And which Michigander doesn't hold forth their first memory of Great Lake to ocean upgrade as something akin to sacred? Whether it was just a walk on the beach when you were wise enough to appreciate the majesty and the mystery of such a powerful earthly force, or if you literally flung yourself irreverently into the shock of rolling waves as a child, you're not likely to forget. I was somewhere in between, a blessedly adventurous thirteen year old, when an aunt and uncle invited me on a Florida vacation that included an ocean side stop on Daytona Beach. I'll always be grateful to them for opening up that world to me at that exact time -- young enough to play and old enough to remember. Even all these years later, the memory of my cousin and I rushing unreservedly, laughing into that roaring blue expanse still delights me. As children, you don't worry about sand in your crack or swallowing saltwater or what monstrous creatures might lurk below the surface. It's pure unadulterated, uninhibited joy. That was us, rolling in the waves. We had cheap, inflatable rafts, and in no time, we discovered that if we pointed ourselves, well timed, into the advancing swells, that we could ride the waves, almost vertically for a time before they would roll us over and over onto the shore and we could do it all over again. We had invented our own brand of surf-flying, and nobody could convince us otherwise. We flew for hours, maybe days, oblivious to anything beyond us.
The ocean is like that, I've discovered since then. It has a magical quality that can take us away from the world and remind us to play. It's pulled me back again and again, with my husband, my children, my friends, adding to that very first memory with layers of hope, humor, sun kissed romance, and bittersweet transitions.
Hope - When my Kelsey Brooke was almost three, she was diagnosed with deadly disease that, in many ways, our family still fights today. For the most part, though, that's another story for another day. What's important here is that she got one of those wonderful, all expenses paid dream trips for critically ill children that restore your faith in humanity, and we all went to the beach for an afternoon. It was around her fourth birthday in late October, and it was a little too cold to actually swim. But I remember the blue . . . the blue of the sky and the breaking blue-white of the rolling waves . . . the blue of her dress, and the blue compassion in her sister's seven year old eyes as my girls held hands and walked along the sand . . . the blue of melancholy hope carried on the southern autumn breeze, and the blue of leaping dolphins that made a serendipitous appearance just off the shore as my husband snapped a picture. I felt the ocean speaking to me that day, and I'll always know peace as the color blue.
Humor - Same daughter, eight years later (yeah!!!). It began with a random glance at a news feature and a rather presumptuous conversation in waist deep water off Madeira Beach in St. Pete and ended in a jet ski debacle so Hellishly hilarious that we still tease Kelsey about it to this day. I'd been hustling the family out the door for a vacation day at the beach, and in turning off the TV, happened to catch an aerial view of the Florida coast that captured hundreds of migrating, feeding sharks. Not being an alarmist and accepting the explanation that it was a normal phenomena and that shark attacks are relatively rare, I kept it in the back of my mind, but never mentioned it . . . until later that day. As if she'd read my mind, Kelsey asked me, as we frolicked in the murky shallows, "Mom, are there sharks out here?" Now my youngest daughter has always, from the time she was a baby, struck me as eminently sensible and precocious, so that was the reason why I felt okay conveying what I had seen on TV that morning, with a final assurance that went something like, "They're probably all over the place out here, but don't worry . . . they won't bother us." In retrospect, that probably wasn't the greatest idea, but she seemed to accept it . . . Later that day, Stephen rented us a jet ski (it was the perfect storm) -- one of those giant versions that would comfortably fit the three of us (Britty had opted out) -- and we were all tooling around in the Gulf of Mexico, exploring the byways and looking for dolphins. After a while, Stephen slowed to a stop to turn around and ask us a question. It was right at that second that we all heard and felt it (we commiserated later) . . . a distinct, reverberating THUD from somewhere in the nether regions of the jet ski . . . and the whole craft flipped over, dumping all three of us neatly into the water. Not to worry. The nice man at the rental place had explained to us just what to do in such an event. Stephen immediately attempted to give it a firm two handed grasp behind the seat to quickly flip it upright. This was very difficult for him as his daughter had shot up out of the water like a flying fish and was crab walking over his back in an attempt to reach the safety of the inverted jet ski. He went down like a stone and when he came up, spitting water, she was flailing around on his head, wild-eyed, toes curled over his ears. He shook her off and she came back with a vengeance, mowing him under again. The second time he came up, he looked over at me gaping at the scene, bobbing guiltily in the water at a safe distance, and asked, "Is she for real?" Uhhhmm. . . yeah, babe . . . sorry. At some point I must have decided that whatever was lurking around under the boat might be scarier than my demon daughter, because I managed to distract her just long enough for him to finally flip the ski and get us all back on before it ate us or she drowned us. Kelsey is still afraid of fish. We are still a little afraid of her.
