We spent Labor Day weekend with family. We went to the beach, the three of us. Three generations. Lucy, for particularly toddler reasons, didn’t want to be in the water. Instead she was fascinated that we could draw on the sand, and after some coaching from Nana, she drew circle after lopsided circle. I chased her around the beach, apologizing when she would disregard all sense of personal space and run between towels and occupied chairs. Folks laughed and commented on how adorable he was, then looked slightly confused and embarrassed when I’d call out “Lucy!” Since she has a whole floaty vest thing, it’s easiest to put her in swim trunks at the beach, which increases the confusion for people. I was going to say ‘misgendering’ but hell, Lucy doesn’t even know if she’s right- or left-handed yet. Just because I’m calling using ‘she/her’ doesn’t mean I’m not the one getting it wrong.
I had waited too long to put on the sunscreen I pulled out of Lucy’s backpack, and neglected a couple spots completely. I don’t really have pictures from the weekend to redirect the conversation, so I’m resigned to hearing multiple iterations of “oh, looks like you’ve got some sun!”
The next morning I made the beach trip that I really came for. I’d been restless the day before on the sand, heart searching for something that even the sunny time filled with Lucy’s laughter couldn’t fill. The parking lot was closed; the last weekend of the season, and dawn was minutes away from breaking. The gate was opened by someone from the town to let the sandraker in, the beach version of the Zamboni. The long metal bar swung closed, so I pulled over to the side and parked behind the only other vehicle around. Above, I could hear the young osprey calling out. They would be on their own soon, flying back south, finding their own meals as they lost the last of the soft down of their heads.
I walked through the lot and onto the shore. This particular beach faced southwest, so that the sun was coming up behind both me and the dunes. The sweep of clouds overhead, white brush strokes against jewel blue. A passing gull was lit up pink and gold. I didn’t need to see the bright face of the sun to experience the glory of its rising. I took a moment, breathing it in, feeling the wind pull at the hem of my dress to extend it behind me, pressing the fabric against my body. I tried not to think about the silhouette I made, since there was no one else to witness but the sky and the sea, and they were certainly not unhappy or judgmental over it. I hoped they were as glad of my presence as I was of theirs. The wind swirled around me a moment, a soft embrace. I was going to smell like the sea all day.
Mine were not the only footprints in the surf. My walk was preceded by two other sets, soft indentations that would be carried away when the tide returned. I didn’t follow them with any intention, but rather wondered how many of these walks I had taken, parallel in time to one another. I took them with Hawthorne, with my babies, with family and friends. Most often now I take it alone, and talk to those who left.
I brought a bucket this time, the small green pail from Lucy’s beach toy set. I stooped here and there to pick up a shell or a rock, some detritus of the knots of seaweed. I talked a little, to the waves that carry some of my loves, but I didn’t feel like I have much to say. I couldn’t shake the restlessness. I rolled out my shoulders again and again, but could not get them to relax. It’s an itch that can’t be reached, deep in the muscle and sinew. My bucket filled very slowly. There’s not much on the sand that called to me to pick up, to hold for a moment and smile at. It’s the busiest season for the beaches, and no recent storms have left many of the shells and rocks under the waves.
I looked toward the dunes. They are roped off, protecting the nesting grounds of the terns and piping plovers. There would be no visit to the tree today, and I was prepared for that. However, on the other side of the thin, fluorescent cord strung between wooden stakes, the sands on the edges of the dunes has been disturbed. Temper rose in me swiftly, as if called by and rode on the wind. White rocks and shells spelled out two names, flanked by “BFF” and “summer 2022” in smaller font. More shells created flat replicas of fireworks, and a few steps later, spelled out GOD BLESS AMERICA that reached from the angle of the shore all the way up to the visible roots of the dune grasses. This was no memorial, no labor of love. This was for Instagram and selfies and Facebook memories. If you need to disturb the fragile edges of the dune to get attention, you’re doing it wrong, my mind snarled. Deliberately I turned back to the water and paused to breathe it in, to let the anger flow out with my breath and be carried away.
I reached the end of the southwest side of the beach and looked out along the rocks that formed the channel for the ferries. It was quiet here, the rumble and clicks of the sandraker too far to overcome the gentle rush of waves. Gulls picked through thick mats of seaweed, reluctant to leave as I approached. I turned away from the little jetty and followed the sand around the point as a ferry glided past, taking the riders out to the islands, cars and all.
The water on the other side, facing northeast, was as calm as I had ever seen the ocean. From the shore you could not even see the bob of the buoys and boats that were anchored in the little harbor; they had already absorbed the disturbance from the passing ferry. I stayed close to the jetty, where the expanse of sand was still damp and smooth from the tide. One by one, I pulled the ocean’s offerings from my bucket and laid them down, adjusting the lines every few placements, until I was happy with the shape of the heart. It was not as big as when Hawthorne and I made it together, but it was big enough for my purposes. I took the sable brown feather dropped by an immature gull and wrote Oscar’s name and date, Hawthorne’s. The writing was finer than it was with Hawthorne, too, as they had preferred a stick. I took my single picture, and a video of the shoreline; not for social media and attention, but for a couple friends who I knew could use a moment or two of peace in their day.
I sat back and watched the cormorants come and go, and the occasional sandpiper. The gulls preferred the other side of the beach. A couple folks walked by; good New Englanders, they kept their distance and their mouths shut. Sometimes the best acknowledgement was being ignored completely.
From there, I lost track of time.
The tension in my shoulders finally eased, the gentle lap of the waves lulled me. If I looked closely, I could see the buoys rise and fall, maybe a couple inches up and down. The boats beyond them looked as still as a painting.
Eventually, I felt the lightest pressure against my boot, and looked down to see the shy little wave retreat. I smiled, and let my fingers down just above the sand, greeting the water when it rolled back in.
I took my time walking this side of the beach, noticing the different shells that collected here than the other side of the dunes. There weren’t a lot, again a nod to the lack of rain and storms that would leave the beach littered with shells. I was about to turn toward the boardwalk when I noticed that someone had made a couple of piles – one of razor clams, one of thickly layered oyster shards, and one of horseshoe crab pieces. I appreciated the organization, so when I saw a couple of crab legs between the water and the boardwalk, I reached down to pick them up and add them to the pile. But they weren’t crab legs; they weren’t anything from a crab at all.
The two halves of a full jawbone of some kind of fish, with a three-inch row of short, sharp teeth; the first bones I have ever found at this particular beach. With puzzled gratitude and a strong sense of satisfaction, I placed them gently in my empty pail, and walked back to the car.