I grew upon on an island. A small island, and one connected to the mainland by a short ½ mile causeway, but an island nonetheless. Each summer after the students had departed the campus of the school where my father served as superintendent, the island felt like it was mine and mine alone. I would wake to the smell of salt in the air and was able to tell without looking if it was the dank smell of low tide which left the mud flats exposed and made it almost possible to walk to the houses on Falmouth Foreside, or if it was the fresher salt air of the tide coming in, claiming the beaches and leaving only the higher rocks to perch on. While the island also offered dark and cool forests to explore, they paled in comparison to the freedom offered by the beaches. It was on this island I learned how to avoid rocks slippery with seaweed, how to return landlocked periwinkles to friendlier tidal pools, and how much it really hurts when you scrape yourself on barnacles. My seasons were defined by the tides, the angry waves of winter nor’easters that crashed over our 1970s station wagon on the ride home, the brisk choppy waters that carried the sailboats to Monhegan each spring, the calm stillness of a summer heat wave, and the whitecaps of a cool October day.
When I first moved to New Hampshire I was miserable without my ocean, and aghast at the idea of driving nearly an hour to the nearest beach. The smell of the Merrimack River was … interesting…but it wasn’t the smell of marshes, sand, and Casco Bay. And although I have since come to love the beaches of New Hampshire’s tiny stretch of shoreline, and the clear waters of our many lakes, I never stopped feeling like I was cheating on Maine.
Then, several years ago Kelly and I took a day trip to Ogunquit. And childhood memories of matinees at the Playhouse, lobster rolls at Barnacle Billy’s, watching the boats in Perkins Cove with my brother, and the wide expanse of Ogunquit beach came rushing back to me as if I’d opened a long-forgotten attic trunk full of family photos. Suddenly I was home again. The fact that Ogunquit is a very gay-friendly town made the homecoming all the more sweet, and my ‘new’ life and my childhood were finally linked. Since then, we have made dozens and dozens of trips to our favorite beach. Arriving early to score prime parking at the lot, alternating our set ups from the river–side to float the current to the mouth of the sea, to the dunes side, where the body surfing really is the best. And each time my feet hit the sand and my sandals come off I know I am home again. Occasionally we are able to splurge for an overnight stay at the height of summer and I always rise early, no matter how late we were out the night before, to walk on the beach in the earliest morning hours. There’s something special about that time of day. Retired couples strolling hand in hand, runners with sports bras and spandex and slick-backed ponytails (truth be told I kinda hate them but that’s another story), beachcombers looking for sea glass, and the occasional bleary-eyed dad holding a toddler in pajamas in one hand and coffee in the other. I love the quietness of the beach at this hour, the way the ocean stretches in front of me with endless possibilities and the way the world seems so still, as if pausing in a breathless prelude to the day’s chaos of families surfing inner tubes down the river, haughty and indigent gay boys in identical tank tops and trunks traveling in packs down to the end of the dunes, lesbians in cargo shorts playing volleyball, the din of French, Spanish, Farsi, German and countless other languages, bags of chips, sandwiches, surreptitiously hidden beer cans, sunscreen, trolleys running in endless loops and the line of people waiting at the outdoor foot shower. A scene that will be repeated daily until Labor Day with different players.
It is the comforting cycle of life on the beach that draws me back to it no matter the season. We spent part of New Year’s day walking the hard frozen sand, the dunes covered in a snow so fine one could mistake it for the white sand of summer were it not for the sub zero temperatures. We marveled at the boulders and driftwood thrown as far as the beach parking lot by recent storms and watched a crew of men hard at work replacing windows in a beachfront hotel. In Spring, impatient with a winter that was hard in every way, we made pilgrimages to the Adirondack chairs at the top of the beach… as if our presence could will the temperatures to rise and the sleet to stop falling. And finally a July heat wave and the alignment of busy calendars brings the moment I wait for all year: the first dive under the first wave, the impact of the break against my legs, chest and back, the sensation of being carried to shore, a part of my ocean for a few perfect seconds. Even when the weather is challenging, the beach is comforting. The rhythms of the tides are familiar, predictable and wild at the same time. The changeable nature of the waves, the way they attack and retreat from the shoreline, and how, after nearly 5 decades of watching the tides, I still exclaim in amazement to Kelly “look! That was underwater just an hour ago!” I know as sure as I know my own name I will make my home by the ocean once again, and, when I am gone that my ashes will return there. Tidal rhythms have always defined me and, (if it didn’t sound helplessly new-agey and self-indulgent), I would say that they have healed me as well For weariness, grief, anger, fear, frustration, and loneliness are no match for the crash of waves, the damp imprint of my foot in the sand, the feel of mist in the air, and a horizon that yields nothing but sea.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that the first several months of 2013 were as one of my friends said so eloquently, “a major suckfest.” You name it I weathered it. And in the process I learned a lot. I learned that begging ‘the Universe” for a break will get you about as far as playing the megabucks. I learned that when crisis hits and good people just try to do their best with a lousy situation that others will have no problem laying blame, walking away, and speaking falsehoods. I learned to never ever underestimate the damage that can occur when people let their egos get in the way. I learned that if you want help with something physically and emotionally hard you have to ask… and ask… and ask again… and again… and again, until you are hoarse from the effort. And that even after all that asking, there will be people who say no, or even worse, ignore you. People you thought you knew, people you thought you could count on. People you’ve supported, listened to and been there for. I learned that the silence that greets a call for help can be deafening. And l learned that heroes and helpers will come from unexpected sources, in unexpected ways and that as long as you live there will never be enough ways to repay their acts of kindness, good humor, thoughtfulness, generosity, and outright sweat equity.
