One Wave at a Time: Twenty-One Trips to the Beach

1. Saturday, 8:53 p.m.

It was almost dark when I reached the trail from the parking lot to the beach, but the sand was still warm under my feet. It had been hot and humid and muggy for the past two weeks at home and it was hot and humid and muggy at the beach, too, but there’s an ocean there, and the water swirling around my ankles was cool.

2. Sunday, 11:46 a.m.

Sara and I didn’t really mean to arrive at the beach quite so close to high noon, but my family and my mom and sister had all been socializing and menu planning and now June and I were too eager to wait until late afternoon, so the three of us headed out late Sunday morning.

June was toting her new body board for most of the fifteen-minute walk. Beth bought it for her at home after much pleading and June was so excited to have it she slept with it the first night after she got it. She also drew a picture of smiling people riding the waves the first morning we were at the beach.

Once we got our towels arranged, the first thing June wanted to do was stand at the water’s edge and let the motion of the waves bury our feet in the sand. This was a good way to get acclimated to the cold water as it splashed our legs and torsos.  Something about prevailing southwesterly winds was churning up water from the deep and making ocean temperatures colder than usual from the Outer Banks to New Jersey, Beth had informed us.

Soon June decided it was time to use the board.  We were starting very close to shore and the first two waves were perfect, gently pushing her to the sand. But then a big one cane up behind the third one she tried to ride and merged with it, crashing over us, knocking June off the board and me off my feet. (I lost my sunglasses, though I didn’t notice at the time.)

Sara said she saw it all unfolding inevitably, the wave too big, June and I too far apart, no way for either Sara or me to get to June in time. It was a very long five seconds or so before I could drag June to her feet. Her hair was swept over her face, full of sand and shell fragments, and she was sobbing. All three of us went up to the towels and sat until she’d calmed somewhat. I offered to take the board and demonstrate its use while she watched from the safety of the sand. She agreed, but not long after I got into the water, I saw a big jellyfish and made a hurried exit. Then Sara mentioned she did feel a stinging sensation, the way you do sometimes when you swim near jellyfish.

I talked carefully to June about how it was fine if she didn’t want to try to ride the board again today but that sometimes if you don’t try again right away after something scary happens, the scary gets bigger in your head. She said nothing, so I left it at that.

June did want to go back in the water without the board, so eventually we did, but then she got sand in the crotch of her suit and she started to feel stingy, too.  Between the hot sun and the treacherous water, Sara decided it was time to go home, but June wanted to make sand castles so she did. I thought she’d forgotten all about the board when she quietly announced she was going to ride one more wave–just one–and then we were going home for lunch.

We picked a small one and she glided to shore. She scraped her knee a little but she didn’t seem to care, she was just happy and relieved to have done it and not to have to do it again, at least not right then.  As we packed up our things, she held the board aloft.  A sudden breeze buffeted it for a moment.  “June versus the wind!” she cried. “June wins! June is stronger than the wind!”

3. Sunday, 6:04 p.m.

Beth and I biked to the cheese shop to buy some Spanish cheese for dinner the next night. Sara was at home making lentil-sweet potato stew while Mom watched the kids.

“Do you want to go to the boardwalk?” Beth asked as we left the store.

“You know me so well,” I answered.  She remarked that over the course of twenty-six years you notice a few things.

So we found a bench in the shade and sat and watched the ocean for ten minutes until it was time to bike home for dinner.

4. Monday, 10:10 a.m.

Rain threatened, so I managed to get the kids down to the beach earlier than the day before. When I asked June if she wanted to come, she said, “Yes! And I want to bring my body board!” I’d been on the verge of telling her we’d bike (or scoot in Noah’s case), but the board presented a logistical challenge. Beth offered to drive us to the parking lot, so we took her up on it. It wasn’t as hot as the day before. Every now and then it clouded over and looked like it would rain, but it never did. The water felt a little warmer, too, but still plenty cool.

