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.
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