The Young Fathers and the Sea

“I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us.”
~Umberto Eco

Fathers play harder than mothers. Mothers stand at the edge of the sea, snapping photos of fathers teaching the children that fun might include being roughed up by the ocean.

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I suspect mothers are secretly glad the fathers take this job. Children don’t whine when the broad-shouldered fathers take them out in water well over their head. Come on. You can do it. I’m right here.

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The children show off a little. Splash their dad. Swim away from him, then back. Cling to his neck.  I want to tell the children how this memory will imprint on their bodies. When they are decades older, swimming in the even deeper waters of life, they will recall a surge of power, an inner rush that feels like being a super hero, a whisper from one strong enough to hold you up. You can do this. Yes you can. Come on, I’m right here.

My father taught me, among many things, to body surf and ride waves with a bouncy rubber surf mat in the olden days before Boogie Boards. We roamed Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, Newport Beach, La Jolla.  Family outings and vacations were frequently at the beach, always in the water riding waves on rubber mats.

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How did my dad, a boy from upstate New York, learn enough wave riding skills to guide his four daughters through all the surf the Pacific could muster, including the most memorable session of all, riding the June, 1973 epic Newport Beach surf churned up by Hurricane Ava? When I ask my father a question, he responds.

In 1945  Richard J. (Dick) Beachman, Captain, USMC, took me, his ten year old second cousin, into the surf at  Pacific Beach, CA. He held class. “I’m going to show you  how to to swim out into the surf. How to use this piece of ‘gear’ to catch a wave and ride the wave onto the shore.” What he called “a piece of gear” was a mattress cover he had taken (his term was “I liberated it”) from the U.S. Naval Hospital, San Diego where he was being treated.  A Japanese sniper’s bullet went through his left hand as he waved his Marines forward during the battle for the island of Guam in July, 1944.
“First thing you do is wet the mattress cover in the surf so it’ll hold some air. Then, hold the open end toward the wind and let it fill up with air. At the same time tie the open end shut. Now you’ve got a big wet cloth balloon. Quick, wade out into the surf, look for a wave coming in. When you see one, turn your back toward the wave, put your arms and chest onto the cover and ride in onto the beach.”
Dick, my younger brother Kevin and I went ‘surfing’ several times. He always brought his ‘liberated’ mattress cover. But, in time he was discharged from the Marine Corp. Dick and his Navy nurse, Juna, fell in love, were married 62 years and raised six children. The mattress cover went with him, or them  —  or,  maybe, he returned it to the hospital.
Though Dick’ mattress cover disappeared I was hooked on riding waves onto the shore. it didn’t take long to learn how to body surf without artificial aid.  I enjoyed the sport for many years; a sport I shared with our four daughters.
There are no photos of the young father with his four daughters in the sea because the picture taking job would have fallen to the mother, a woman unable to swim but determined that her children would learn, love, and thrive in the water. She wouldn’t have taken her eyes off the lifeguard, making sure he was doing his job watching us.
The lessons learned in the ocean have lingered with all the Backyard Sisters, proving to be as valuable in life as in the Pacific.
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Respect the ocean. Never turn your back on here. That isn’t the same as being afraid. Respect and fear both have a place in life and the wise know which is which.

Walk behind your children. They learn to lead but know you always have their back.

If your daughter crashes and burns, let her cry on your shoulder for just a minute, then remind her of all the way she succeeds.

It’s OK not to know how to do something, but it’s not OK not to try it.

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The thrill of learning something from your dad will linger for a lifetime.

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Thanks dad for making it seem like you were just playing hard with your kids in the ocean. I see now what you were really doing.

What memory will you share with your father this weekend?
With gratitude,
~Catherine

Give the people a love story

What are you writing?
Everyone wants to know.
Wretchedly miserable love poems, I say.
The poems or the love?
You, of all people, must know.
(from beach bag journal, 2005)

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Kauai is a study in couples.

Yesterday’s bride perches poolside, feet dangling in the water.  A fraternity-size of group of men surrounds her, holding out icy cups of beer.

“Drink!”
“Drink!”
“Drink!”

“No more!” she insists and jumps to her feet.

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As she sashays away the rhinestone word scripted across her bikini bottom sparkles in the afternoon sun. The man wearing the white Groom hat downs his beer and doesn’t follow.

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Fewer people will look you in the eye and say, I could be your lover than the number who will say they’re thinking about becoming a writer too.

Which one of these is the harder thing to do?
(from beach bag journal 2006)

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The friends who join us on this trip point out The Feral Pig, a restaurant that used to be a breakfast place.  “We ate there on our honeymoon. ”

These are the kind of friends we’ve had since before we both married that hot summer of 1980, D and I trading bridesmaid duties.

Today they giggle, then tell us a honeymoon story.

One morning, we saw a couple eating breakfast there.

They just sat at a table, drinking coffee, reading the newspaper.  They never even talked to each other.

We think of that couple all the time.  We don’t to be like them.

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Repeat after me: Give the people a love story.

Los viejitos sólo deben salir para ser amables.  Old people should only go out in public to be sweet.