We splashed in the water for a long time. Noah came up with new names for different kind of waves and wave actions. The backward tug of a wave is a “ghost wave.”  When two waves merge, one “eats” the other. Eventually, June declared she wanted to ride a wave, again, just one. The first wave she wanted went by before she could get on the board, but she caught the next one, and then she was done. This seemed to be her system for conquering this fear, one wave at a time.

Once she’d dispensed with this, she befriended a girl whose family was sitting nearby. I’d been watching this girl because she was about June’s age and she had a body board, too. I wanted to see what she’d do with it.  Not ride it was the answer.  Instead she put it on the sand and stood on it, pretending to surf, while the very edges of waves rushed over it. They did this together for a while. They also lay on the boards facing the waves, deep in conversation, while the occasional wave splashed their faces. June ran to fetch her goggles for this activity.  Later they dug in the sand– stopping when the girl’s toddler sister kept destroying their creations—and played with a boomerang.

The girl’s name was Augusta, which her mom thought was funny, two girls with month names.  I’d recently heard an almost identical comment from the mother of a girl named April who was attending tinkering camp with June the previous week.  The mothers always find it more amusing than the girls do.

Noah and I were on the towels. He was burying his legs in the sand when June came by to ask if she could go in the water with Augusta and her mom. I said I’d come with her. June can swim, but she’s not a confident ocean swimmer. On reflection, I realized we had the cart before the horse with the body board.  She won’t really be able to ride it until she isn’t afraid to go in over her head and catch the waves while they’re forming rather than in the more chaotic areas of crashing waves near the shore. As it turned out, Monday was the last day she even tried to ride it, but I was proud of her for getting back on the board after wiping out, even if it was only twice. Maybe next year her memory of it will be of those last two successful rides and it will be easier to try again.

Soon it was clear that Augusta and her mom were going out well past June’s comfort zone. I asked if she wanted to try swimming in the deep water, thinking peer pressure might help her seize the moment, but she said, no.  I think she’d used up all her courage on the board. Noah joined us where we were and we splashed together and watched a lone pelican fly over our heads until the kids were hungry for lunch.

5. Monday, 6:37 p.m.

After an afternoon at Funland with Mom for the kids, and Beth’s delicious dinner of gazpacho, bread, Spanish cheeses, and salt-crusted potatoes, we drove to the north end of the boardwalk and walked down to the middle, stopping for various desserts along the way.  As we read the water ice flavors, “watermelon, cherry…” June stopped me at tie-dye. She wanted it without seeing it or even asking what it tasted like. It was blue, green, and white, and it stained not only her tongue and lips, but even her teeth blue.

Noah and I got frozen custard and everyone else got ice cream. The benches were full so we initially sat on the low concrete wall that separates the boardwalk from the little strip of dune grass. It was a beautiful evening, warm but not hot, less humid, golden-hued.

Our rental house was north of the boardwalk, near a less populated stretch of beach so there were fewer junk-food seeking gulls whenever we went to the beach, but here their cries filled the air as they circled lazily over the crowds.

6. Tuesday, 9:17 a.m.

The kids felt like watching television so my first beach trip of the day was solo. I swam and read and swam again and watched two ospreys fly over my head with fish in their talons. I also saw a big, purplish-red jellyfish. I began to wonder if the cold water brought them. I saw them washed up on the shore every day that week.

My towel was right behind the lifeguard chair so I heard when another guard jogged by and advised them, “Watch the waterline. There’s a seal!”

I looked up and saw a crowd gathering around a jetty just to the south. Everyone stopped what they were doing, even the lifeguards (at least those with a partner to stay behind) abandoned their posts. And sure enough there was a black head rising from the water. The seal was swimming near the end of the jetty. When it turned and swam toward shore I could see its face, even the whiskers, and a good bit of its torso.

On shore everyone was exclaiming. How did it get here? Escaped from an aquarium? Seriously lost? A boy Noah’s age guessed it “took a wrong turn.”  Later I googled seal habitat and found that on the East coast they’re native from the Arctic Circle down to New York, and that they are “occasionally” seen off North Carolina. Had the cold water brought it south, along with the jellyfish? The seal seemed intent on getting (back?) to New York. It left the jetty and swam steadily north, occasionally stopping to pop its head out of the water and look toward shore or behind its shoulder.

