The tiny towhead runs to and from the surf, careful not to get even her little toes wet, squealing with the delight of coming so close to the water. Dad is standing an arm’s length away, waiting to catch her if she falls and gets surprised by the cold, foamy waves. It is low tide and there are few people on the beach. Mom is in a low-slung chair ten feet behind them, laying out a striped beach towel. She pushes her hair out of her eyes, smiling a bit apprehensively as the two people she loves more than anything stand at the edge of the world.
My husband and I walk barefoot past this tableau on a sunny morning. We both smile without a word. We’ve been those parents, fussing and worrying and delighting and loving. We know that place where they live right now.
“I miss our little boys,” I say wistfully. “That doesn’t mean I don’t love the men they’ve become, but I miss them so much.” I don’t cry often anymore, but my eyes well with tears. It isn’t just the strong wind from the South, blowing high cirrus clouds our way.
We slow our pace to watch the young family.
“It was a wonderful time,” he says. He squeezes my hand. We walk with fingers interlaced, even after thirty-four years of togetherness. I am comforted, though I still feel a stab of loneliness. I am not alone, but I miss something that is no longer with us.
“We are old enough to be grandparents, you know,” he says, as if I’ve forgotten our age or place in life. “Maybe that’s what happens when you start missing toddlers … Your kids have kids and you get to do it again.” All I can do is nod and look out at the waves. I rub his knuckle with my thumb, comforting myself, and maybe comforting him.
We pick up the pace again, zigzagging through countless shells on the flat, hard beach. After years of collecting broken castoffs, I can’t believe we are walking past all these beautiful, flawless shells. Time for gathering things is past. We walk for another few miles in silence.
As we approach the inlet entrance, our path comes to an end. A shrimp boat glides by, its nets heavy with the morning’s catch. To protect the passage from storms, the shore changes from soft sand to rows of riprap, rubble, and rugged concrete blocks.
The woman poses seductively on a big rock on a beach far away, her left arm under her hip, her right hand at her waist, legs outstretched, knees demurely crossed, toes dug into the white sand. She exudes self-assuredness and control.
The sun is bright overhead. It must be midday; there are no shadows. Wearing a white two-piece bathing suit in the 1940s was risqué, but she fearlessly looks at the camera with a sly smile. No teeth show, but her carefully applied lipstick, even in the black-and-white photograph, is a deep raven red. She is voluptuous and sexy and young. She gives no sign of being a mother, but the feminine handwriting on the back of the picture reveals otherwise: “1942—La Jolla.”
She is only twenty-four, young enough to feel ripe and beautiful. I know that just beyond the frame, my three-year-old father is nearby. I cannot imagine her playing in the water with her first child, her only child at this point. Maybe she sat in the sand with him and brushed his sun-streaked hair from his face. Maybe they dabbled their toes in the cold surf. Maybe they fed bread to the gulls. She is just like me. Just like the mother on the beach today. Maybe like all mothers, juggling independence, familial responsibility, sexuality, maternity, caution, carelessness.
I am in the frigid Pacific Ocean jumping waves with Daddy. He is 6-foot-2 and stands easily in the undertow. I am seven years old and struggle to keep my head above the water. I hang onto a heavy rubber raft that is sea green with yellow and white polka dots and a rope threaded around the edge. Daddy can hold onto me without me even knowing. I am lying on my tummy across the raft, holding it sideways, so I can ride the waves. The ocean floor makes me nervous. Long strands of seaweed tangle in my legs, but floating on the raft lets me wiggle my feet and kick things away.
Mom is on the shore watching us, peering over the head of my little sister, who is playing in the sand with the orange plastic shovel and green bucket we bought that day at the five-and-dime. Afraid of the water, Sissy prefers to sit on the warm white beach and entertain herself. Mom is chic and beautiful. She just turned 30 and is not feeling at all matronly in her big, dark sunglasses and her mod-plaid bathing suit. It is August 1969. Change is in the air. The safest, most sure thing is right in front of her. We are the same as every young family on the beach: the days are filled with the rhythm of promise, the renewal of hope, the eternity of optimism.
On our return walk, we approach the young family again. This time, child and mother are building a primitive sand castle, perhaps the child’s first. It is constructed of one bucketful of sand, packed tightly, turned upside down, and topped with a piece of sea oat. Father is facing them on bended knee, his back to the ocean. He holds a phone, videotaping or capturing the moment. The child laughs. The mother smiles deeply. Father keeps his distance, proudly watching and shooting, checking his phone often, seeing if this the one perfect memory.
Oh, there is so much ahead of you, I think. The minutes of a child tiptoeing in the surf will become hours of boogie boards and body surfing. The simple one-pail-construction castle will give way to a compound that requires dozens of scavenged objects to construct forts and moats and multi-story towers and shell pathways and stick stanchions and feather flags. Maybe there will even be space inside where someone can sit.
“Take our picture, Mom,” my oldest yells, sitting in the middle of a deep hole surrounded by the elaborate structure he and his brother have spent hours making. “Take our picture! Before it washes away!”
I dig in my straw tote for my camera, nestled in a plastic bag. I extricate it gently so I don’t get my sandy fingers near any of the moving parts. The film is already loaded. The sun is setting. The late afternoon light is perfect. I kneel in front of them with my back to the surf and start taking pictures. Sque-click. The shutter opens and closes. Flip. Flip. Fl—my camera needs only two and a half cocks of the lever to advance the film. Sque-click. And again. I don’t take more than three shots, lest I “waste” film. I smile and tell them I’ve got some good pictures, and they promptly destroy their creation, whooping and laughing. When we walk off the beach, there’s no sign it was ever there.
Weeks later—when the vacation is over and the bags unpacked and the chairs de-sanded and the towels washed and the red skin peeled to reveal tender whiteness—we finally see our photographs. The film traveled from the beach to our home to a photo processing mailer to an unknown Iowa town, where someone took our celluloid memories and made them tangible four-by-six glossy prints with a date stamped on the back.
This photograph of the boys nestled in their sandy castle could be my favorite picture of them. Ever. I look at it and smell the briny surf, I hear the crunch of the crackers we fed to the seagulls, I feel the touch of tender skin under my hands as I slathered them with Coppertone. Both of their blond heads bleached white. Bare bellies golden and sun-kissed. We were all so confident, so happy, so young.
The tide moves in, the tide moves out, the rhythm changing every day. I age and you age and my children age and my parents age. At the beach we are all lost in the tangle of youth and the horizon of the future. Some of it is imagined; much of it is real. At the beach I feel the ultimate contradiction of motherhood: bound by biology to these children I brought into this world and detached from them in knowing that they are not mine to keep.
At this threshold where the firmament meets the sea, we are ageless, floating in time.
Want to discuss this post with Laura? Catch her on Twitter!