This quote is attributed to Leopoldo, the uncle of Aura Estrada, Aura, the muse and amor of author Franciso Goldman, Aura, the woman who died in a freak body surfing accident and then Francisco wrote about her in the most beautiful book I’ve ever read.  In Say Her Name, Francisco says,

“Hold her tight, if you have her; hold her tight, I thought, that’s my advice to the living. Breathe her in, put your nose in her hair, breather her in deeply. Say her name…”

He can write about love like that because he doesn’t have it anymore and no one can accuse him of being sentimental.

I read Say Her Name on the beach and remember a question I once asked an entire class at the end of a semester when I was a literature grad student.

“Where, where is the happy love story, the great literature happy love story?”

Titles peppered me like small darts. Love in the Time of Cholera.  Anna Karenina. Lolita.

So I start with Lolita. I find love in a million masks: obsessiveness, possessiveness, irrationality, kindness, tenderness, anger, illness, forgiveness, relief and release, madness. Is this the only kind of love that makes great books? I really need to know the answer to this. I really need to find a happy love literary feat.

My friend who’s never been to grad school but loves to read suggests Rebecca.   I look it up, it’s a romance novel. I don’t read it.

Maybe love and literature are like the raindrops in a storm.  Who can write well about one small droplet of water without evoking thunder and floods and the loss of sun behind clouds?  One small drop of fresh water. Where’s the miracle in that?

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“We’re on our honeymoon.”

I tell this to my husband, (isn’t that a glorious word?), I tell my husband this as we stand at Gate 45 in LAX preparing to board our flight to Kauai.

“Our honeymoon. Yes. I like the sound of that.”

In truth, we’ve been married almost 32 years.

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Writers block only happens when you stop telling the truth.
(Scribbled in my Theory of Fiction Class Notes)

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The Gray Divorcés

The divorce rate for people 50 and over has doubled in the past two decades. Why baby boomers are breaking up late in life like no generation before.
Wall Street Journal headline, March 2012.

One small drop of fresh water. Where’s the miracle in that?
Repeat after me:
Give the people a love story.

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You don’t brick over the hearth if the fire burns out.  You gather kindling and tinder. You haul in logs from the woods.  Hell, you cut down the whole damn forest  if you must.

You hold a long-stemmed match to crumpled paper of your past and breathe and blow to fan the flame. You swear to tend this fire as if your life depends upon it.

You don’t want to be that couple that doesn’t hold hands on the beach, nor the one who doesn’t talk at dinner.  You want to be that one over there, the one laughing in the surf, holding hands.  I wonder if they’re on their honeymoon?

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“Write love stories. I benefit when you write love stories. I’ll be your research.”
J says this to me one day when I say I’m only writing sad stories.
(From my journal, March, 2007)

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Just don’t lie to me says the writer to the heart. It makes the work turn out badly.

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I tell J I’m sorry. I can’t write a happy love story. I wonder though: can I write you a life instead?

~With love, C

Things I find on the beach

A found a cat’s eye marble once.  A salt-pitted wedding band.  A mirror.

And you, of course, in my beach journal from Kalapaki Beach, Kauai one June.

Overheard in the water, father to his daughter on Saturday

The knee-high girl with butter blonde hair is bright as a bobbin in pink rash guard and orange ruffle bathing suit.  As she jumps small waves, she practices a new word.

Here comes undertow!
Can you see undertow?
There it is—
There’s undertow!
Here it comes again!
It’s undertow!
Jump undertow!
Here it is!
Here’s undertow!
We can’t ride undertow!
He can’t hurt you!
Here it is—
He’s undertow—

A wave washes up to her chest and she screeches in the way little girls at the beach sometimes do.

“Daddy!”

The man standing with her pulls her high into the air.

I’ve got you— I’ve got you—
I’ve got you—
Don’t worry
That’s just the current
It won’t hurt you
It can’t carry you away.
Don’t worry. I’ll never let go.
I’ve got you.
I’ve got you honey, I’m here.

Overheard the same day
This from the man in the navy blue baseball cap and black sunglasses to the boy calling, “Dad!  Dad!” who is trying to cling to his neck in the waves.

Touch me one more time and I will walk straight up to the babysitter and make a reservation for you.

The boy swims to the shore and walks away alone up the beach without looking back.

Later that day:  Seen but not heard at sunset

The man and woman recline side by side on lounge chairs.  Both silent. Both reading. She sets down her book, glances at him.  He doesn’t look up.

She peels her pink tank top over her head, sheds her khaki shorts.  She tiptoes across the hot sand to water’s edge and sits, facing the sea.

He looks up from his book to the horizon.  He sets down the book, stands and picks up a camera from the small glass side table.  His gait across the sand is silent, bobbly. Quite slow.  He peers through his viewfinder as he walks.

Without a word, he places his hand hand on the woman’s shoulder.  She swivels her head, upturns her cheek, mouths a silent “Oh?”

This is the moment he presses the shutter.  Then he lowers the camera from his face and returns the smile she shines upon him.

What else do I find by the sea? A thought.

Hours ago, a huge dock was found on Agate Beach in Oregon, debris finally at rest after its untethering from Japan during last year’s tsunami.  You can read about it here.  Official reactions are mixed.  Some marvel at its long journey. Others worry about the environmental contamination it might bring.

On this day by the beach, I too can’t help but wonder:  Will I leave behind delight or detritus today?  And you, what about you?

With all due respect to oceans and tides,
~C