Smyrna, Ga.

Mom and I Go Back to the Beach

By Michel Phillips

I held her small hand as we waded into the surf this morning, so the breaking waves wouldn’t knock her over, as 50 years ago on this same coast she had held my small hand, for the same reason.

She held tightly because she wanted to, not because she needed to. Line dancing at the senior center is paying off; she could have stood without me in the barely foaming water. And yesterday when the surf was rougher she fell, and got her hair wet, which her hairdresser had told her not to do—and she was completely immersed, out of sight, but she got back up.

After we left the beach yesterday we drove into town, past our old house, past the shopping center where my dad’s store had been, and past the house that had once been Mrs. Walker’s home and preschool, where my mother had started me when I was three. My mother the teacher, who believes in children learning early and much, from books and from each other and from the world that has so much to teach, most of which can only be learned when the parent lets go of the child's hand and the child starts to run on his own, as far as he can go, out of sight.

Today we waded past the breakers to the sandbar, then a little deeper, up to her chest. When she had enough salt spray and wave rocking to make new memories, we waded back onshore and sat in our chairs under the umbrella, just the two of us.

I went back to reading the novel in which I am still immersed, thankful that my mother the teacher taught me to immerse myself in books. She watched the waves, and listened to the wind, and saw the people and the seabirds. She mentioned that now with all the condos and houses built along this coast that was wild when I was the one who thought he needed handholding, there are fewer living creatures. Fewer fish to nibble at our toes. Fewer gulls and terns and pelicans gliding around. The coquinas that used to burrow into the sand as each wave receded have burrowed down for the last time, to rise again only as grains of shell, indistinguishable from sand.

They will be back. None of us will be here to see them.

My mother the teacher asked me why, I thought, there was a thin band of seaweed about 20 yards from shore, that came no closer, but didn’t float out to sea. I told her that this morning I read in my novel that waves exist apart from the water through which they move, and she asked what that meant, and I told her I didn’t really understand it either. Even though it’s obvious to anyone who’s ever waded in the surf, most of us can see it and feel it but not understand it. Can any of us understand it?

My mother the teacher watches. She sees. She listens. She asks questions. The more you learn, the better the questions.

On our trip into town yesterday we drove past the site where the old hospital had been, where, just before my fifth birthday, Mom gave birth to my brother. He started speaking months before his first birthday—so he could start asking questions. By toddlerhood he was the stubbornest questioner my mother the teacher had ever encountered. He grew up to be our generation’s teacher.

I guessed that the distance at which the seaweed band hovered, as far down the beach east of us as we could see, had something to do with how much energy the shore reflected back from each wave as it crashed. My mother the teacher asked me why, a little to our west, the band of seaweed broke and resumed its hovering about 10 yards farther out, as far up the beach west of us as we could see. From east to west we could see no difference in the shoreline, or the color of the water, or the breaking of the surf. Must have been things under the surface, some fixed and others moving, out of sight.

Mom was amused by a seagull that perched on the crest of the beach a little to our right. The other birds hung out in twos or threes or fours, but not this one. Whenever any other birds flew near, gulls or terns or pelicans, he screamed at them, and they all kept going. This continued for maybe an hour. Then another loner, a tiny sandpiper, hopped nearby, and refused to leave until the gull chased it back and forth, in zig-zag flight 100 yards west down the beach, finally vanquishing the sandpiper. Then the gull turned around and zoomed east, past us and out of sight.

Early this morning, while Mom and the rest of my family slept, I had gone for a long run in the state forest near where we’re staying. I didn’t go as far into the forest as I might have—how far could I go?—but I went far enough to do some good, far enough to stretch myself. Mom was a little worried last night that I was planning to run so far out of sight, but she didn’t fuss.

After enough sea breeze and seabirds to make new memories, Mom was ready to go back to the rental condo, but first she wanted to take another dip in the surf. Did I want to join her? Yes I did, but even though the surf had become choppy again, I said no thanks. I wanted to hold her small hand, not for her, but for myself. She still needs to walk on her own, as much as she can. The day will come too soon when she burrows down out of sight, immersed with the coquinas. For now I can still watch, still see, still listen, and I will wait and will dash into the surf if she needs me, as 50 years ago she released my hand, then watched and saw and listened and waited for me.

She waded out into the surf again, not as far as she might have—how far could she go?—but far enough to do some good, far enough to stretch herself. I was a little worried, but I didn’t fuss.


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