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!

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