People were taking pictures and movies. I went back to my towel and got my phone, hoping to snap a picture. Along with a couple other people, I followed it north for around forty minutes. I never got a picture, though, because it popped up too briefly and at unpredictable intervals.  At one point, we passed a big pod of dolphins, but I hardly paid them any mind.

Eventually I turned back because I had gotten pretty far from my towel. It was a long walk back. I read and swam again and then went home.

7. Tuesday, 4:37 p.m.

After Beth took June to Funland again (where June won two stuffed animals at this game she loves where you move a cup to catch a ball falling out of a vertical maze), everyone but Beth made it down to the beach at the same time that afternoon. The weather was nice, not too hot, with a breeze coming off the water. Mostly the kids splashed and Sara napped while I chatted with Mom, who prefers to stay on shore. Mom had made dinner, a black bean-quinoa salad ahead of time, and the afternoon was so lovely we decided to eat in shifts so that Mom and Sara could stay at the beach longer.

8. Tuesday, 9:05 p.m.

Beth and Noah hatched a plan to go on a dessert run after June was in bed. This was later than anticipated because June had a lengthy and mysterious meltdown at bedtime, triggered buy a minor conflict with Noah. (This has been happening a lot recently.)

Once she was finally asleep, Beth, Noah, Sara, and I got cake and cheesecake from Gallery Espresso and brought it home to Mom, who stayed with June. (She was also the one who got June to calm down enough to sleep. Thanks, Mom!)

On the way back to the car, we walked a block along the boardwalk. We’re rarely there after dark any more and it was hopping. There was also a delightfully cool breeze from the ocean. Heat is one of the reasons Beth rarely comes down to the beach, so I told her once the kids stop habitually waking at dawn we can come down to the boardwalk at night more often. Sara asked Noah if he liked being old enough to be out late—I know, it was barely past nine, but that’s late for us. He didn’t answer, just laughed.

9. Wednesday, 9:39 a.m.

Beth took the kids to Jungle Jim’s water park in the morning so I had another solo beach jaunt. I told Sara after the seal the day before I was half-expecting to see a unicorn, but I didn’t, just a few dolphins. The sky was overcast; the sea calm. I swam and read and swam again.

10.  Wednesday, 12:55 p.m.

Mom and I had lunch at O’Bie’s, a boardwalk restaurant with a nice view and a nice breeze, both from the ocean and big overhead fans.  It’s becoming our traditional lunch spot. The food’s not bad, but not exceptional either. Sometimes it’s all about location.

11. Wednesday, 2:58 p.m.

Sara parked near the north end of the boardwalk and walked down it to the bike shop. We were embarking on a long series of errands that included: a bike rental place to get more comfortable bikes than the one supplied by the house; the bookstore, to buy Sara’s belated birthday present and Beth’s anniversary present; the wellness center, to buy a gift certificate for a massage as an early birthday present for my mom, who’s turning seventy this week; a bakery, for birthday cupcakes for my mom; a coffee shop to slake our thirst with iced drinks after biking all over town; the sunglass store, to replace the ones I lost in the ocean;  a gift shop, for a card for Mom; and finally, Candy Kitchen, because I thought the house needed salted caramels. Sara and I split up between the coffee shop and the sunglass store, so she could move the car.

12. Wednesday 5:30 p.m.

Rehoboth’s a small town, but between all these stops and doubling back to feed the meter, it was two and a half hours later by the time I was walking my bike along the boardwalk again for quick view of the ocean before heading home.

13. Thursday, 9:03 a.m.

Beth and the kids and I had breakfast at Gallery Espresso—crepes, yogurt, a bagel, and a chocolate chip muffin fresh from the oven with the chips still melted. I offered to walk the kids back home because Beth had her daily conference call at 9:00 a.m. It had been overcast the past few mornings with no rain, but as we walked along the boardwalk I thought the banked clouds looked darker, more serious. June, who’d been oddly moody for the past week or so, was put out because I wouldn’t buy her potato chips at breakfast. I tried to interest her in several people who seemed to be standing on surfboards and rowing along the nearly flat sea with oars, but she said she’d seen that before.  Soon she fell to bickering with Noah and forgot to be mad at me. Then she perked up and asked if we could take the secret path home.

