Always Ourselves We Find in the Sea

maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach (to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles, and

milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles: and

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

by e.e. cummings

Day 1: Saturday

“If I lived here I’d go to the beach every day,” June declared as she and I walked from the rental house to the beach late Saturday afternoon.  Beth was picking up a few groceries and Noah had volunteered to be the welcoming committee and wait at the house for my Mom and sister to arrive.

“Me, too,” I said.

“We’re the real beach lovers,” June concluded.

We only stayed a half hour.  The water was pleasantly cool on another miserably hot day. June could not stop laughing as she jumped in the waves, but she kept a grip on my hand.

Back at the house, we greeted Mom and Sara and I helped Noah cook the dinner he’d planned—tortellini. I intended to let June stay up a bit because she’d napped in the car but she was wiped out and asked to go to bed while we were still eating dinner. Soon afterwards, though, she was back downstairs.  She was lonely in the attic bedroom she and Noah had begged to share.  I agreed to read Watership Down to Noah in the next room and that was enough for her to fall asleep.

Day 2: Sunday

Not to stay asleep, though. At three a.m. she was in our room. After sending her back a few times over the next hour, Beth relented and went up to spend the rest of the night in June’s twin bed with her. I wondered if we’d gotten into a bad habit of co-sleeping during the power outage. But waking us was not enough.  We learned later she’d woken Noah and asked him to play (he declined) and at 6:25, she was back in my room, even though she already had Beth in her bed.

In the morning we all collaborated on a shopping list and then the adults went their separate ways.  Sara needed to work (as she did every day of the vacation), Beth made a second grocery run and Mom played with the kids while I went to the beach.

It was still hot—the sand was scorching—but it was less humid and the water was blessedly cool. I swam and sat on my towel and swam some more and came back to the house just in time to help unpack groceries and make lunch for the kids and myself.  After lunch, the kids performed a short play they’d written that morning about a woman who needed a ghost removed from her house. The performance took place on the deck, fulfilling a vision Noah had when we selected the house in April.  (Earlier in the day they’d had a tea party on the wrought iron lawn furniture, fulfilling a vision of June’s.)

Mom and Sara and the kids and I hit the beach again in the late afternoon while Beth made a delicious dinner of gazpacho and potatoes with cilantro pesto.  Between the four adults and Noah and eating out twice everyone only had to cook once, which would have felt downright luxurious even if everyone hadn’t made such lovely dinners.

Day 3: Monday

June slept better the next night and Beth was so happy she promised her a trip to Candy Kitchen (noting this wouldn’t happen every time she slept through the night) and after breakfast I played three hands of Sleeping Queens with her and read her a chapter of Ramona The Brave while snuggling on the couch on the screened porch, observing pointedly that rested parents are happier, more fun parents.

Later that morning, Sara and I took the kids downtown on the promised outing to Candy Kitchen, where June chose cherry and bubblegum-flavored rock candy and Noah, after Sara helped him divide all the candy in the store into ever narrowing categories he could eliminate, selected fruit runts.  He noticed some new gummy flavors, including chicken feet, and said, “Who’d want to eat that?” (This from the boy who used to devour gummy brains.) I got chocolate licorice for myself and fudge for the house. Then we moved on to our next stops, Café a Go-Go for café con leche and the bike rental place on the boardwalk where Sara and I rented bikes.  (Our beach house, though charming, was in a more remote location than usual.) I hadn’t been on a bike for seventeen years and for a few wobbly moments I thought you can forget how to ride one, but then I got my bearings. Our errands completed, Sara headed back to the house while the kids and I played on the beach until lunchtime.

It was overcast and much cooler, after an early morning thunderstorm.  We saw dolphins in the ocean almost as soon as we got there.  The kids were in their suits but I was in dry clothes so I couldn’t go in the water with June. This ended up being just the nudge we both needed.  I’d been noticing the day before kids her age and younger playing in the water by themselves, but June had never felt confident enough to do this. Given the alternative of playing at the water’s edge or wading in alone (Noah was further out), she waded in up to her waist. I watched from the sand but I was too far away to do anything when a wave did knock her over. She got right back up again and kept playing, though she did tell me later, “Sometimes it’s scary.”

That afternoon, Mom took the kids to Funland. When they got home, June told me, “Grandmom lets me do things you don’t.” But it turned out she just let her ride the Freefall, which I didn’t let her do last year but I would have allowed this year.  She also bought them some popcorn. All in all, I think June thought she got away with more than she really did.

I rode my bike down to the beach, surprised to remember how much fun it is to ride a bike, and had a quick dip before coming back to the house and making dinner.  Most of us played a hand of Sleeping Queens before June went to bed and Noah and I settled in for our nightly Watership Down reading.

Day 4: Tuesday

Beth, Sara and the kids and I took a morning constitutional down the boardwalk—three of us on bikes, one on a scooter and Sara jogging—which ended up with a stop for coffee, bagels and a breakfast crepe.

