When my children were little, during the age of great dependency, I sometimes, oftentimes, struggled in my job as their mother. My struggles were laid bare most visibly on weekends, holidays and vacations. Particularly at the beach.
we loaded the last bag in the car at almost noon, the first Saturday of spring break, to head to the beach for the first time. It was just beginning to snow, and the forecast was for several inches of snow, and I was anxious to beat the storm, to get out ahead of it, and we were already so late, so far behind schedule. You wanted to catch snowflakes on your tongues.
Get in the car; we’re going to the beach! I said this with excitement, enthusiasm, urgency. We were going on vacation, leaving endless work behind to balance it with a week of play. We decided; and now it was time to drive. If we delayed any longer then we would get stuck for days, would miss having a full week of sun and sand and ocean.
I packed sandwiches and Goldfish, filled water bottles with a mix of ice and apple juice and water; I coated us all in sunscreen, careful not to miss a single spot; I carried the umbrella, the chairs, the towels, the bucket, the shovel, the basket and my camera. I wanted a lovely day at the beach.
There was sand in the sandwiches, and in the Goldfish, and in the water bottles. The ocean was too cold. The sand was too hot. The bathroom was too far away.
I said: No, you may not go there by yourself. Yes, this is what we’re doing today. No, we cannot go back inside and watch TV. We are on vacation! We are at the beach!
You complained but were blissfully happy, filling a bucket and pouring it back out, moving too slowly for me to see or enjoy, until that time was long past.
Stand in moving water for any period of time and you will take away a lingering sense of the current against your skin, of bobbing up and down in the waves. Like sea legs or dock rock, the phantom feeling of the tide’s tug, still present hours after being back on dry land, is purely neurological.
The theory is this: The human brain is constantly seeking ‘normal.’ Patterns of input that come through the vestibular system, the body’s system that helps guide motion, posture and balance, can leave behind an imprint. Even after the actual, physical input has stopped, the perception of it continues.
Moving from one set of circumstances – standing in waves, for example – to another, different environment – standing in the living room – requires the brain to adjust. Too frequent, too drastic changes result in constant confusion; there is no normal, only chaos.
In the same way that the brain can adjust to changing situations, however, it appears also to adjust to the process of changing, a process that comes more naturally to some people than others. We have, in this way, tremendous ability to adapt.
We were on a nature walk, early one morning, in search of jellyfish specifically, though any marine life generally. The young scientist was working on a book: marine biology, volume II. It was to be a companion to the book our neighbor, the scientist and feminist, created to help the young children in her family be less afraid of the ocean, the beach, the world.
We were staying at that friend’s cousin’s house, or possibly her husband’s cousin’s house, that we rented, on the spur of the moment as a gift to my daughter, my nature walk companion. In preparation for our trip, my friend drew a map of the area to help us quickly get oriented: the coffee shop, the wine shop, bike rentals, Draper Lake. Then she added: if she’ll be really careful with it, I’ll let you borrow the book I made for my great-niece.
Taylor’s First Marine Biology Book was the title. In it were images of crabs and sea urchins and jellyfish, each picture with an explanation and a note: This picture shows you how the creatures in your book come in all sizes and that you should not be afraid to touch them and to explore. There are so many wonderful treasures to find at the beach.
My young scientist studied this book carefully, photographed each page, and then hand-copied each one again, in meticulous handwriting using her note cards that have an illustration of a bunny on them, a child’s note cards for a child who always loved to write, to explore, to document. She wanted to see these ocean specimens for herself and then look for more, to take her own pictures and present her own findings in a second volume.
So we were on a nature walk on our third day at the beach, the first day the sun came out, looking for creatures, particularly jellyfish. At first we saw only fragments of Clypeasteroida (sand dollars), thousands of Donax variabilia (coquina), most of them open like wings, their contents devoured.
Then, in the surf, there was a star, and another.
Asteroidea, that is name of the class of animals most commonly known as starfish, although marine scientists refer to them as sea stars because they are in no biological way related to fish. There are more than 1500 different species of Asteroidea, part of the phylum Echinodermata that dates back to the Ordovician period, 450 million years ago.
Sea stars are consummate adapters, notable for their ability to regenerate lost or damaged arms, or even, in some species, a central disk. On this early, sunny morning, my young scientist, her friend and I found a dozen sea stars, all of them alive, each in a different state of regrowth. It was the only day we saw them.
She is named for my parents’ friend Astrid, from India, the architect’s wife, kind and intelligent, who played bridge and drank Manhattans and wore the most beautiful saris.
If we had kept to traditional Balink family names, then my daughter would have been Johanna, probably Hannah for short. There are countless Johannas in the almost-five centuries of Dutch Catholic Balinks who built this family tree into which I married, the tree that sprouted new, non-Dutch, non-Catholic branches in the forms of my children.
When we learned that our second child would be a girl, I said: I’ve always liked the name Astrid. And Bernard said: Me too. And Bernard’s mother, the Balink matriarch, said: Yes, the Swedish princess who married the Belgian king; everyone loved her. Astrid is a fine European name.
And so she is Astrid, my Libra daughter, balancing the traits of an ambitious mother and iconoclastic father.
Here is how Astrid tells this story:
I was on the sandbar, and I saw a shadow. At first I thought it was a catfish, but then I thought, ‘no, Astrid; that’s ridiculous.’ And then I saw a fin, and I knew it was a shark. I was scared, but then I just stood still and watched it. It was little, trying to get over the sandbar to the deeper water, but the tide was too strong because the shark was so small. And I was sad that it couldn’t get where it wanted to go.
She tells this story in the car, on our way to get ice cream; but I heard the basics of it earlier in the day when we were standing together on the sand, comparing notes, after the man in the red swim trunks ran frantically down the beach in the shallow surf, waving his arms and yelling: Get out of the water! Get out of the water! There’s a shark! There’s a shark!
I had walked down the beach to Draper Lake, a coastal dune lake that we had been exploring together as suggested by my friend, the scientist. While I was walking the children were bobbing in waves that broke on the outer edge of the shallow sandbar created by the storm’s tides, 10 yards or so from the shore. It was a glorious, temperate sunny day.
I decided to walk back along the sandbar instead of on the beach, and I was halfway between the two when he ran at me, that man in the red swim trunks: Lady, there’s a shark! There’s a shark! Get out of the water! So I turned, more afraid of the man than the shark, to scramble against the tide and get to the shore. And I watched the shark swim by, small and grey and fast and beautiful, less than two feet away.
I thought I was crazy, but I guess I wasn’t, my girl said, quietly, privately, to me when she walked down to where I was standing, talking to the man in the navy ball cap, the man who said he’d caught a fish bigger than that shark, just that morning.
I thought maybe I was crazy, my girl says; but I knew it was a shark.
You saw it? I ask.
Yes, she says, out on the sandbar. There were actually two of them. She is smiling, slightly, when she says this, as if it is the most normal of all things to say.
From the shore, I watched you and your brother jumping in the waves, your bodies big and strong, your squeals and laughter unmistakable. We all swam together; we saw a stingray. We stood in the peaty lake and marveled over how the tea-colored water covering our feet gave the illusion of wearing white leggings.
We combed the beach for jellyfish, but instead we found sea slugs and sand dollars and snails. And a dozen sea stars, all in the process of regenerating.
About this series:
For the month of August, as a birthday present to myself, I’m doing another daily writing challenge. This year, not unlike last year, it’s all about RE-committing to writing. So far that includes: Reengage, Reconsider, Reassess, Review, Redefine, Relish, Relay, Reinvent, Reevaluate, and Reroute.