For many summers, my family and I vacationed in Cape May. It’s also been an annual tradition to spend Mother’s Day there.
And every time, as we leave the Garden State Parkway for the bridge spanning the canal that connects the Delaware Bay to the Atlantic Ocean, my brother rolls down the windows in the car. That first, bracing tang of ocean air is always, to me, an instant tonic. Whatever I may have been carrying — residual stress from the week left behind or other preoccupations- – it all falls away in that moment. I can feel my entire body relax, as if settling into one long exhale.
Being at the beach soothes and restores me like nothing else. Yet after spending two blissful days in Ocean Grove, N.J., with my mom last weekend, I wondered, not for the first time, why I so rarely make such a therapeutic pastime a priority. Of course, living in Pennsylvania, the ocean is not a convenient 10- to 20-minute drive away as it was when I was growing up in St. Lucia. Then, trips to the beach were a weekly habit.
Now it is a feat of careful advance planning, of clearing calendars and working out logistics — and, of course, come summer, battling a wilting anticipation in the miles of crawling traffic. But whether the trip is made for a few hours or a few days in spring or summer or the placid splendor of fall, I’m always at home at the beach.
It may seem natural, given my West Indian heritage but I know plenty of people in my family who haven’t set foot on a beach in years — and some of them live in St. Lucia. Even my mom, who loves strolling the boardwalk or the streets of the seaside towns we visit here, isn’t so much a fan of the sand and surf. But something about the environment, and the suspension of routine for lovely lassitude, holds irresistible appeal.
My own affinity seems to run much deeper, though I think it began with my mom, and all the time she spent in the water while she was pregnant with me, despite the warnings of well-intentioned relatives, worried about her safety. By the time I was a toddler and living in Antigua, the unfurling sand and gently roiling surf were as much a playground to me as our backyard. When my brother Joachim came along, the ocean was where we spent many an afternoon with my mom when she picked us up from school. On weekends, my dad would join us. It wasn’t unusual for us to pass many Saturday or Sunday afternoons picnicking with friends.
Among my fondest memories are the boisterous parties thrown by my mom’s family in St. Lucia. As a girl, when they were held on a remote stretch of the island outside the town of Vieux Fort, my cousins and I would spend hours clambering the sand bars and nearby hills, casting ourselves in fantastical, and often comic, adventures. As we got older and the parties moved to a more-popular beach on the edge of town, we were content to loll about, eating and drinking while the latest reggae and soca hits blared from the back of someone’s truck. Food was always a highlight. My Uncle Martin was lord of the grill, roasting an endless supply of meat that was simply cut into chunks and passed around, sometimes with a side of ketchup and hot sauce, like finger food.
With a smaller extended family, such excursions were less lavish on my dad’s side but no less fun. When my grandmother was alive, our special treat was fresh coconut that we would break into pieces, a layer of skin still on the hard meat that seemed to taste even better when dipped in the salty sea. When it was time to go, my cousins and I would emerge reluctantly from the water only to dash back in for one last dip — over and over again.
The beach, in memories more bittersweet, reminds me, too, of my dad. It was where he often went for solace in his last years of declining health. On his more-robust days, he swam and walked the shore. But sometimes, at twilight, the ocean was simply companion for his brooding thoughts, raising no objections, blasting no judgments but proffering only the reassuring sense of something larger than his suffering.
Some of my favorite moments from my visits with my dad, before he passed away last October, are of us strolling the beach together, the warm sun at our backs, the sea frothing at our ankles. We were always lulled into a softer, more open version of ourselves then, apart from our frequently embattled perspectives. Along the shore, we didn’t have to defend our dreams, rein in our truth, apologize for all that ached. We were amenable and tender, arms looped in the spinning of our cocoon.
With the one-year anniversary of his death approaching, I think of spending that day near the sea. For all the childlike joy and wonder I connect to at the ocean, where I still love cavorting for hours in the water, I also appreciate the reflection it inspires. We all have those places that nourish us, and it makes me sad to think there are years when, save our traditional Mother’s Day trek, I don’t make it to the beach at all. In the busyness of life, it’s easy to make excuses. And when other commitments begin to tower, ironically, the things I most long to do are often the ones to get banished to a list of luxuries.
But there is a reason such spaces become our hallowed ground. In the cradle of their comfort, we can tune into our deeper selves, heed our honest longings. Here, joy and imagination flow unchecked, and the very beauty we behold can feel like an answered prayer, returning us to the familiar with gifts of possibility pulsing their warmth through our veins.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times