Here’s how I knew we were going to the beach and not to my grandparents’ house at Hardy: when we turned from our street and drove past the Howard Johnson’s (where we went to get ice cream), we turned and drove up a ramp, past the billboard picture of the girl with the dog tugging at her bathing suit, instead of going straight toward the river. The climb up that highway ramp is one of only two things I remember about the drive to the beach, the other thing being the smell of Mobile Bay. The full car trip was easily nine hours, but I remember only the start and finish, remember leaving our house on Agnes Place and then, suddenly, being at the beach.
If you are from Memphis, then “the beach” is as specific a term as the word barbecue. If you are from Memphis and say, simply, that you are going to the beach, then you are almost always going somewhere east-southeast of Mobile and west-northwest of Panama City, enjoying the ultrafine white sands lining that particular stretch along the Gulf of Mexico.
Sometime in the mid-1960s a sharply increasing number of travelers began to frequent the “world’s luckiest fishing village,” the village of Destin, a tiny, utterly undeveloped area from which a multitude of fishermen and fishing boats brought home what we Southerners would describe as a butt-load of fish.
Destin was (is) just east of the Naval Air Station Pensacola. In the late 1960s my father, who enlisted in the Navy when he turned 18, a month or so after V-J Day, and then remained active in the Naval Reserves, would report for training exercises in Pensacola. While he was there, my mother and I went ahead to one of the cinder block cottages of Silver Beach. Other than the low-slung Holiday Inn, built in 1959, Silver Beach was the only place to stay in Destin, or at least the only one I remember. I don’t remember if we stayed a week or a month. I don’t know how often we made the trip (though often enough that it felt like ordinary travel, not a special vacation).
Here’s what was in Destin in the late 1960s and early 1970s: almost nothing but open beach, miles and miles and miles of it.
Here’s what we did in Destin when I was little: nothing orchestrated.
I had a green plastic sand bucket, a shovel and several thick nylon swimsuits, all of which held globs of wet sand in the bottom, giving the appearance of a soggy diaper and discomfort to match. Partly because of her complexion but mostly because she couldn’t swim, my mother would sit under an umbrella while I played with the other children in the surf, collecting shells, looking for sand dollars, trying our best to avoid pink jellyfish and Portuguese man ‘o war.
I inherited both my father’s swarthy hue and his love for the water. Within a day of arrival, despite constant sunscreen application, I was golden brown all over, distressed (as she would later tell me) that I no longer resembled my delicate, alabaster-skinned mother in her trim, romper-style suit with spaghetti straps. She would sit and watch; I would roam. In the high heat of the day we would return to the cottage to eat lunch and nap and read. In the evenings we would sit outside and watch the sun set over the water. Sometimes we would go crabbing.
There were no programmed activities, no day camps for kids, no dinner reservations. We walked to the pier or to the snack bar. When absolutely necessary, we drove to the Piggly Wiggly in Fort Walton, but only to buy milk or other perishables, having brought the rest of our non-perishable groceries from home where food was less expensive.
In the early 1970s came the Silver Dunes condominiums, fancy in comparison to Silver Beach and with the added luxury of a swimming pool. After Silver Dunes came Sundestin and Sandestin and a multitude of others, too many to name. Between my last childhood trip to Destin, in March 1975, and the summer of 1984 when I worked as a nanny for a family in Navarre Beach, 20 minutes west of Destin, real estate developers had a field day. Along that previously pristine stretch of the redneck riviera, they built what seemed like every imaginable sort of residential and commercial structure. Driving over east over the bridge to meet a childhood friend – my closest childhood friend, with whom I once built many a sandcastle at the old Silver Beach – the Destin of my youth was unrecognizable.
And that was just the beginning. Incorporated as a city in 1984, Destin kept expanding geometrically, and the surrounding area expanded with it. My father and his second wife were married in Destin in 1988 and spent months at a time in their condo at East Pass, the condo where my son and I would later – a decade after my father’s death – discover Daddy’s tackle box, filled with decades’ worth of lures and fishing knives.
When my mother invited my sister and me to join her for a week at the beach, in March 1998, Destin proper had everything from gaming arcades and an Old Navy outlet to palatial villas with private beach access. Development by that time had stretched farther down and included Seaside, setting for the movie The Truman Show. In sharp contrast to the high-rise condos blanketing so much of old Destin and crawling with drunken college kids, this newest crop of growth included idyllic, gated retreats, removed from the gross commercialism of the main drag and intentionally reminiscent of 1960s Destin, only with gourmet kitchens, wine stores well-stocked with Veuve Clicquot, and a constant stream of programmed activity.
All of which is to say: we share a history, the beach and I – a long, sprawling history that started very simply and grew into something a bit more complicated.
Given this long history, you might think me a beach person, might think that when my daughter, a month or so ago, requested a week at Seaside for her “I’m 12” trip with Mama, that I would have leapt with joy.
But if you had been there, sitting in my messy kitchen, and if you were a mind-reader, then you would know my initial gut reaction, kept carefully inside my head: I hate the beach; please pick anything but the beach.
And so I said this: You know, for the price of a week at Seaside, we could all go to Amsterdam – all of us. Are you sure you want to go to Seaside?
My daughter, who has always had crystal clear visions of what she wants to do and who is also exceptionally practical, especially about money, said this: Oh, gosh; maybe we should do something else. I really just want to go to the beach, with you and Mary; just us.
We could go to New York or Boston, I suggested; I could take her to see Harvard, which she has somehow zeroed in on, despite having nothing but Princeton spiritwear. She agreed to think it over, think of something else she’d like to do, just us, for our trip together.
The “I’m 12” trip with Mama was born of convenience, two years ago when I was scheduled to speak at a conference in Sacramento the same week that my daughter, then 10, would be away at camp and Bernard was in the middle of a big project. My son, who was then 12, had nothing scheduled; so I decided we’d take a mother-son venture to California, extending my trip to allow, among other things, a visit to our former neighbor in Walnut Creek and a tour of the car museum – heaven for a boy whose Instagram feed at the time featured mostly Mclarens and Ferraris.
Our journey also included an unexpected overnight stay at Midway, a massive fire on I-80 being doused from the air, two viewings of The Lego Movie, a lovely dinner on the bank of the Sacramento River for conference participants and their families, and a ride in a disco-themed shuttle, complete with a stripper pole that one of my more entertaining colleagues used for a demonstration on the way back to our hotel. (I think some of your work friends got drunk, my son said, adding later that he thought it made them look pretty stupid.)
All of it together was enough to transform a convenient trip into a tale of adventure, and the mother-child “I’m 12” trip, the idea of a family rite of passage, was born.
How my daughter’s rite of passage trip did, in the end, lead to the beach (though not at Seaside) is a typical Memphis story – typical for me, at least. I was walking one of the dogs (I am always out walking a dog, it seems) and a friend called from her porch to ask about my new job. I explained that I was taking the month of June off, hoping to decompress a bit before jumping into something new. I mentioned my daughter’s request and that I was trying to come up with a suitable alternative plan. This friend, as luck would have it, had access to a house at the beach, a house that was unexpectedly available due of a last-minute cancellation. Another family had called to inquire about it, but if I could make the decision quickly, it would be ours.
And so we are at the beach, my daughter, her friend and I – along with my son, whose sister granted him permission to join us. We packed the car with the essentials – sunscreen, swimsuits, a box of Fruit Loops.
We have nothing planned or programmed; they want to do nothing but roam the beach and then come back to the house to read and nap and eat dinner on the deck, watching the sun set over the emerald water, leaving me to wonder how I could ever dreamed of hating anything so magical.