Beth had discovered a grassy alley between the back yards of the house on our block and yards of the next block over. It goes almost all the way to the beach. It’s not a short cut, but it’s shaded and interesting to see the more private sides of all the houses on the way to the beach—the decks and pools and gardens and sheds. I’d transversed it alone and with Mom when we’d gone to lunch, but not with the kids. I said yes and by the time we left the boardwalk, June was happy.  (It did start to rain while we were on the path and we got soaked, but the kids seemed to regard it as an adventure and not an inconvenience.)

14. Thursday, 2:09 p.m.

The rain that started in the morning continued steadily until mid-afternoon.  We spent the morning inside, working (it was a working vacation for both Sara and Beth), reading and watching 101 Dalmatians (The house was well stocked with kids’ movies. June had already watched Anastasia.) In the afternoon Mom went for her massage and Beth took the kids to see Monsters University in 3D. I stayed inside as long as I could stand it and then took a walk in the rain.

Before I reached the boardwalk, however, the rain stopped, and I wondered if I’d packed for the wrong outing, but I settled into the first wooden pavilion on the boardwalk and read two chapters of my book, waiting to see if the rain was really over. Mom called me to say she and Sara were going to the beach, so I headed home to change and meet them there.

15. Thursday, 3:54 p.m.

The rain had cooled the air considerably so I didn’t want to go in the water right away, for fear I’d be chilled if got out and wanted to stay at the beach. I sat on my towel, talked with Mom, and watched the dolphins. She said she wanted to see one jump out of the water, but all we saw was fins skimming the surface.

I asked Sara if she wanted a swim and she said, “No. Are you crazy?”

“No, she’s Steph,” Mom replied.

When I got out of the water, Mom and Sara had left. I spotted about six dolphins, close to shore and one jumped almost all the way out of the water. I saw everything but the nose.

16. Thursday, 7:33 p.m.

Beth and I had just finished an almost-anniversary dinner at Planet X, while Mom and Sara took the kids out for Italian. We were taking a stroll along the boardwalk in the pleasantly cool air, and watching the dolphins, unaware that Noah, who’d complained of a headache before we left, had taken a turn for the worse at the restaurant and had been sick at the table. Mom and Sara took him home at put him to bed. When we got home shortly after eight both kids were asleep.

17. Friday, 2:33 p.m.

We woke to rain and it rained ceaselessly until mid-afternoon. Noah and I read for a long time and the kids watched Bambi and seemed content to stay inside. I was feeling stir-crazy enough to agree when Sara suggested we bike to Candy Kitchen in the rain, though after stepping out into the downpour, we decided to walk instead, so we could use umbrellas. It was coming down so hard I was wet up to the waist (though mostly dry from there up) when we stepped onto the boardwalk.

I wanted to see if the benches in the first pavilion were dry, but they weren’t. Then I noticed a dead mouse on the ground inside.

“It’s not dead,” Sara said. I asked if was just the wind moving its limbs but she said no, and the waterlogged little thing began to struggle, its torso half rising off the ground. Sara scooped it into her hand. I asked what she was going to do with it. “Nurse it back to health?” she suggested. I reminded her she had a plane to catch the next day and two cats at home.  I also warned about bites and rabies.  She continued to hold the mouse and carried it all the way to Candy Kitchen and inside, hidden in her hand. We made our purchases and parted ways.  (She went home with the mouse and made it a little nest of shredded paper inside a basket and tried to feed it on milk and shredded apple.  It didn’t eat much, if at all, but it did seem to perk up and explore a bit before it laid down and died a few hours later.  It’s buried in the yard of the beach house now. Sara was sad, but satisfied to have given it a more comfortable death.)

