(So, I wanted to write something profound and thought-provoking, a topic that would get me, say, 159 comments. Or something fun and light and witty. But we’re in the tenth week of summer vacation and I lost my brain somewhere in week three. All I can think about is the beach, since we haven’t been anywhere this summer. Hence, today’s post.)
Noosa Heads, 1968
I’m seven years old, on my first holiday on the Queensland coast, staying with my parents, siblings, and grandparents in a cottage overlooking the sapphire sea. Every morning I put on my ruffled swimsuit and run down to the beach with my red bucket. I let the surf kiss my toes while I scavenge for lavender-and-brown-speckled cowrie shells; striped cockles and cream sand dollars; and black, sea-tumbled stones, smooth as eggs. One morning while I dig trenches in the sand, my grandfather swims out to sea and returns with a starfish, plucked from a rock somewhere, on his shoulder. He feigns ignorance while my brother and I squeal and point at the starfish until he pretends to notice it, then he lifts it gently from his shoulder and tosses it back into the waves. Another morning we find a row of giant stingrays stranded on the shore, shuddering; my grandfather walks among them, stroking their slick backs and shaking his head, while I watch, as still as a sentinel.
Every afternoon I walk to the tide pools with my grandfather, my hand in his; we crouch on the rocks and study tiny crabs, purple sea urchins, spindly-legged creatures lumbering about under their shell houses, little black fish darting among the baby fronds, and once, a deadly blue-ringed octopus lying curled on a rock.
Every night we eat giant prawns drizzled with butter or flaky, white, pan-fried fish. Later, sand-scrubbed and freshly bathed, tucked into bed with my bucket of shells, I fall asleep to the sounds of the surf.
San Diego, 1981
My family and I vacation on Mission Beach, where coconut-oiled, suntanned girls in micro shorts and halter tops whiz along the promenade on skates and bikes. I lie on my towel, toes curled into the hot sand, reading Jane Austen and trying to forget that Reed Van Wagenen jilted me last week. I slather my arms and legs with vaseline and doze in the sun with my straps pulled down while my little sisters duck in and out of the waves. My brother plops a huge piece of slimy seaweed on my stomach, yells, “Alien!” and I scream, then chase him down the beach. We drag the kelp along like a dead eel and stomp on its giant pods until they pop. Later, I stand under the outdoor shower and let cool water run over my sunburned skin. At night I sit on the porch, watch the muscled, white-smiled teenage boys next door try to get phone numbers from a couple of blonde, mini-skirted girls as I listen to Journey on my walkman. I stare out over the moonlit beach, night breezes ruffling my hair and kissing my cheeks.
I’m flushed with honeymoon love, lying in a cabana with my new husband, sipping virgin pina coladas (when my husband asked for a “virgin” drink, he blushed). For the first time in my life, I’m wearing a bikini. Every morning we snorkel, holding hands, immersing ourselves in a fairy world of blue and orange parrotfish; silver needlefish and pink snappers; damselfish and pompous-looking puffers gliding over orange, lavender, and milk-white coral, where eels play hide and seek. Every afternoon we nap in the balmy heat, the fan whirring above us. My husband’s skin tastes of salt.
Laguna Niguel, 1990
I take my baby daughter to the beach, sunhatted and sunscreened, where I sit her on a towel and hand her a yellow plastic shovel. She rakes her fingers through the sand, and, whip-quick, stuffs fistfuls of sand in her mouth. I carry her to the ocean and wash her off, watch her eyes widen as waves lap over her toes. Then I dangle her over the water and she squeals. My stomach, hidden under my one-piece, is slack; my back aches. My baby has sand in her diaper, sand in her hair, sand in every crease of her honey and cream skin. I kiss the top of her blond head, smelling of brine and sunscreen, and gaze out over the sun-dazzled sea.
My siblings and their families and mine are together on the beach. My twelve-year-old son builds a sand castle with my little nephews; they dig and sift and pour and stack as seagulls wheel overhead against an indigo sky. My brother plants himself in a lounge chair with a book and refuses to move; my husband does the crossword while my sisters and I reapply sunscreen on our children and watch our teenagers run headlong into the surf. My once-baby daughter, now eighteen, laughs with her cousins as they spy on flint-chested boys strutting along the beach. I wear a T-shirt over my swimsuit and a floppy hat, try to cover my spider veins with a spray-on tan.
One morning I walk the beach with my youngest daughter, who, at nine, will still hold my hand. Toes squishing through vanilla sand, we gather whorled shells and bits of emerald sea glass, and round, smooth rocks that sit fat and heavy in our palms. We will take them home and place them on a shelf, each one a memory.
What memories do you have of summer vacations? Do you have a special place to which you’ve returned through the seasons of your life?