Romance - Between my husband and myself, I would definitely have to describe myself as the romantically challenged one. There is nothing like a beach rendezvous to access my inner damsel, though. One day, I was reading on the beach, and Stephen turned right into Thor, the God of Thunder, which is completely fitting because he is of distinct Scandinavian descent, all blonde and chiseled. On a late afternoon on Clearwater Beach, I lay on my stomach facing the water, elbows propped in the sand, so completely absorbed in a novel that I didn't notice storm clouds rolling in off the water. It was only when a shadow fell over my page that I finally looked up to find him standing directly in front of me, blocking my view of the water. "What are you doing?" I asked him, peeking around his legs. At the same time he answered "protecting you" I saw the long, fractured streaks of lightning illuminating through the purple clouds down to the midnight blue waters of the gulf beyond the sand. There wasn't a question of why we were still there. It was so beautifully mesmerizing that people stood staring all up and down the beach. But I thought how sweet that his first thought was to stand in the gap of my electrocution. The air had cooled, and I stood up to gaze with him. He put his arm around me, and I snuggled into the warm, beachy-skinned scent of him. My Thor.
More humor - Same Beach, different day, different kid. We love Clearwater Beach. White sand stretches down from a quaint little town full of restaurants and beach bum shops, and past snack huts that sell cotton candy and ice cream and hot dogs. There's a fishing pier and a pirate boat that mysteriously traverses the water out beyond the beach, beyond the jet skiers and kite sailors. Clearwater Beach has everything. And there are seagulls. So many seagulls. One day, we decided to bypass the restaurants and eat lunch on the beach. My Brittany had been looking forward to her hot dog all morning long. She sat on the beach savoring it, about to take another bite, navigating carefully around the ketchup and mustard and her windblown hair. I saw them coming. I saw the whole thing. I heard them first. . . their dive bomb rallying cry, and saw them feign left, then come swooping back for a surprise attack, a whole flock of seagulls intent on heisting my firstborn daughter's Oscar Meyer Wiener. I opened my mouth to scream a warning, but they were already there. My guess is that they'd perfected the beat the kid over the head til she relinquishes the food tactic. But they had underestimated their opponent. Brittany screamed and held on tighter, mustard squishing through her fingers. I don't know that she was being stubborn so much as in shock. And maybe really hungry. They screamed and beat harder, wings pommeling her head into a blonde tangle. "Throw it!" I screamed. And she did. But by that time there was such a crowd of them that in the total chaos and confusion, nobody could find the offending hotdog. They continued milling around beating my Britty over the head just for good measure. My motherly instincts really kicked in then. I picked up my beach towel and began flapping them off like a flag in a hurricane. The last we saw of them, they were harassing a little red-headed kid down the beach for his ice cream cone. We don't eat hotdogs on the beach anymore. Brittany still twitches when she passes a hot dog stand.
Transition - On a late afternoon in late December the year before Brittany left for college, we walked along another Florida beach watching the sun sink into the clouds. It was too cold to swim, and the beach was lonely and quiet except for one little family gathering a few more Christmas memories before flying home to Michigan. The seagulls were all huddled together warming themselves in great flocks down by the water. Kelsey Brooke got a mischievous glint in her eye. She grabbed her sister's hand, and pulled her into a run straight towards those somnolent seagulls. Maybe she thought to pay them back for stealing her sister's hot dog some years before. But the effect was striking and symbolic. The seagulls flew up, and my daughters flew with them, towards the setting sun. I might have cried a little.
Come with me, my sister, and I'll lead you
into the sunset of our childhood
We'll fly from this fortress of shared yesterdays
Leave our sandcastles on the shore, and
With wings against a scarlet sky