got out of the water and started rinsing off the sand toys, June wanted to press the pelican mold into the sand one last time.

That night my mom made peach crumble (using as topping the crumbs of the oatmeal scotchies I’d brought from home, which had gotten crushed in the car). We ate it on the deck after dinner, watching the ocean on one side of the house and the setting sun and rising moon on the other.

Day 5
We did make it back to the beach this morning for a little playing and swimming time before we piled into the car and drove back to work and meetings and a new school year. When Beth told June it was time to leave beach and go home, she doubled over and cried. “She’s your inner child,” Beth commented. Beth and Noah went on ahead to start their showers as I tried to drag June off the beach. She lagged far behind me as I called her over and over.

Our holes were empty like a cup. In every hole the sea came up, till it could come no more.

  • Isn’t it a lovely thing to have a partner in life who understands what you need and how much you need it?

    It sounds like you had a wonderful time overall, and that the memories you’re making with the kids are going to be the ones they cherish many years from now.

  • Heidi Estrin

    What a beautiful essay. It makes me feel like I was there. Actually it’s better than if I was there myself because I probably would have spent the time distracted by thoughts of work and my various projects and the latest book I was reading, etc etc. I was more “present” reading your essay than I might have been if I was really there! Thanks so much for sharing this.

  • M

    So Beth took a working vacation, punctuated by trips to replace lost underwear and lost sunglasses, bracketed by two long drives? Yes, it’s good indeed to find your soulmate. 🙂

    I love reading your specific details about swimming in the ocean — waves shoving you this way and that, and diving under and leaping over and falling through the air. For someone skittish about the ocean, it’s like watching a delightfully scary movie.

    And the end of Day 3 sounds so lovely.

  • Mom

    Steph:

    I’m so glad you got to come even though you were only there for 3 days.  We enjoyed having you very much.  The children were lots of fun and there wasn’t too much bickering.  After you left the house seemed empty and much too quiet.  I suggested that we take a drive and we ended up going to Hatteras.  Jim got a ticket for a party boat for the next day.  He caught a big Trigger fish (I”d never heard of that before).  We had a lovely dinner.  I sauteed the fish in butter and then simmered it in wine and lemon juice.  Then we went to Dairy Queen for ice-cream.  We ended up coming back on Friday instead of Saturday because tropical storm Dan was coming and we didn’t want to have another 11 hour drive.

    Mom

  • Sounds like a fun trip. Love the pictures. I live on the Oregon coast, so I see the Pacific Ocean a lot, but the Atlantic coast just looks so different to me. Beautiful.