While she headed home, I walked out to the beach. Here the wind was blowing the rain in all directions and my top half was soon as wet as my bottom half. There were a few other people on the beach, some huddled under beach umbrellas, but as soon as I got north of the boardwalk, I was alone. The sky was medium gray—it looked almost like dusk—and the sea was dark gray and choppy. It looked inviting and I was already almost as wet as I’d be if I’d swum in my clothes, but the roughness of the water and the isolation of the beach gave me pause, so I didn’t swim, just waded up to my calves and breathed in the intoxicating smell of sea and rain.

18. Friday, 5:01 p.m.

Of course the rain started to let up shortly after I got home and changed into dry clothes. By 4:30 Funland was posting on Facebook that the outdoor rides would be open by 5:00, so Noah and I headed over there. (June was feeling under the weather.)  He rode the Freefall and then we rode the Paratrooper together. This ride looks like a Ferris wheel and when we were in our twenties, Beth and I rode it, not realizing it tilts and goes fast, and at the very end of the ride, backwards. Beth didn’t care for it, and I never went on it again either, even after Noah started to ride it a couple years ago.  This time I enjoyed the ride, especially the ocean view, and hearing Noah laugh as the soles of his bare feet brushed the top of a small tree, but I once it started going backwards, I was ready for the ride to be over.  My queasiness did settle the question of whether I should try the Sea Dragon, which is one of those swinging Viking ship rides I used to love when I was a teen. The answer is no, you are not sixteen any more, lady. Good to know, for when Noah moves up to that ride.

19. Saturday, 10:19 a.m.

I wheeled my bike onto the boardwalk and walked toward the bike rental store. Beth and the kids were driving to the realty to return the house keys. We’d said our goodbyes to Mom and Sara, who were finishing up their packing and were about to drive to Philadelphia to catch a plane back to Oregon.

20. Saturday, 11:01 a.m.

Once the bike was returned I met up with Beth and the kids and we headed to Café a-Go-Go for iced coffee drinks, pastry, and juice. Then we split up, as Beth had some anniversary shopping to do. I took the kids to the boardwalk Candy Kitchen, where we stocked up on candy and June bought a stuffed harbor seal with her own money. (I thought she’d go for one of the mermaids or a seahorse, but she surprised me.) I couldn’t help but think about being with the mouse the last time I was in Candy Kitchen and I think it’s possible I will think of it whenever I go into that Candy Kitchen for a long time.

21. Saturday, 11:57 a.m.

After trip to the T-shirt Factory where the kids picked out blank t-shirts and designs to have pressed onto them–Noah chose the words Rehoboth Beach, DE with an Aloha flower on white and June selected a mother wolf with a cub on yellow–we picked up some fries and hit the boardwalk. Beth happened on us while I was buying the fries.  We spent about an hour on the beach.  It being a Saturday and right in front of the boardwalk, it was much more crowded on the sand and in water than any other time I’d been to the beach all week.  Beth got her feet wet, then rested on a towel while the kids and I played in the water.  I had a swim and the waves were better than they’d been all week.  There were two that were big enough to sweep me up into their swell and drop me a couple feet through the air down the water below.  This is my absolute favorite thing to do with a wave.

We had crepes on the boardwalk (strawberry-nutella for Noah and tomato-cheese for everyone else). June wanted to go to Funland one last time. I was hesitant because we didn’t have a lot of time left on the meter and I thought if she didn’t win the medium stuffed animal she had her heart set on, she’d be disappointed and we’d leave the beach on a low note.  But we talked about what would happen if she didn’t win it and she said it would be fine, she’d just try again next year, so we said she could go on one ride and have five dollars to try her luck at the ball and cup game.  Well, she walked out of there with a mini beach ball and a medium panda to add to the small panda and owl she’d one earlier in the week. (Noah, taking fewer turns, won a mini beach ball and a small panda.) Next year June wants to win a large.  And to go in the Haunted Mansion.  And maybe next year I’ll convince her (and Noah) to venture out into the deep water with me.  Whatever June sets her mind to, I think she’ll do, one wave at time.