“The sea is emotion incarnate. It loves, hates, and weeps. It defies all attempts to capture it with words and rejects all shackles. No matter what you say about it, there is always that which you can’t.” – Christopher Paolini
I just took a walk on the beach – a pretty uncommon occurrence for me in February. Fortunately, I have been swept away to Florida for work for the weekend and had the luxury of spending an hour to take a leisurely walk along the ocean, feeling the sand nestling between my toes and listening to the serene sounds of the smashing waves along the sea shelled shore. I often forget the effects the beach has on me. In fact, while I have known I was coming down here for a few months, I gave no thought to packing a bathing suit or even setting aside time to relax on the beach. I looked for excuses to not do anything relaxing and focus the time away on the work that I am here for and any other work I could sneak in with 2 uninterrupted days to myself. It’s odd when I think about it now – why wouldn’t I have focused on the beach, the pool, the spa or some other indulgences for myself? I am staying at the Ritz Carlton – there is an unending array of options for me to pamper myself and, yet, I focused solely on the amount of work I could accomplish while here. I really did not pack a bathing suit and I kept checking the weather hoping for rain.
Yet, once I got here, I could not escape the majesty of the ocean. From the balcony of my room, I immediately felt ensconced in the warmth of the sea air and calmed by the lull of the ocean tide. Peace and calm took over. As I walked along the ocean today, I marveled at how blissful I was and how my brain so easily shut itself down. Of course, being me, I pondered this and, for the first time in a really, really long time, I did not have much to think about except watching the seagulls and breathing in concert with the waves.
The beach has always been a significant part of my life. Perhaps it is because I am a cancer and, as a water sign, feel very connected to the ocean. Perhaps it is because some of my best memories of childhood took place at the beach. Perhaps it is because you simply cannot be stressed when you sit and watch the ocean and become mesmerized by the ebbs and flows of the tide. The calming that comes over you is difficult to be disrupted. When I was very young, my family spent lots of time in Montauk, NY because my father’s parents owned a home there. After coming over from Italy and settling in the Bronx where many Italian immigrants landed, my grandparents decided to truly move out to the country and settled in what was, at the time, a very undeveloped area – a simple fishing village – at the very tip of Long Island. Back in the 60’s when they retired out there, everyone built little cape cod houses on giant pieces of property that remained untouched. My grandparents carved out a piece of their land to develop a vegetable garden that rivaled some produce farms. They replicated the gardens they had grown up with in Sicily and, from their crops, produced some of the most aromatic, magnificent food I have ever tasted. You could not walk into my grandparents’ home without a pot of gravy on the stove or a fresh pizza in the oven. My little 5′ grandmother Annie could cook up a feast for dozens and managed to smack a few fannies with her wooden spoon as the children ran through her house.
In the days when my parents were still living their idyllic life, we would venture out to Montauk several times a year, especially in the summer, and experience some of the most tranquil moments of my lifetime. My grandfather, who always seemed like a little old Italian man (despite his great height and stature), would bounce me on his lap and play with all his grandchildren as we ran around their spacious front yard or ride our bikes along the gravelly, windy roads in their neighborhood. My grandmother would yell at us in Italian if we even dared to step foot near her garden. I was not a particularly adventurous or disobedient child but, sometimes, the curiosity simply took over and I would go down deep into the property to see what all the fuss was about. It was spectacular. In my lifetime I have never seen such elegant eggplants or bright, luscious tomatoes. There were peppers and cucumbers and cauliflower and broccoli. I never had any interest in the actual vegetables but I was fascinated by the magnitude of it all. I would peek my nose over the small fencing around the garden and, without fail, my grandmother chided me and I quickly dashed off to avoid her wrath.
I remember climbing the dunes only to find the breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean. After my little body made the climb up the steep sand hills, I would just exhale when I saw the waves breaking. I could not wait to run down and tempt my fate, praying not to get swept under. Needless to say, the tide often pulled me in and I emerged laughing and with a bathing suit filled with wet sand. My mother hated the water and, frankly, hated the idea of putting on a bathing suit even more, so she usually sat under an umbrella watching from a distance, smoking a cigarette or reading a book. She never played in the ocean with us but my father, if he was with us, usually came running in to rescue his kids. It was glorious. It is all still so perfectly vivid in my mind. They are precious moments – a short blink of time – that left such impenetrable marks on my soul. The memories represent bliss, serenity, calm, peace, happiness, joy. I pray that I never lose my memory because these are possessions that I cannot safely lock away in a vault to be pulled out and admired. They exist only in my mind. No photographs, no videos, no one left to talk about it with. They are mine and exist only in me. My grandparents’ house has long since been bulldozed – the property developed by the new inhabitants of Montauk. Now it is filled with wealthy weekenders who have moved past the Hampton’s and, while they love the charm of the upgraded fishing community, still want to have their creature comforts – their McMansions, their gourmet kitchens, their in ground pools.
The last time I went back to Montauk was around 1990. I was single and decided to take a weekend for myself. It was an unusual move for me at the ripe old age of 23. My life was all about my friends, my job, dating and having fun. But the quiet, introverted part of me desperately needed to be alone, to recapture the memories of my childhood, to ponder my reality. It was probably the beginning of my journey right there because it was painful and difficult to find peace on that trip. I was confronted with the realities of my life. The idyllic scene I had so masterfully captured and framed in my mind was now being disrupted by the truth of my life. It was infiltrated by divorce, abuse, death, misery, disconnection. The rays of sunlight that shined in my memories were masked by dark clouds and thunderous noise that did not at all resemble the calm and peaceful waves. Suddenly, I was confronting everything that went wrong. Going back to that joyful place made me sad. It brought me pain. I had a journal and I wrote and wrote and wrote. I poured my sadness onto pages as I sat by the water. I cried. I rode a bike around the village and visited all of my favorite haunts. I went back into White’s Drugstore where I had wandered as a child, buying bubbles, coloring books, postcards to send home to my friends. Everything looked similar but it was all different. I was all different. I was broken and I was first beginning to learn just how broken and was trying to find my way to a repair shop.
I have never been back and, remarkably, have never been there with my husband. I discovered a new happy place with my family – the Jersey Shore. I adopted my husband’s fond memories from his childhood and created new memories with my own family. Our children spent weeks during the summer on Long Beach Island. We take them to Asbury Park. We visited Jenkinson’s Aquarium and played the games on the boardwalk. And, the beach still brings me peace. I still feel the calm. I have managed to push past the sadness of that part of my life and illuminate with the soft glow of distance and understanding. It was just a sliver of my life – just a flicker, a gust of wind – but it also shaped me. It made me who I am today, even if in some small way. I had a glimpse into what life could be and it helped provide me with a simple sketch of what I might want my life to look like. It helped me understand that it is not all bad. Nothing ever is. There is always a silver lining. I am disappointed I don’t have more memories of that family, that house, that beach, that life. Yet, I am grateful it was real, even if just for a split second.
One day I will return to Montauk to try to recall the precious memories with this new mind, with a healed heart. But, for today, I walked on the beach in Florida and succumbed to the pure pleasure that the ocean brings. I was peaceful, I was happy, and I remembered.