Mom took me out for lunch and then we took a stroll down the boardwalk. I got a frozen custard and she got a sunhat. While we were out, Beth took June to the playground to try riding her bike without the training wheels. Beth said it was a good first try though she thought June was discouraged because it was harder than she thought it would be. Beth put the training wheels back on so June could use the bike for transportation.

I took the kids to the beach in the mid-afternoon. The outing did not have a promising beginning. The kids were squabbling as I collected towels and sand toys and water and sun block but matters improved at the beach. The kids ran down to the water as I was still spreading out the towels and June went right in without me. I realized then she’d crossed the Rubicon.  The three of us were in the water together, eventually joined by Sara, for an hour and forty-five minutes, splashing, diving and watching pelicans soar above us. June realized there are a lot more things you can do in the water when you’re not holding someone’s hand. She started diving into the water, parallel to the shore, (a “dolphin dive” she called it) and by watching and copying Noah, learned to body surf. Then she started singing a song of her own composition called “I Can Ride the Waves.”  (Those are also the complete lyrics.)  She was knocked down a few times and lost her fear of it.  “I didn’t scream or cry,” she noted later. Noah was delighted to have June come deeper into the water with him, and I was delighted to be able to swim a few yards past them, still watching but semi-independent of them.  By the time the lifeguard blew the five o’clock whistle not only my fingers and toes but my lips were wrinkly with salt water.

June dug in the sand and lost her shovel to a wave and then Noah buried her in the sand while they waited for the lifeguard to go off duty and then they headed straight back into the water.  I stayed on my towel with Mom and Sara because I’d had a long enough swim.  I cannot remember the last time that happened.  A half hour later when it was time to go, the kids were lying on their backs on the wet sand, with the waves rushing over their feet. They’d even found the lost shovel bobbing in the waves and retrieved it, which seemed like another small miracle in an already wondrous day.

Day 5: Wednesday

Wednesday morning Beth took the kids to Jungle Jim’s Water Park. Due to a miscommunication, June went down the biggest slide there without Beth or Noah. It was scarier for Beth than for June because June never emerged at the bottom of the slide where Beth was awaiting her, but eventually Noah found her and they were all reunited. June was thrilled with the whole experience.

Meanwhile, I spent the morning with my mom.  We went to Browseabout where she picked out two novels and I bought them for her upcoming birthday. I also bought myself a t-shirt with a seagull on it at the T-shirt Factory and we stopped at Café a Go-Go for a mocha (me) and a smoothie (her).

When the kids got home, I gave June a bath and read to Noah and joined Mom and Sara at the beach.  (The kids stayed home to work on another play—this one based on an Amelia Bedelia book.)  Sara and I had a nice swim in waves bigger than we’d had all week. Mom and Sara left the beach early because they were taking the kids out to dinner so Beth and I could have an early anniversary dinner date.

We went to Planet X, a favorite restaurant of our pre-kids days.  I got a virgin peach margarita, and a polenta appetizer with wild mushrooms, peas and cherries.  It sounds strange, but it was really good.  For dinner I had fettuccine.  Beth had an eggplant appetizer and barbequed tofu.  We spoke without interruption or having to arbitrate arguments and did not have to search the menu for items the children might possibly eat.  (Mom and Sara had a harder time at the Japanese restaurant where they took the kids, I heard later.)  We picked up dessert at Gallery Espresso and took it to the boardwalk.  It was a lovely evening, in the mid-seventies and clear with just enough clouds to stain the sky pink as the sun set.  I even coaxed Beth onto the sand for a few minutes, before we biked back to the house.

Mom and Sara were just putting June to bed so she got her usual bedtime snuggle with me.  She was back downstairs a few minutes later because although she wants to ride her bike without training wheels and she’s not afraid of the Freefall or ocean waves or water slides, she was afraid to sleep alone in the attic bedroom. She was imagining an invisible man who could turn nice people evil. We all have our limits, I suppose, and being turned evil is beyond June’s.

Day 6: Thursday

Thursday was a day of family togetherness. Beth and the kids and I went out for a breakfast of crepes and bagels (crossing paths with Sara on her way to a drop-in zumba class) and then we went to the beach. The surf was still rough so June wasn’t able to demonstrate her body surfing for Beth, but she did play fearlessly in the water. Several times she addressed the waves, saying, “I’m not afraid of you.”  Then she told me, “I faced my fear.” Indeed you did, June Bug.

I was half-sorry about the big waves and half not because the ocean was just about perfect for me to swim. The waves were big and breaking in just the right place for me to stand with my feet on the sand and push off into the rising curve of an oncoming wave so it swept me up and over and dropped me on the other side. This is my very favorite thing to do in the ocean.  There was a strong northward tug in the water so I had to keep getting out as I approached the red flag at the end of the lifeguard’s territory and walk back to the other side.  She only had to blow her whistle at me once.  After several circuits I was tired and collapsed to read in one of the beach chairs Beth had rented.  When I went back to the bike rack to fetch the sand toys and an extra towel from my bike basket a stranger complimented me on my “impressive” swimming. I am seldom admired for my athletic prowess so it was startling, and I will admit, satisfying.

