Standing by the ocean next to my knee-high nephew, I notice his smooth Pixar cheeks throb in amusement as the white sugar mud consumes his hock feet, pounding them like pigs in a blanket.
The emerald green swaying of the Gulf Coast laps against the padded pust of her ankles until, rhythmically as the waves tread toward the shore, they too begin their surprising retreat. The boy’s expression, for a moment transfixed with the ecstasy of early childhood discovery, turns to pure panic as he registers the betrayal of the rising tide; by borrowing its granular deposits, the downdraft sucks the squish of its too cute tootsies and sucks the sand towards the sea.
He starts to fall backwards but, just as his legs are parted, I grab his armpits in his hand and he laughs.
Swinging it in the warm breeze, I’m overwhelmed by the memories of my own inaugural oceanic odyssey, a thrilling occasion that unfolded 36 years ago along the same tongue of pale sand in Siesta Key, Florida.
It was no accident that my family gathered here, on a stretch of beach where we first went on vacation decades ago, but rather the result of a long-planned reunion, carefully arranged by my little sister, Emily, whose metamorphosis of a sun-drenched, soggy woman -A toddler thoroughly to a masterful mother of two boys is the very image of grace. Sadly, this is an image that has revealed itself to me at irregular intervals since I left Minnesota around the turn of the millennium, migrating west and eventually settling in Montana.
My family’s collective goal of condensing those intervals, fixing the breach, has become more and more urgent with each passing year, and even more so with the advent of Miles, 7, and Arlo, the bundle of 19 month misdeeds that I hold now. swaddled in a beach towel, pressing the pink half-moon of a seashell into his marshmallow palms and sprinkling his forehead with slippery saltwater kisses.
The carousel of memories that this trip evokes for me is powerful, triggered both by the fragrant aroma of tanning lotion, or the crimson crescent of the sun smoldering on the ocean horizon, or the thrill of the sun. goosebumps as a zephyr cools the seawater slick on my shoulder blades. Rubbing my toes, I search for a buy in the quicksand, which carries the familiar parallel tread of folding lounge chairs raked on the shoreline by languid beachgoers, along with the calligraphy of shorebirds – plovers and terns and sanderlings. Indeed, everywhere I look, our narrow margin of sea sand is inscribed by the enterprise of interstitial wildlife, micro-castles of moulting hermit crabs crossing the thorny scuttle-scoot spots of sand dollars.
All traces of this activity will soon be washed away by the tide, washed away by seagrass and algae, a community of marine biota known as “runaways”.
But for now, Arlo and I are scavenging our seashells and kelp pods, admiring the handcrafted digging of crabs, the picking of marine worms by willets, and seamed-up black-headed gulls, their hysterics reverberating along from the shore. Sitting on the steps of the promenade, arms slung over the sagging rope railing, we lean back and admire the odds and ends of the ocean, counting our change while being cradled by the early high tide. evening.
There is a time when the strong smell of a red tide makes my nostrils swell, but then the cool breeze comes back and I no longer think of the falling water.
For today, at least, we are rich.