The waves crescendo, deafens me 'til the end
And I don't know it but it's really my friend
And if I can hold on to this little piece of sand
I won't have to worry about someone holding my hand
On this journey to find out who I am.
A poem, a stanza really, from a song I wrote when I was fifteen. In my mind's eye I can see the blue ink, words written in cursive on blue-lined wide-ruled sheets. Not as sheer as vellum but not as thick as a crisp bond, paper I had yet to touch and feel. The subject matter, a theme, the ocean. Rolling waves, water sea green with a beach glass clarity, whitecaps frosty and dancing on the shoreline. The sea, the ocean, has been the one constant in my life representing all that I can be and all that I am not.
Save for 3 months in the landlocked hills of Utah, I've always lived and worked with the sea in a commutable and attainable distance. My first memories are of sandcastles and jelly fish, of wearing a pink bikini, squealing with delight as chubby toes inch toward the water's edge. I remember a sailor hat with brightly colored flowers. Eating baloney sandwiches and homemade chocolate chip cookies, combing the sand for seashells. Learning to live through laughter, giggles and love. Lots of love.
Many of my childhood memories are blurry but I know they involve the sea. I can smell the saltiness in the air, co-mingled with the grittiness of sand in my hair and on my skin. The beach was my best friend back then and was the destination of choice among family and friends. We travelled all over Brooklyn and Queens to find the perfect spot, from Brighton to Manhattan Beach, to the private shore accessible to the students at Kingsborough Community College. Mom went back to school once I started and while she and a friend were at class, my friend and I would stay at the beach. Summer weekdays were special times, with many a mother daughter outing to Coney Island.
We were limited to beaches closer to home and local to the neighborhood, accessible by public transportation. Mom, in typical city fashion didn't drive (though I found out much later that she gave it up after my brother and I were born). In my mind's eye I can still see us riding the N train with its slate gray seats, graffiti on the inside and out, the windows keyed. My head is resting on mom's lap, her fingers in my hair, the train is bumbling along, she is reading--calling me her sweet petunia. I can almost hear the echoing whisper of her voice in my ear.
Ours was a semi-traditional family where Dad worked and Mom took care of the household until we were of age, and then she went to work in the public school system. My brother and I are 8 years apart, his presence during those summer days in my memory are blurry. I don't know where he was, but its possible that he was at hockey camp or working a summer job. It's a lost moment in time.
Weekend jaunts were entirely a family affair, starting off early in the morning on a Saturday with us piling into the puke green Datsun with its black vinyl interior. My brother would stretch out in the backseat, while I sat upfront nestled between my parents--these were the days before bucket seats and baby carriers, where the seat belt was the only safety precaution. We would pack for the day: blankets, umbrella, chairs, a cooler packed with sandwiches and snacks, a change of clothes. Some weekends we would drive to Riis, park at Gateway and walk over to the private beaches of Neponsit; other times we would visit Aunt Gail and Uncle Dermot and their Irish brood of six: Maureen, Kristin, Kathy, Scott, Michael and Brian. They lived in Rockaway Beach, in a huge house with room enough for boarders. All the kids were closer to my brother in age; I reigned for years as the baby, the youngest of the cousins.
Almost every flash of what I can remember as a child is tied to the ocean--summer reunions on the Jersey Shore, the last weeks of the summer spent out East in Montauk--much needed family time before the start of school. I remember one early September day, I think it may have been Labor Day, my parents and I were driven from the beach by the most ferocious of summer thunderstorms. I think it might have actually been a hurricane. The gale forces of the wind were so strong it pulled the beach chairs from our grasp and spiraled them into the air before crashing against the concrete. Dented and broken like abstract art sculptures. When I was 11 or 12, the women in our family made a pilgrimage to Siracusa, where our family originated. Mom and I continued our ritual of beach time amid the hustle and bustle of another city, another country, making our way to the Lido of Arenella where the sea sparkled like sapphires, and you could just make out the Tunisian coastline in the distance. The locals called us the crazy Americans, because while the rest of the province took an afternoon siesta we drank Orangina and swam in the crystalline water, eating fresh coconut bought from the dark-skinned African men and women selling their wares on the beach.