Beaching it on a Tuesday in June. Intent on having an “Artists Date”, I drove to Nantasket Beach and snagged one of the last free spots on Nantasket Avenue near “the last bathhouse” on the beach. I used to sit in this area with my parents during my childhood and my teens. It used to be somewhat less crowded than the first section and had more sand on which to stretch out. Groups of children attend surf camp here now, but there was still plenty of space for others to spread their towels out and relax.
I decided to take a walk before settling in on the beach. Across the street in a large empty lot, workers were setting up a Rockwell Amusements carnival. I watched them for a bit as they pulled out the seats for a Ferris wheel, then I walked back up Nantasket Avenue along the boardwalk.
The winter storms took a toll on the beach. I immediately noticed the many rocks that covered the top section of the beach. Repairs were still being made to the beach. Several sections of the seawall and several stairs were under repair; walkers had to circle around a cement mixer and walk in the street. Bulldozers and excavators clawed at the beach, lifted and dropped large boulders, carried cement, and scooped and dumped out watery sand.
Fencing diverted walkers from the boardwalk and through to the bathhouse. I made a stop there. The glass blocks inside and outside of the bathhouse offered distorted views of everyday things—the road, cars, a shower, the water. I took a few photos there and walked a little further before turning and walking back to the end of the beach.
By the time I returned, the Ferris wheel had been assembled. I grabbed my chair and bag from the car and set up away from the surfers.
The beach was a focal point of my summers when I grew up. It seems like both or one of my parents and I went to the beach at least once, if not twice a week from Memorial Day through Labor Day. My father loved to swim; my mother loved to sunbathe. The ocean and beach call to me in a way that no other environment can. It is loaded with memory.
I came to hang out in a place I once loved. I came to take a couple of snaps, play around with videos, breathe in the ocean air, feel the sand beneath my feet, and to feel the chilly waves wash over my feet and ankles. I spent time standing in the water, took a few videos and photos with my phone, and then I walked back to my chair. It was not much of a day for a swim, so I sat and allowed myself to remember, and I wrote.
This place was a special place in my childhood. It seemed like a “step up” from Wollaston Beach, our usual destination when I was very young. At Nantasket, there were no scores of jellyfish, the seaweed was far less pervasive, the waves were bigger, the water was colder, the sand was more expansive (especially at low tide), and there were more treasures to find, like giant quahog shells.
My parents and I would come down to Nantasket early in the morning—before 9:00 am to try to find a spot along the road. Sometimes we’d pay a few dollars to park in one of the lots. (The Department of Conservation and Recreation currently charges $15 for in-state residents.)
We would unpack the car, and choose a location near the bathhouse, but a bit away from the crowds. Dad would set up the umbrella, and he worked it like an art form; he drove and twisted the pole deeply into a patch of packed sand, hammered it down with a rock, placed rocks around it for more support, and unfurled it. He would always furl it when the wind picked up; none of his umbrellas were ever propelled down the beach by the wind. Mom and I would set the chairs and blankets up.
I remember mom’s beach basket—a woven bamboo affair with two leather handles. It held towels, shirts, tanning lotion, sunscreen, mom’s skin bronzers, and just about anything else you could imagine.
Beach blankets out! The large plaid blanket, or a couple of striped ones like the pair that were red, yellow, white, and orange, were laid out on the sand. The webbed chairs and lounges that my father patched and re-webbed on our back porch on a regular basis (yellow and white web for a few years, green and white the next) were positioned to follow the sun. The web lounge chairs were eventually replaced by the bright yellow, vinyl, lounges that became so hot and sticky you couldn’t lay on them without a towel.
I was always anxious to get to the water. My mother was always anxious to make sure I had the proper amount of Sea & Ski® tanning lotion or sunscreen on. I was a Sea & Ski, Coppertone baby. (Failure to utilize lotion effectively often resulted in being drenched in a subsequent haze of Solarcaine® spray on our back porch.) As soon as I lathered up, I would head off to the water. When I was younger, I pulled my parents with me. As I grew older, I bolted off on my own.
My mother wrapped her beehive hairdo in a dark black scarf. She often wore large, dark sunglasses. I remember some of her bathing suits: polka dot patterns, colorful floral prints, or dark navy and black suits. And dad wore his long baggy bathing suits, his stub legs failing to fill out much of the bottoms, his slightly larger stomach over-running the top.
Always the direction from my mother when I was small—note where our umbrella is and what fixed point is behind it, whether it be the parking lot, a green house, or a telephone pole, so if I got a little turned around coming out of the water, or was separated from them, I could more easily find my way back. My father always had me take note of the water currents, and how far I could drift in a short time.
As I sit and reminisce, I can see my father entering the water. He blesses himself with seawater before he walks quickly into the frigid water and dives under. The blessing is a habit I copied and continue as well. He carves a straight line out, doing the crawl, and surfaces, shaking his head. Then he does the crawl parallel to the beach for a dozen yards or so, and returns. He plays and swims with me before we walk or ride a wave back to where my mother waits in the shallows. He splashes her lightly and she laughs. I join in too. Sometimes my mother wades out a little further, and she holds my hands and twirls me while I float in the water.