After lunch at home, Beth and I took the kids on a return trip to Funland. I got to see June ride the Freefall and the fast racecars as well as some of the tamer kiddie rides she’s enjoyed for years.  Her stuffed monkey Muffin rode, too.  Several ride attendants helped buckle him in without blinking an eye, though I did catch one smiling. (This was Muffin’s second trip to Funland—he came last year, too.)

Toward the end of our excursion, June was begging to ride the Teacups. I’d been on them, much to my regret, when Noah was little so I know how fast they spin. I made her watch first to see if she really wanted to go. She said yes so I went with her because I didn’t want to send her alone. The attendant explained that you control the speed by moving together (making the cup more unbalanced and faster) or apart.  I doubted it would make much difference as June is small for her age and I am big for mine. Nevertheless, she kept moving closer to me and further apart, grinning all the while. I was more than a little queasy when we got off.  “That was fun!” she declared. We only had one ticket left so she picked the mermaid boats, a sedate, sentimental favorite.

After the kids were in bed that night, Sara and I biked down to the beach. When I told Beth where we were going she said, “How teenage of you.” While I do still enjoy the beach at night, she’s right it’s something we did more as teens.  Maybe that’s why I asked Sara. I felt just slightly transgressive leaving the house at 9:30, biking down quiet streets in the cool night air.  As we pedaled, a fox crossed the road right in front of Sara.

The beach was dark and deserted because we were staying far from the boardwalk. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever been on the beach in Rehoboth and not seen another soul—not at one a.m. on summer nights in my twenties, not on sleety February afternoons.  There was a balmy breeze off the ocean and lights at sea.  The water was warm and foamy around our ankles and I was with someone I’ve known nearly all my life.  I was glad we came.

Day 7: Friday

In the morning after a quick beach trip, we’d planned a bike ride to the creek with the turtles Beth and the kids discovered in April. But just as Beth, Sara, June and I were getting ready to set out we found that June’s bike lock was broken and wouldn’t open.  We decided to leave it for the moment and drive instead. Once we’d had our fill of watching turtles and geese, June went to play in the playground while the adults took turns patronizing her imaginary Chinese restaurant where they were served tofu with vanilla frappuchino sauce. Eventually she found a child to play this game and we sat on a bench and watched all the kids on the playground and discussed Sara’s frustration with the delays of the adoptive process and her options (including fostering kids).

At home I made lunch for the kids while Beth went to buy a bolt cutter to free June’s bike. Sara asked to go along, which seemed strange until I found out she wanted Beth to help her choose some books (Zone One and The Map of Time) for my belated birthday present.

After lunch, Sara and I took the kids to the beach.  We had another nice swim while the kids played in shallower water or up on the sand. I read for a while and Beth came to join us briefly and get her feet wet.  She left first, followed by Noah and when Sara, June and I got to the bike rack, we discovered Noah had left June’s bike (previously locked to his) locked to the rack with his lock, to which none of us knew the combination. The repetition of this morning’s dilemma would have been funny, if it had not been so frustrating. We made some guesses, none correct, called home, and got no answer.  Sara biked home, leaving me with her phone so she could call back with combination. Finally we all got home and showered and headed over for a farewell dinner at Grotto’s Pizza before Mom and Sara drove back to Mom’s house (Sara had a morning flight back to Oregon the next day.)

Day 8: Saturday

After we packed and checked out of the house, Beth took the kids to Browseabout because Noah wanted to go book shopping and I returned the rental bikes by riding them one at a time back to the boardwalk.  I gave Noah some money and let him go to the T-Shirt Factory to pick out this year’s shirt.  (He enjoys being able to run errands like this independently.) The kids and I had a quick, final trip to the beach. Toward the end, June got knocked down by a wave and water went up her nose for the first time and she did not like it one bit.  She cried hard for a long time. I picked her up and held her and then wrapped her up in a towel.  Once she’d stopped crying I wondered if I should encourage her to go back into the water so that experience was not her last memory of ocean swimming until next summer.  While I was contemplating this, Noah got knocked down and partially ripped the scab off a week-old scrape on his knee.  Fresh blood was running all the way down his shin. I sent him back into the water to rinse it off and decided it was a good time to head for the crepe stand where we were meeting Beth for lunch.

Soon we were fed and on the road.  It was a good week.  The time off helps us all reconnect to each other, find long-lost parts of ourselves while wheeling down dark roads at night, and uncover courage we didn’t know we had in the amusement park, the ocean and the water park.

It’s always ourselves we find in the sea.

p.s. Happy Birthday, Mom!