It’s not yet noon, or we’d be eating the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that my mother has packed. Not exactly beach food, but I don’t know that because I’m four, and have yet to form opinions about what to eat where. At the moment, I’m focused on finding more shells than Steven Berg, who clutches a plastic bag just like mine. We walk near the ocean, staying in front of our blanket, as we’ve been told. Heads down, eyes darting madly, we lunge at every speck of white that pokes up through the speckled beige sand.
We meet the Bergs at Sandy Hook two or three times a summer. Most other days, we see them at the swim club, where my mother and Mrs. Berg slather themselves with the gorgeous-smelling Bain de Soleil #4 Gelee that, in our blissful innocence, we think of as sunscreen. Its orange tint makes their skin glow and smell beautiful, like Saint Tropez, or what I imagine Saint Tropez must smell like, based on the TV commercial, whose song I’m obsessed with.
My bag is beginning to fill up, but I’m cheating by putting broken shells and stones into it. I grab a giant clam, and a couple of mussel shells - ugly, but good fillers. A few more, and my stash is looking respectable. I let a handful of sand with fragments and tiny stones slip between my fingers since I can now afford to be choosy. My eyes light on something near my toe and I gasp at a tiny cone-shaped shell. I hold it in my palm, its soft brown and white swirls the colors of a toasted marshmallow. You can’t put it to your ear and hear the ocean, but you can get lost in its perfection. Which I do, as I walk along, smiling proudly.
“Steven, look at this one,” I say, but he doesn’t answer.
I look up. He’s not at my side. I turn and call his name, then again, louder. No Steven. Nothing but the roar of the ocean and the muffled din of families on blankets, interrupted by shrieks of joyful children - a group of which I’m suddenly no longer a member. I look toward our blanket, mad at Steven for going back without me, no doubt, to show off his bounty. I feel my breath quicken. My eyes scan the madly scattered chairs, umbrellas, buckets and blankets, but none of them are ours.
With a chill, I realize I’ve done exactly what I wasn’t supposed to - I’ve wandered. There’s no sign of my mother’s sky-blue bathing suit with its puckered fabric. No sign of the olive green and white woven beach chairs my parents and the Bergs set up behind the kids’ blankets. No big, white styrofoam cooler, its red top faded to pink from years of sun. No sign of my father, standing up to stretch or of my brother and sister patting sand into a castle. No sign of anything that matters to me.
My eyes widen as I yell Steven’s name, frantically looking from stranger to stranger. A kind-looking woman crouches and asks if I’m lost, to which I can only shake my head. She takes my hand and brings me to the lifeguard stand. I stare up at the giant men, who are all of 18 years old. The woman cups her hands around her mouth, as if to shield me from her words.
During these pre-helicopter, pre-seatbelt years, lost kids are common at the Jersey shore, and I know what’s coming. One of the lifeguards leans down, and puts his arms out. The woman lifts me and my bag of shells and I smell Coppertone as he stands me on the bench where another guard sits, this one with white zinc on his lips and nose. They tell me I’ll be ok, but I don’t really hear them because my head is filled with the word the kind woman said. Lost.
He hoists me by my armpits, high into the air, so everyone can have a look at me. As he turns in a semi circle, he blows sharply into his whistle, making my plight seem more serious than I can bear. I hang there, in a ruffled one-piece, clutching my bag of shells, my hairdo, a lot like Art Garfunkel’s, although it will be years before I know who he is.
People sit upright on their blankets, as if I’m a performer, about to burst into song, but all I burst into are sobs. The sympathetic faces of the members of my audience make me cry louder.
The lifeguard pats my head, then has another go at displaying me, this time with a few short, urgent-sounding whistle-toots. Still, nothing but worried faces. People turn their heads, as if a mother might emerge to collect me, but it doesn’t happen.
My guard brings me down to the sand and tells the zinc-y one that he’s taking me to another stand, which terrifies me. He holds my pale little hand in his big tanned one and once again tells me I’ll be ok. When we get to the next stand, he hoists me up to a new guard, this one with a peeling nose and a vertical split on his burnt lower lip.
