Storms of Summer

godspellWhen I was in college, I made a trip home to help my parents celebrate their wedding anniversary.  To mark the occasion, the whole family had tickets to see “Godspell” at a local dinner theater.  As the ten of us gathered around a large table, a stranger who was seated nearby struck up a conversation with my father, and noted the unusually large size of our group.  My father explained that all eight of the kids were his children, and that he and my mother were celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversary. The man stood, raised his glass and roared, “Twenty-five years and eight kids!  God bless ya!”

It was one of those unforgettable evenings when everything was right in our little world.  My parents were beaming, the food was delicious and the performance was magnificent.  Even my youngest siblings behaved.

I thought about that evening this morning as I readied myself for the day.  I often listen to my IPod while I put on my makeup. The IPod was my mother’s and although it’s been months since she died, I haven’t gotten around to updating the music.  Today, I put in the earbuds and scrolled through music library, stopping at “Godspell.”  It had been years since I’ve listened to the songs from the musical, but hearing the melody was like running into a familiar old friend.

We plow the fields and scatter the good seed o’er the land

But it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand.

He sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain

The seed time and the harvest, and soft refreshing rain.

All Good gifts around us are sent from Heaven above

So thank the Lord, yes, thank the Lord for all His love…”

“Thank the Lord for all His love.”  I guess I hadn’t done that in a while.  So often my prayers are full of requests- wisdom, guidance, solutions to problems.  I forget sometimes that a large part of prayer is thanking.

It’s been a rough summer, fraught with numberous challenges- physical, financial and emotional.  As I’ve done for the past thirty-five years, I’ve prayed my way through the storms, asking God for solutions.  And as always, we’ve come through the other side intact, but I feel battered and bruised.  Tears lurk just behind my eyes, and although I stay busy and engaged, my heart yearns to run to a place where I can find solace.  And summer-my time for regeneration, for laughter in the sun, for dancing in the waves and celebrating life- has let me down.

I spent this week on vacation, and as I often do, spent time on the beach.  From my beach3faded canvas chair, I sat alone and  watched the waves swell and crash, turning from gray to green to frothy white.  The seascape never remains the same. The barren landscape, carved by the relentless sea, never remains the same.  I watched as an abandoned sandcastle crumble when hit by the pounding surf, and a lump caught in my throat.  My sandcastle.  Gone in an instant because of some unexpected wave.

“Why can’t life just stay still?  Why do moments of joy so quickly dissolve into faded photographs and hazy memories?”   My cries were drowned by the calling of a gull and the crashing of the sea, and I wondered if my questions would forever go unanswered.

But, as always, the answers came.  Life must change.  I know what would happen if the sea suddenly ceased to rise and fall.  Stagnant waters would become diseased. Plants and animals would become sick and die.  The movement of the seas, the changing of the landscape, and the tides of our lives must continue.

Slowly, I have come bsuitedto realize that summer did not let me down. Summer changed me.  Those sand castles I had built were not ever meant to stay.  And the storms of this summer?  Like the movement of the sea, they were to cleanse me, to move me, to keep me alive.

So today, a crisp September morning, I can say again that all gifts from God are good gifts, and the storms of summer are no exception.

“So thank the Lord, yes, thank the Lord…for all His love.”


My grandmother, Helen Dow

It is a beautiful beach day.  I rise early, pack a lunch and drive to the coast, where I settle in my beach chair, wiggle my toes in the warming sand, and sip iced coffee.  I watch as families populated the beach, carefully choosing the best spot for their blankets, unpacking kites and plastic pails, handing out drinks and snacks, just as I had done when  my children were little. 

Helen Dow

My mother, Connie Dow (Madison) sometime in the late 40s

Me (Garrie) with my firstborn, Abby-1983

As I sit in my faded canvas chair, I marvel at how the beach changes day-to-day, and yet  in many ways, it remains the same. The beach has been a favorite spot for my family for four generations, and I suspect, will be continue to be long after my bones have returned to the sea.  My grandmother sat in this very sand, clad in a heavy swim costume, her hair caught up in a crisp cotton cap to protect it from the salt air.  My mother, barely a teenager, mugged for a camera on this beach in her two piece swimsuit, and a generation later, wearing my first bikini, I rode waves with my father in the same briny sea.  And it was only yesterday- or was it years ago – that I dressed my children in fluorescent swimwear so I could see them as they ran to the rocks on Straws Point to search for star fish and periwinkles.  