After a few trips to the water and some sun time, we would unpack our lunch: sandwiches and fruit from the top of the red plaid Scotch cooler, or in later years from a larger plastic cooler. Cold Kool-Aid®, lemonade, or iced tea was poured from a plastic jug into cups pulled from my mother’s woven beach basket. There were also small quantities of corn chips, potato chips, potato sticks, and just about every snack imaginable. After waiting the obligatory hour—purgatory!—water play resumed.
After I moved on to college and work and was no longer a frequent beach companion, my parents began to sit near the main bathhouse, near the Bernie King Pavilion, where they could hear music from their era and watch (and sometimes participate) in the dancing. They met up with old friends there and made new ones. When I did join them, we enjoyed the music, the dancers, the water, and long walks along the beach.
As I write, a gull passes overhead, glides on an air current, delicately drops to the sand and stands watch in front of a blanket of children. There will be food dropped nearby. It knows.
I came down to the beach with them less and less, making the choice to hangout with my friends or work. My mother and I came here so infrequently after my father died, almost twenty years ago. Even before his death, I had my own thoughts and feelings about the beach, which I kept to myself. I wonder how it was for my mother. I feel an immense sadness here. I never really reclaimed this place. Did she ever fully reclaim this place? She continued to come down with me or with a friend. But for me, it was never the same, after him. The beach was likely not the same for her, without my father, and often without me, or with an impatient, edgier me.
I can’t remember the last beach day for the three of us. But they probably walked while I sat in my sand chair reading a book. And, once I was sufficiently bored, I would walk to find them and walk back to our chairs together, or linger with them by the water. My father and I might walk towards the other end of the beach together and talk, or just soak in our surroundings silently while my mother sunbathed. We would finish with a dip in the ocean. She may have looked out for us, with her hand over her sunglasses, and joined us near the water’s edge to wet her arms in the shallow water while dad and I swam. And I’d come out of the water, wet hair and skin glistening in the sun, and splash her a bit. And she’d recoil—maybe run away a bit—and laugh.
Now, a young girl in a lime green beach shirt frantically chases a beach ball down the beach for yards and yards. The pink, white, and yellow ball barrels across the sand until its wild romp comes to an abrupt stop when a mother, with children of her own, catches it and returns it to the girl.
I don’t remember the last beach day here with my mother, because you never expect that day will be the very last one. But one of the last beach days, I’m sure, we sat in this place, somewhere to the right and down from “the last bathhouse”. We set up our chairs to follow the sun, we pulled towels from her white canvas bag and from my blue canvas sea bag. We lathered up with sunscreen and walked to the water. I swam while she stood in the shallows watching me. We talked along the oceans edge and walked down the beach towards the left, down past the houses in the wet sand and back again in the shallow water. We pulled our lunch from my cooler and poured iced tea from my father’s blue plastic jug. I spent time in the water alone and with her, and then we took one last look at the beach as we shook our towels out and packed up. Perhaps we stopped for an ice cream on the ride out, as we usually did.
Today there is a breeze, and now it picks up a bit, stirring some sand with it. My mother would have proclaimed this day “not a beach day” and we would be packing our things back into the car when she couldn’t stand the wind, or worse—when the wind whipped the sand at us. It became harder to write, with the pages of my journal whipping about. Tiny umbrellas and tents began to fail. It would not be long before one of the umbrellas catapulted across the sand ready to spear anyone not paying attention. I had no lunch and it was getting on noon. Time to go.
I packed my things and took a last look at the ocean. There is something about the vastness of the ocean, the horizon line. The crowd, for the most part, stops at the waves, with a few hardier souls bobbing in the water a few yards out. But after that, it is just the waves, a small boat or two, the endless blue liquid, and that blue-gray horizon.
LOST PHOTO OP
I missed an interesting photo op. I watched as an excavator rumbled across the beach and, for an instant, perfectly framed two women seated on a blanket further down the beach within the inverted “v” of its cab, arm, and bucket. I saw the “shot” about to line up, but failed to reach for my phone until the moment was nearly over. Too late to take the photo, but I kept it in mind all day, and drew a very rough illustration of it when I returned home.
Is there a place you can go that is loaded with memories for you? Go there. It may help you reconnect with your past and things you were most closely aligned to at a younger age.
Allow the memories, good or bad, to come back.
What do you remember? How do you feel about the space, about that people that may have inhabited it?
What do you see, smell, hear, touch, taste?
Write your thoughts, memories, feelings, and observations in a journal. You can start with “I remember” or “When I was x years old”, or “When I was a child”.
Flesh out these memories on paper after your trip. You can write about your experiences, illustrate them, or allow them to influence a current or future project.
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