We all have places, physical spaces, that are not just a part of our geographical story, but are landmarks of emotional territory, too. I can think of a few, just off the top of my head: the house of my childhood, along with the creek and woods behind it. That neighborhood grew smaller as I grew bigger, and much of my growing up is in and around there. A time-lapse shot of my bedroom, the same room for nearly 20 years, would tell quite a story my stretching up tall. The same could be said for the bedrooms of my growing-up girlfriends. The back hallways and staircases of the church were a labyrinth of safe independence in my adolescent years, and I knew all the best hiding places for a good game of Sardines. This time of year, though, it is easy for me to sink into carefree recollections of summer days at the beach. Those long summer days spent in flipflops and bathing suits were a natural (and relatively safe) place to test the waters of independence.
Growing up, we had the privilege of sharing a beach house with my dad’s side of the family. The house was small, certainly by today’s standards, but growing up I never noticed. The things that mattered were the cousins that were there, and the fact that the front deck cantilevered out over the sand dune, creating a perfect nook underneath to play in. I’m sure each cousin has different stories of this same house, and I know that our memories will vary wildly, but I can be certain that each of us was shaped somehow by our time here.
For me, it was a place of slowly taking those first dodgy steps away from the safety of the nest. It was the place that we were first allowed to ride our bikes, anywhere, without grown ups. Sitting on the banana seat of one of those salt-air-rusted beach bikes, the squeak of chains crying out for oil, I biked with my sister, always, along the same route to get to the “Nor’easter,” a typical tchotchke beach store where we counted out our quarters and came away with treasures. One day, after riding all the way to the main drag in search of hermit crabs or hemp braided bracelets, or maybe just some gum, my sister’s friend cut her barefoot on the sidewalk in front of the store. It was bleeding, and messy, and dramatic. Suddenly, this familiar trip deviated off course, and we were off script. I had to put a toe into the waters of independence. What did we do know? I can’t remember exactly how this played out, but I can say now, thinking back on it, that there was a rush of adrenaline forcing me into action, and that I was being trusted, somehow, with something more than I had been before. But what was more was that there was now a blood stain on the sidewalk, and you can bet every time we biked past that store, we gloried in the blood and bravery of our preteen selves. Not only were were marked by our experience, but I was learning to that we, too, could leave marks.
There was the time when, in celebration of my 14th birthday, my mom rented a fifteen passenger van to take my best girls for an overnight at the beach house. My family had loose rules about birthdays, and more often than not they were celebrated when it was convenient and not in necessarily real-time. (Who wants come to an outdoor swimming party in March, after all?) So it was with this beach trip. It was May 1994, and at the end of our 8th grade year, we were spinning our way out of middle school and almost into high school with such drama (Is there any other way?). Every thing was heavy with this weight, and we belted out Peter, Paul and Mary’s version of “Leaving on a Jet Plane” with tears wetting our cheeks, because Why Not?
My mom is sort of a hero in these memories, because while she was there and available and always said “yes” to things like this, when I close my eyes to picture these stories, I have no visual of her there. No hovering mother, doting on us with snacks, trying to eavesdrop on our conversations to find out what boy we all liked (though if I had to guess, she didn’t need t0). She somehow had her finger on the pulse without being intrusive. So when at 1:00am rolls around, we’re on our own. We’re on our own when it becomes clear that something is not quite right with one of my friends. We’ve been doing girly sleepover things, playing with each other’s hair, and taking quizzes in magazines, but the night turns darker, a step away from familiar shores. Standing over a day old newspaper, this friend sobbed dramatically saying “Jackie O is dead!” And it was only because she was tripping on some sort of acid that this was deemed especially note worthy. This was no longer a familiar sleepover of those middle school years. I remember little else from this birthday, but this scene of my friend in that bedroom of the beach house, the rest of my girlfriends hovered around her waiting to see how this would all play out, is firmly planted in the “growing up” section of my brain, with beach house as backdrop.
I remember a Memorial Day, walking the blocks after dark, with older cousins, while we all try on versions of cool. We’ll just check out this party over here, and there are no parents chasing after us in this house so full of people. Did anyway even know we were gone? I learn to recognize my edges, find my voice, quiet at first. Later, tiptoeing up the steps back home, she asks me to check her breath, wondering about the beer she still tastes on her tongue.
The beach house is where we went after prom, again all of us piling into a van, this time boyfriends attached. There were sleeping bags, and sleeping bodies in every nook and cranny of the house. It was cold, and rainy, but we ran on the sand, surfed in the waves, and drank WaWa cappuccino. One friend got a speeding ticket; another was in trouble for being out without permission. Years later, though not as many as one might expect, my sister and I spent an overnight at the beach right before I married that prom date, and we talked through this next giant step of life. And for more than a few years after, Mark and I spent New Year’s at the beach, quietly toasting midnight with close friends. There was the New Year’s of my first champagne. There was the year that Mark’s dad died, and the year that Mark was sick and slept through it all.
And as we all grew up, grew big and grew families, this beach house went from quaint to impossibly small for all the people who loved it. It was full of stories, not just mine but everyone else’s, too and it couldn’t hold them anymore. It was bursting at the seams. The house was sold. Each family went it’s own way. It was sad then, for lots of reasons. My parents were splitting up; my sense of family was unmoored. This felt like one too many losses being carried off by the sea. Life was complicated and hard in that time, and raw with a different kind of independence – one more scary and less safe than those care-free beach-bike years.
That beach house, with it’s sharp dune grass and pebbled drive, had wide spanning views of the ocean. You could climb to the top deck, taste the salt air on your lips, and tangle up your hair, and watch the gulls fly above the horizon that, like the breath of childhood, stretched out forever.