Indeed, the houses that line the beach have changed over the years.  When my mother was young, only a few tiny cottages dotted the horizon, but by the time I was a teenager, the houses were bigger and closer together.  When we vacationed at the beach I would wade in the water and look at those houses in awe. They were summer homes- rambling white buildings that housed extended families who slammed in and out the screen doors and set up volley ball nets during low tide.  I dreamed of living in such a home- to be able to run from the foaming sea to a hot shower without shivering under a wet towel for the third of a mile walk to my grandparent’s cottage on Cable Road. 

Most of the summer homes are gone now, and in their places are large year-round structures of concrete and stone, with tinted picture windows and outdoor showers with hot water to keep their hardwood floors from getting sandy.   And instead of walking a third of a mile to my grandparents’ cottage, I drive forty miles to spend a day listening to the song that is sung to me only by the sea.

Older sister Martha-Jean, our dad, Charles Madison, and me

And yet, with all the changes, so much is the same.  Children are warned to not go in past their waists.  Fathers lift their toddlers high in the air and quickly dunk them in an exciting game of tag with the waves.  Mothers wipe sand and sunscreen from their children’s eyes, and soothe them with cookies and a sip of lemonade.  Seagulls cry to each other while swooping from the skies in search of forgotten sandwiches and chips. 

It is the same gray sand that burns the soles of my feet at noon, and cools when the sun begins to sink below the trees to the west.  It is the same barnacled rocks that scrape the toes and knees of those who hover too close to their edges.  It is the same cold Atlantic water where my grandmother waded. The same frothing breakers that crashed over my mother as she floated parallel to the shore.  The same freezing surf that lifts me and rushes me headlong to the shore until my lungs burn for air.  It is the same in and out, sometimes green, sometimes blue, crash and ebb.

Gabe. Okay, this is really at Venice Beach, but it’s still the seaside

A couple of hours after I arrive at the beach, I heard a familiar voice from behind me and turn to see my son, Gabe, slipping off his sneakers.  Minutes later, we are side by side in the water.  I watch his lanky frame disappear in the churning froth, only to reappear several yards away.  He rides waves like his mother.  Like his grandfather.  He loves the beach like his grandmother and great-grandmother. And although he is a different man on a different day, from a different generation, he is much the same as they were. I feel the warmth of the sun on my shoulders and I can’t help but think they are smiling down on him.

My mother and grandmother. The young woman in the back ground with her hair up and back to the camera is me. I was young. Once.

Beach Rules

It is the end of July and I’ve already spent several weekends languishing in a beach chair on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.  For my family, going to the beach is a summer staple, like slamming the screen door and sipping icy lemonade from a sweating glass. 

My earliest memories are of staying at grandparents’ little red cottage on Cable Road in Rye, New Hampshire.  I can still close my eyes and smell the scent of Sea and Ski and salt water that lingered inside its walls.  I remember how the sun reflected off the cut glass in the bay window and how my mother would douse us with Off! before allowing us to venture out to pick blueberries in the nearby woods.  Subsequent summers were spent in a little shanty behind Carberry’s house and then a larger house to accommodate our growing family of growing teenagers.  Each cottage holds its own memories of late night card games, smoothing Noxema on sunburns, and surviving the birth and death of summer romances.  I hold those memories close to my heart, occasionally taking them out for a brief dusting.  I smile at them and put them back where they dwell, not lingering too long, lest I stay locked in the past and forgetting the present. 

