Fifty years. I was standing on the small strip of wet sand that had been almost completely swallowed up by the full moon high tide and I was trying to remember. And then it occurred to me it had been fifty years. I was seven years old the last time I played in the surf of Higgins Beach Maine. Most of my memories of summers spent at that beach are like my kitchen junk drawer; random trinkets that beg the question: what are you keeping this for? A French-Canadian friend next-door, melting crayons onto clam shells, getting our mouths washed out with soap and Timmy laughing, saying it tasted good. Hand wringing clothes through rollers. Smelly dead starfish left in the sun. And our rock islands. Yet the memories flow through a filter of innocent times, of childhood in its purest form, when life had a timeless ebb and flow. But…I scanned the beach again. Where did the rocks go?
My dad moved us to Michigan for a short time when I was four. I can only remember lots of wild bunny rabbits, my brother Timmy’s pop gun, and the odd way asparagus grew in our yard; straight out of the ground like green rockets. What I didn’t know was my mother hated Michigan and the whole Midwest. She gave my dad an ultimatum: take us back east now and we will stay at the beach until you find a job and a new home.
My dad was from Maine. And my mom was from South Carolina. I think it was enough that she had moved up north where people would make fun of the way she talked. “People in the north think southerners are stupid,” she claimed more than once. And after watching Dukes of Hazard in the 70’s I would agree. She wrapped herself in a thin fantasy of blue-blood southern aristocracy mixed with intellectual prowess and chose to disregard most of the human race, except for us kids. She would tolerate the Maine coastline, likely because she grew up vacationing on the southern coast. Except for occasional visits from my dad and his family who lived nearby, we were left alone.
I have a picture of me in a blue bathing suit holding a dead mackerel by the tail. My lips match the suit and I have a huge toothless grin. My blond hair is matted with salt water and sand. I was probably age five or six. Bob, Timmy and I would stay at the beach all day; our house was an easy walk. Looking back, there was some questionable discernment on my mom’s part, but I think the fantasy world kept her more occupied than we realized. My younger brother was an infant, so she would come down to check on us between his naps.
We each claimed an island; or more accurately, my oldest brother Bob divvied them up. He had Clam Island because it was the farthest out and he was the best swimmer. Timmy had Lobster Island, which was hands-down the best because in its shallow pools at low tide we could catch small lobsters, starfish, sea urchins and once an ugly sea robin. By default I was given Seal Island because Bob thought there was a seal on it once, but it was small, uninteresting and difficult to climb. I was the youngest and also a girl.
The beach had seemed wide and long and endless in expanse, ending at one end with granite cliffs soaring out of the ocean, which were topped with tall pines bending in the wind. But now it is so small my husband and I can barely walk for more than 100 feet. The surf stretches for several hundred yards in either direction, the waves grabbing at the sea grass beneath the road. We climbed some rocks and looked around, my eyes focusing on the water. Where did the rocks go?
I took a few pictures and as we were turning to leave I asked a young man who was sitting on a drift wood stump watching the waves if he was from around here. Turns out he was from North Carolina although he didn’t talk funny like my mother did. But he had been staying in the area for a few years working.
“Do you come to this beach?” Yes.
“Do you remember seeing rocks out there?”as I pointed to the Atlantic Ocean before us.
“Sure, “he said. “At low tide there’s a bunch of rocks there.” I smiled, excited and relieved and thanked him. I don’t know why I would’ve thought that rocks could just leave or get moved but in fifty years, a lot of things happen. In hindsight, he might’ve thought I was a little crazy.
A few years ago, my brother Bob and I took a ride through our hometown, trying to retrace some familiar landmarks. We expected things to change and were more surprised at the things that hadn’t. There was snow on the ground, two to three feet in places, and we drove up to the cemetery where our brother Timmy was buried at age nine. Most of the climbing trees were gone so it was a little tough to get our bearings but as the car rolled up to a familiar spot we stopped and I jumped out of the car, taking huge strides in the deep snow. I stared at the white unbroken cover and then started digging. Sure enough, I struck the small headstone with our brother’s name across it. I turned to see my brother sitting in the car watching me with a smile, like it’s normal to see your little sister digging in the snow, even if she is fifty plus years. I brushed the snow from Tim’s name, and we both said, “There!” before we drove off. Stones don’t often move. A few things don’t change.
I took some pictures at Higgins and sent them to Bob who is the only living person who can remember it with me. He laughed at the “cliffs” which in his mind were towering and dramatic, not twenty feet high but more like a hundred. I told him the rocks were still there, it was just high tide.
“Did we ever come back after Timmy died?” I asked.
“No,” he texted back.
CB and I got in the car and drove off towards Portland, as I gleaned the streets for anything else familiar. Fifty years. I laughed to myself. You have to be pretty old to remember back fifty years and I thought of how we would roll our eyes and giggle when my dad would start with, “I remember forty years ago…” In fifty years, most things change, or just go away. It’s okay to go back and look. It’s okay even to feel a little sad for things lost; people, childhood, and the innocence of believing things would always be the same.
“Is Grover’s still there?” Bob texted back. Grover’s was the only store around back in the early sixties. We used to make fun of their funny Maine accents and I’m sure my mother had something to do with that.
“Couldn’t find it,” I replied. “It’s probably a 7/11 now.” I felt a little sad and disoriented. As I looked out over the hills surrounding Portland, I thought of my dad buried there now for 32 years. Fifty years? I thought ahead, to my children, my grandchildren and how quickly life is over. I get crazy like that sometimes and I’m awfully glad I can then think about Jesus and eternity and how wonderful it will be to not have to look at a clock or a calendar, or say, “Fifty years? Where did that go?”
Another text rang through from Bob.
“Oh well,” he replied to my last text. “Big Gulps are pretty impressive too.”
I laughed out loud. Thanks again, God, for a big brother who keeps me in the here-and-now and also keeps me laughing, even if I did get Seal Island.