I learned that teenagers will often show themselves to be more understanding, forgiving, and compassionate than people in their 40s, 50s and 60s. I learned that their capacity to bounce back, to try again, and to work hard is vastly underestimated by adults who are quick to malign them as self-centered. I learned who will listen to you cry on the phone and who will let it go to voice mail. I learned that “hang in there” is quite possibly the single most useless phrase in the English language. I learned that every once in a while it is ok to yell back, to put a bully in their place, and to be honest about how it feels when someone lets you down. I learned that “grin and bear it” is for the birds.
I learned that stopping the pity train and putting your own problems in perspective is something that should be done as a regular exercise. I learned for the millionth time that cancer doesn’t discriminate, that it will take a loving husband and father from his family, that it will continue to torment a young woman who has fought it far too many times, and that it will rear its head for the third time in a close group of friends. And I learned for the millionth time that in all these situations the power of friends to come together for support, for kindness for laughter and for care is truly remarkable and humbling. I learned that a group of women as far flung as all the corners of the world can create a virtual community of love and care when one of its members is grieving. I learned how to be a better friend, when to curb my sharp wit, when to simply listen, and when to give the sarcasm and snark a break. I learned there is tremendous grace in saying simply “I’m sorry I let you down.” And even greater grace in forgiving those who have let you down.
This year has hurt, but it has also held pockets of unexpected laughter and comfort. I has brought the giddy excitement that comes with making new friends, and reinforced the joy of gathering with people who have known you for decades. And so finally, I learned that when you’re in the middle of what seems an endless winter, that suddenly one day you will wake up to find Spring arrived overnight. Not just in the comforting cycle of nature that returns the green leaves to the trees in back of our house, and brings back my beloved days on the beach and evenings on the deck. But in the realization that time does indeed heal many things and that the hurts and hurdles of a long hard frozen winter make the softer air of spring even sweeter. Happy Spring to us all, for we have truly earned it.
It’s Mother’s Day…and I had a mother. A mother I shared with the hundreds of kids she taught over the years. Kids who didn’t know that she had become an expert on adverb use because it was her weakest grammar subject when she was a student and she was overcompensating. Kids who grew accustomed to her telling them to “look it up” when they asked about a word’s meaning. Kids who learned that to “forget” their homework meant an automatic ‘F’ on the assignment. And kids who came to her when their hearts were broken, when they were in trouble, when they had good news to share, and when they were scared – because their own mothers were far away. I used to resent sharing her with ‘her kids.’ “She’s MINE!” I’d think selfishly as I heard her tell my dad one night about a troubled young student who had sought her out after school one day. “I think he just needed a mom,” she had said. My own teenage self-centeredness prevented me from seeing the gift she was to this boy, as I sulked about him receiving attention that should have gone to me. I’m sheepish at the way I felt and acted then. Today, my FaceBook friends list is full of my mom’s former students, kids I grew up with on a island that seems almost magical with memories. And I realize now what a gift it was to have had a mother who I share with so many. Their memories of her join with mine to make sure she is never forgotten, and for that I will always be grateful. My mom is gone now. This is my sixth Mother’s Day without her. There are days it amazes me how much a grown woman of 47 can still need a mom (Something I rarely admit to anyone). But she is gone. And with her went the soft lap that welcomed my tears; the sharp look and silent treatment that accompanied every wrong move I ever made; the tremulous voice singing to the Blessed Mother each Sunday; the tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches that greeted on half-days from school; the iron will and unshakeable faith that buried a husband… and a daughter; the prematurely gray hair I styled into endless bouffants when she would hand me her brush and tell me I could “play beauty parlor;” the love of marshmallow Peeps and Final Four basketball; the ritual of her grandchildren sending her their report cards for approval; the scores of letters she wrote daily; and the soft soft hand , prominent with blue veins and age spots, stroking my hair and telling me it was all going to be ok – whether I was four or forty. I marvel at women who still have their mothers. I make jokes about it and brush it off. But there is an empty mom-sized hole in a corner of my heart that will never be filled again. And it presses on my chest and reminds me of what is gone.