I loved the cottages, but it is the beach itself that beckons me.  Although the landscape and the people have changed, the sea still sparkles in the sun as it curls and froths against the glittering gray sands.  Every time I first glimpse the water, my heart leaps as if I have never before seen its splendor.  Every time I find an empty patch of sand and settle in my canvas chair, I feel muscles relax that I hadn’t realized were tense.  Every time I charge into a crashing wave that is so cold that it sucks away my breath, I emerge euphoric, revitalized, and feeling ten years younger.

No doubt, the beach is my happy place.  All are welcome to join me.  But there are rules, so just in case you decide to pack your cooler and join me for a lazy afternoon, I thought we should review.

 Rules for the Beach

  1. Everyone on the beach becomes seventeen again.
  2. Even though everyone is seventeen, participants’ bodies may not look like they did when they actually were seventeen.  Therefore, no participant may look at, mention or think about body size, body shape, or body type.  There is no noticing of varicose veins, cellulose, bulging, graying or hanging.
  3. Preferred activities  are (in no particular order) body surfing, eating, laughing, playing bocce and wistful day dreaming,
  4. Participants who do not wish to participate in swimming activities will not be teased, cajoled or embarrassed. *Please note, this rule does not apply to members of the original eight (circa 1951-1963) Madison beach clan.
  5. All participants must bring “Second Breakfast” and a thermos of coffee to share.
  6. There are no calories on the beach.
  7. All meals served on the beach must contain at least one of the following: something savory, something sweet, something crunchy and something refreshing.
  8. Blankets and swim suits will get sandy.  It is a fact of life. Get over it.
  9. All participants will leave happier and more relaxed than when they arrived.
  10. Only cares, worries and concerns may be left on the beach. The tide washes them away, so there is no use returning  for them.

Children of the Sea

I was born to live near the sea.  I’m not sure when I realized this, but I know it to be true.  The reality is that I grew up in Western Massachusetts and the closest thing to water near my parents’ house was the Chicopee Brook.  However, my grandparents owned a cottage a short walk from the ocean in New Hampshire and it is there that I learned where my heart belongs.

One of my earliest recollections is dancing through the waves of Cable Road Beach while singing “June is Bustin’ Out All Over.”  I was around six years old and remember splashing wildly, singing at the top of my lungs, until I noticed people on the beach staring at me.  I couldn’t help it- the day was bright and sunny, the waves were crashing and it just seemed to me that Oscar Hammerstein must have been thinking of a day such as this when he wrote the song.  It never occurred to me that Oklahoma is land locked, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway.  The spirit of the song captured my heart and was reflected in the sun-dappled brine.

There is something magical about the salt water. There is, of course, the scientific evidence that salt acts as a mild antiseptic, so it should come as no surprise that soaking in the sea heals poison ivy, stubbed toes and athlete’s foot.  However, I am a believer that it also remedies anxiety, strained muscles and broken hearts.  There is nothing as soothing as throwing myself into the curl of a crashing breaker and riding it to shore.  When I ride a wave, I clear my thoughts of everything except what is happening at that exact moment.  I open my eyes, white foam surrounding me, the gurgle and sputter of the froth filling my ears.   Bubbles massage my tense shoulders and I relax, allowing the strength of the wave to carry me where it will.  Again and again, I hurl myself into the surf, until shivering and exhausted, nose dripping and hair tangled, I must leave the water to warm awhile in the sun. 

My children share my love for the sea. Indeed, Gabe was only two weeks old the first time I dipped his toes into the Atlantic.  They, like generations before them, played in the water until their lips turned blue, rolled in the sand until they were warm, and then again threw themselves into the churning sea.  They learned that the ocean held countless treasures- green and blue sea glass, star fish, and smooth bits of wood bleached white by the sun and salt.  They saw that the edge of a waning ripple forms wedding veil lace, and when the wind blows, white caps play hide and seek with the sun.   They learned that by wading from Jenness Beach to Straw’s Point they could think more clearly and talk more honestly.    They came to know, like I do, that the sea would cool their anger, order their thoughts and inspire their spirits.