“If no one comes, take her down that way,” my guard says, and I cry again, at the thought of no one coming. Suddenly and sobbingly, I’m hanging in the air, doing the semi-circle routine again. A sea of new faces looks up at me, then cranes their necks toward the back of the beach, hoping someone will emerge. Again, no sky-blue bathing suit. Just the lifeguard saying, “I’ll take you the other way.”
We hold hands as we march along and I watch my footprints sink into the wet sand, then disappear. He tells me not to cry and I wipe my running nose with the back of my hand, the bag of shells clinking like the coins in my grandmother’s little black change purse. With a dramatic flourish, I turn the bag upside down, holding it by a corner. The shells pour out behind me, like petals tossed by a joyless flower girl. By the time we get to the next stand, I have all but lost hope.
The new lifeguard hoists me into the air, like the slab of beef I’ve become. Audience #3 reacts like the other two, and I’m afraid I may throw up. My heart beats quickly. I have known fear, but never panic. I’m breathing quickly and the beach is a blur. And then. Her pale yellow kerchief seems to float above her head and I hear myself yell the two most beautiful syllables I know. Mommy. The blue bathing suit stands out like a technicolor film clip in the midst of a black and white movie. My mother picks her way over the corners of blankets, skirting around pails and shovels like a quarterback. Like a hero.
This moment is surreal for many reasons, but mainly because I’ve never seen her run or cry. And she’s doing both.
I’m mesmerized by her bosom as it bounces up and down with each running step. I’ve only seen it neat and firm as she sits or walks or dunks in the pool, talking with the other ladies who don’t want to ruin their hair. This bouncing business is strange, but at the moment, wonderful.
The lifeguards pass me down and I’m in her arms and people are clapping, but all I hear is her saying “Debbie” as she hugs me into the puckered fabric that my tears turn from sky to dark blue.
I smile as I type this, remembering the orange-blossom scent of her glistening skin and the way she thanked the lifeguards and told me she was sorry and I thought it was me who was supposed to be sorry because I had wandered off, and the feeling of her hand holding mine, and of my father’s strong arms and the sense of safety I had never thought to treasure.
I look across the room at her. Not in a blue bathing suit, but in a blue and white striped top and navy pants. Betty, who is more an angel than a health-care aid, thinks it’s better for my mother’s spirits to be dressed, so she gently eases her out of her nightgown each morning, and slips her into a top and pants. Bras have become painful, so for the first time since that day at Sandy Hook, my mother’s bosom is left to its own devices. She doesn’t seem to notice and I’m used to it now.
Hospice has a way of getting you used to things. And of teaching you to accept what is. We don’t know if my mother will be with us for days or weeks or longer. So we hold hands and smile as we tell the same stories we told yesterday.
“Remember how I used to run around the lawn naked?” I say, and she laughs, and talks about a lady at the swim club, who, irked by the messiness of my curls, said, “Don’t you ever comb her hair?” My mother likes to reiterate how she “gave it to her,” by saying, “No, Jean, I do not.”
She mumbles a bit as she naps and I wonder what she’s dreaming about. She wakes with a start, then smiles gently.
I tell her I love her and she whispers, “up to the sky” and I wink, because that’s what my father always said. Her wink back is more of a blink.
She naps. I work. She opens her eyes.
“I feel like one of those people who doesn’t know when to leave a party,” she says, and I smile sadly. Well-mannered to the end; she’d rather die than overstay her welcome.
Her mind is ready, but her body isn’t. So she finds herself wandering in the space between life and death. And no one can come running to claim her. No one can take her hand and bring her back to a safe place, where everyone cheers and there are peanut butter and jelly sandwiches waiting.
I take her hand, thinner than it was a week ago, and hold it. Our eyes meet and hers fill. My calm, reassuring mother gets weepy a lot these days. Tears where there used to be measure.
I ask why she’s crying.
“Because I feel so…”
She doesn’t say the word, but, with a pang, I feel it too.
I say “I love you” and my voice cracks.
Hearing it, she gives my hand a little squeeze.
“Don’t worry, my Darling,” she whispers.
And there she is.
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Capturing all the right things, as usual. Thank you for bringing grandma and grandpa to life in your stories. Nostalgia at its best.
Oh Debra! Just beautiful. Sending love and caring thoughts to you and your family. Of one thing I’m completely certain: you are your mother’s daughter.