It’s Mother’s Day…and I had a sister who was a mother. When she was expecting her first son I had just turned twenty-one and was looking forward to being at the age where my sister and I could hit the town together. She was always so glamorous to me with her violet eyes and dramatic makeup and seemed to hold the key to some magical grown-up life that was out there waiting for me and I couldn’t wait. But now in her place was this earth mother who played Whitney Houston’s ‘I believe the children are the future” on endless repeat and waxed rhapsodically about child development. Even my mother was heard to mutter wryly “apparently your sister is the first woman in all of history to give birth.” Being a mom, especially a mom of three boys, suited her perfectly. She threw herself into the world of birthday parties and cub scout meetings, once calling me in tears when she had realized she was the only cub scout mom with a job, which left her on the edges looking in at the world of stay at home moms who scheduled pack meetings for 2 in the afternoon and smirked when she asked if they could be held “after work.” My sister always wanted… to be that manicured mom who had all the time in the world, to be that creative mom with the goodie bags at class parties, to be the mom with the rolling lawns and beautifully decorated house. She never quite made it. But what she sometimes couldn’t see was that she was more than that, better than that. She was the mom with the chaos of running boys and barking dogs and a living room littered with transformers and teenage mutant ninja turtles and comic books. She was the mom who wasn’t above getting dirty playing the back yard, or staying up late to help with a class project. Oh how she loved “her handsome men,” how her face lit up when she described how smart they were. We had one brief weekend together as moms when we gathered in Maine for our mom’s 75th birthday. My daughter was two her youngest son was four. For two days we compared sippy cups and cartoons, toddler tantrums and children’s books. For two days we sat drinking wine while our children argued over who got grandma’s lap. For two days we were sisters and moms. It was the last time I saw her. Today I live through her boys on their Facebook pages, trying not to intrude or gush when I see news of new jobs, girlfriends, driver’s licenses, and triumphs. But occasionally I can’t help myself. I have to interject with a story, a word of praise or encouragement, and more than one “hey be careful!” admonishment. And if I ever miss her too much, I see her daily in my daughter – her rolling eyes, her flashes of temper, her innate ability with makeup are all so very much Marie. I had a complicated relationship with my sister but more than anything I wish we had had more time to be moms . . . together.
It’s Mother’s Day. . . and I am a mother. After fourteen years this fact still astonishes me. After years of caring for nephews I thought I’d be a natural at the whole mom thing. I was wrong. I didn’t understand the screaming angry baby I was handed. I floundered at my attempts to be a mom like all the other moms of infants and toddlers I saw. Calm, serene, joyous in the company of their children. For years I struggled to figure it out get it right. For years I failed at anything resembling cooking. (To this day I cannot remember for the life of me how or what I fed Liza for my five years of single mother hood before I married Kelly. I’m guessing it involved a lot of chicken nuggets). I had to call friends for help with class projects that involved crafts or sewing. I cried. A lot. Often each morning and each night wondering how I could get this so terribly wrong. Then something happened. Liza grew up. And as my friends were bemoaning the loss of babyhood and toddlerhood I realized I had been waiting all along for this teenager to arrive. I suddenly got it. And while my heart still aches at the loss of sister and mom, there is a newer fuller feeling that connects me to this five-foot, ten-inch young woman with the sharp wit, and the gorgeous smile. The young woman who can now match me Shakespeare quote for Shakespeare quote, show tune for show tune, and joke for joke. The young woman whose bright pink room smells of Bath and Bodyworks body mists and Suave hairspray. The young woman who reminds me that I need to buy clothes in colors other than black, and who chews her lip while she reads the same way I do. . . and the same way my sister did. Where the days used to seem endless now they fly by fully of texts and calls that all begin the same way, “mom, I have a question…” High school looms and beyond it a future so bright it dazzles me and makes me ache at the same time. My motherhood journey carries the scars of all the missteps I took and battles I fought along the way. But today I finally feel like the mother I was meant to be. In Liza I see three mothers. I see my sister’s drive and ambition, my mother’s compassion and friendliness, my open heart and sarcastic wit. I see the body type, the nearsightedness, and the thick wavy hair we all shared. I see her wit and her worries, her strengths and her weaknesses. I see my mom. I see my sister. I see myself.
Happy Mother’s Day