I’m starting this at Michaels. Not because I’ve spent an excessive amount of time there in the last few weeks in search of Rainbow Loom paraphernalia, but because I was in line there at the start of the summer, and I witnessed something. A nice girl working the register was checking out a young couple: the woman wore gym clothes and a lot of freckles and the man was in a faded concert t-shirt–his hair hung a bit in his eyes. He was scruffy and shopping. The girl at the register let out a big “Ohhhhh! Is this for your wedding?!?!?” And the couple smilingly affirmed. Then she asked, “Do you have a theme for your wedding? What is your theme??!?!?!” The scruffy man looked straight at the girl at the register and said, “Uh, yeah . . . marriage.”
Now it’s past Labor Day. The holiday holds more meaning for me this year because after being home with the girls for seven years, both my girls are in school all day, and I’m back at work, teaching. I’m not full-time and it’s not callous-inducing labor, but simply put, my life has changed. Again.
It feels more dramatic starting anew coming off of an end-of-the-summer beach week. Dave, the girls, and I count backwards a lot these days. Someone in my family will say, “Can you believe it was three-weeks, three days, five hours and 15 minutes ago that we were driving to Long Beach Island?”
The counting forward was a lot more fun.
Someone in my family will say, “I miss the beach,” and the rest of the family will answer, “We miss the beach,” like we are members of a zombie-like call-and-response chorus in a Greek tragedy. Only, really, it’s not tragic.
It’s just September.
It was so nice to be away (three weeks, three days, five hours and 20 minutes ago), as a family, in a little yellow house that was 42 steps from the ocean. In my vision of beach living, everything about the week was textbook: beautiful weather, front porch views of the water. We heard the ocean at night as we were going to sleep–the deepest sleeps imaginable. I’d wake up and have to tune in, thinking Wait, I’m at the beach, I should hear the ocean now, and the sounds of the waves would come to me slowly, as if I had volume control.
I took early morning runs before the kids woke up. I ate, without question, the best “everything”-bagel ever made. Ice-cream every night.
Porch time under a tiki-umbrella: that perfect part of the day when you’re back from the beach, you’ve showered in the requisite outside shower and you’re holding a beverage, just waiting for the sky show–stunning colors as the sun sets . . . and then all of those stars.
Day trips and mini-adventures: lighthouses, mini-golf, the ongoing search for the world’s greatest salt-water taffy.
(Call: I miss the beach.
Response: We miss the beach.)
The boogie boarding. People no longer swim at the ocean, which turns out to have been just fine for my kids. And my husband. I punched in just a fraction of the hours the rest of my family spent in the water. I’d go a few rounds on the boogie board or dive in a few waves, but then I’d dry off, read a book, sit, eat a cracker — what people do at the beach. Only hunger drove the rest of my family from the water.
It helps that what is most remarkable about the beach is watching my kids in the ocean. I could do it all day; (in fact, I did). They’d meet the water differently every time: the toe-touching timid approach or the running-right-in; no fear, or pretend fear, sometimes, when they would chase the receding water then turn around, laughing and screaming as they dashed away from incoming waves.
Those waves were not small, either. I’d catch my breath, sitting there on my beach chair, right smack in the middle of worry and delight–look what we are giving them. They are living life. They are out there. And . . . they are out there. Look how vast it is.
One day during the week, the vastness took me over.
The details probably don’t matter, but I was reading a sad book, thinking about too many people struggling with cancer, remembering my mom, and then over-hearing a mother and teenaged-daughter fighting in the group sitting behind me. I was thinking about that mother–how she must at one point, not that long ago, have been sitting on a beach chair, watching that same daughter as a little girl playing in the waves. I was thinking, my mom did the same with me.
Then came an overwhelming feeling of smallness–that we are merely numbers, singular ticks sounding from loud, echoing clocks, specks of sand.
The ocean, the expanse, the sharks, the renegade wave that might swallow up a six-year-old. I went there. The vastness. How could I look at the ocean and not be overtaken with melancholy, fear, nostalgia, or whatever it is that so often connects the then and the now and the what-will-be.
Right there at my happy place, at the beach on my comfortable chair in the shade of a colorful umbrella, I was sad.
Eventually, the breeze came off of the water in just the right way, like a voice talking me out of a winding cave, saying, just be here now. I stared hard at my kids in the water, studied them like inarguable facts, and tried to re-connect.
We English-teaching types, we like to connect. We like our main ideas, getting matchy-matchy with topic sentences and thesis statements. I spent ample time at the start of this school year readying the syllabus, tying ideas together with visuals and bullet points, stapling posters onto bulletin boards.
One poster I hung in the classroom reads, YOU ARE HERE with an arrow pointing not to the word “past” and not to the word “future” but to the word “present.”
I didn’t go thematically nuts at my wedding (though we did coordinate table numbers with jersey numbers of famous sports figures), but I’m right there with you, Michaels-register-girl: I like a theme. I want my students to be in that classroom with me. I don’t want them to worry about a bad yesterday or be anxious about an unknown tomorrow. When I say each name at roll call, I want them to say, “Here” and mean it.
I can lose myself in looking back, remembering all that is remarkable about a summer: Lexi learning to whistle and to ride a two-wheeler, the girls whispering between bunk-beds, hanging sheets like canopies, sleeping with their dolls. I can see us walking on the beach, the girls joyfully searching for shells: mermaid purses, scallops, king’s crowns, cones, and cat’s eyes.
It’s a pull between the counting back and the counting forward. That stretch is ok, and is sometimes lovely–but right now, I will strive to live in the right now.
A beautiful phase in my life is over but my girls are in good hands, and my students are, too.
Call: Mommy? Mrs. Lenehan? Response: Here.