I dream of having a home at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.  I want to take grandchildren swimming- to tell them how my mother would float parallel to the shore and let the surf crash over her head. I want to teach them to ride waves, the way I taught my children, the way my father taught me.   I want them to know the strength of an undertow the day after a storm and the serenity of gentle ripples that lap the gray and silver silt.  I want to hear them squeal when an icy wave slaps their backs and wonder if it’s possible to swim to the Isles of Shoals.   I have visions of walking the beach after everyone goes home to fix dinner, when only the seagulls remain and the sand turns cool.   Such dreams will not become realities- homes by the sea are not within my reach- but I will be content to rise early in the morning and drive to my beloved coast.

I tell my children that when I die I want my ashes scattered in the Atlantic.  They don’t want to discuss such things and try to change the subject.  I know this is because they are young and do not yet want to imagine the beach without me splashing by their sides.  But to me, it would be going full circle. We are born from water and it makes sense that I should return to it.  They have time to come around- I have no intention of passing from this life to the next anytime soon.   But someday, the winter of my life will close in and I would like the cool green arms of the sea to be my final resting place. 

Soon September will bring cooler winds and paler skies.  But right now, sun is shining and the waters are warm.  There are still days to float in the brine and watch for rolls of churning liquid thunder to carry me once again to the shore.   Surf’s up- let’s go for a swim!

The Beach

I love winter.  I love the starkness of barren trees against alabaster fields.  I love the way snow sparkles like diamonds when it blows against the street lights.  I love the way ice crystals trace fairy paths across my car’s windshield.  Frigid temperatures, moaning winds and climbing piles of snow thrill me.  Every snowfall of the season delights me. 


But this year was different.  Winter was hard.  Coworkers were strained and impatient.  Family members became ill.  I was called to serve on a jury for a murder trial.  The never ending snow, usually a white comforter to soften the world, became an ashen reminder of how cold and harsh life can be.


This morning as we drove to work, my son remarked, “I can’t wait for the beach!” 

Ah… the beach.  Just the sound of it warms my bones and relaxes my shoulders.  As much as I love winter, I love summer even more, because of the beach. 


For me, the beach is a mile-long expanse of grey sand on the rocky coast of New Hampshire.  It is totally unadulterated.  No boardwalk.  No ice cream stands.  No souvenir shops or Tiki huts. Just sand and water.


The beach has always been a gathering place for my family.  When I was a kid, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and all flocked to the beach when the summer sun was high.  The “old people” (parents and grandparents) sat in the fine, cool sand closest to the water, umbrellas raised and small children nearby.  Teenagers opted for the hot, coarse sand closest to the rocks.  We slathered ourselves with baby oil, turned up the transistor radio and played endless games of poker.  


It was at the beach that I rode waves with my father the day after a hurricane.  Giant swells tossed me upside down, skinning my face and knees on the sand.  Foolishly determined to keep up with him, I swam beside him, diving when he did, swimming when he did.  It was exhilarating and terrifying.  I was, quite literally, in over my head.  I thought I might die.  I loved it.


It was at the beach that I fell in love for the first time.  Like summer, the romance faded much too quickly.  Like summer, it carved a spot in my heart that even still remains warm and golden.


It was at the beach that my siblings and I gathered days after my father died.  Memories of him riding the surf were soothing balm to our broken hearts.


When I had children, I took them to the beach when their first summer arrived.  They too grew up in the cool sand by the water, and graduated to their own spots in the hot sand by the rocks.  They learned to ride the waves like my father, although he was not there to teach them.  They came to know their cousins, aunts and uncles at the beach.


At the beach, all barriers are down, and everyone is seventeen again.  Walls between youth and adult are razed by the waves.  We become the same, forged by the excitement of riding the surf until the bubbles carry us to where our tummies graze the sand.  We think more clearly. We talk more openly.  We listen with open ears and open hearts.  The rolling repetition of the surf calms our souls.


So, now that the last of the snow has melted, and the warm breezes and afternoon sun promises that summer is nearby, it is time for the beach once again.  It is time for my mind to calm, my heart to heal, and to play in the sun and the surf again.  All are welcome to join me.  I’ll be in the blue beach chair in the cool sand.

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