another day at the beach
At Nahant Beach, we tie yarn around my mother’s wrist so that she won’t float away into the horizon. Her face furrows like crumpled paper, but she lets us do it. Normally she goes by herself after work to sit in a beach chair and watch the wind drag the sand in tunnels. Then she creaks out of the chair, purposefully becoming unfamiliar with her own body and its age and its need for gentle care and goes into the ocean as someone much younger who can withstand it, whose body moves so freely underwater the way it won’t on land. Then she is sore for days after, barely able to move, and all we can do is chastise her like she is that younger person. Mother turned child.
A few weeks ago, she got caught up in a rip current. She was alone and terrified, but she stayed still and then swam back to the shore at an angle and made it out alive. She came home dripping and wilted, telling us what happened to unburden her guilt. We told her she needed to be more careful and to take a break from going to the beach for a while. But she often snuck out and went anyway. We could always smell the brine on her hair.
One day when she woke up from another day at the beach, the weight of hours of swimming kept her down like an anchor in her bed. We told her she needed to slow down. I can’t not swim, she said with tears in her eyes as we helped her up. It’s like asking me to get into my grave. We told her it was okay for her to stay in the ocean that long if she simply floated instead of swam. But then we worried she would close her eyes and find herself at the other end of the earth.
So, on this late afternoon, we take her to the beach and step into the water with her, sinking our feet into the soft sand. We hold the yarn lightly while she lays with her back on the water and drifts further into the ocean’s mouth, and further away from us. Her smile is so big on her face, barely fitting, that it is almost embarrassing, like we are spying on a private moment.
We look away for a moment too long, eyes wandering to the sky above us. They say the sky is all the same sky, but we know it’s not. The sky over the ocean is its own precious thing, giant clouds lining up to be painted with whispers of neon orange-pink and warm blue and thumbprints of gold that only come out where sky and water meet; where the sun cracks on the horizon and spills its egg yolk.
When we turn around, our eyes follow the yarn like tracing a maze to find its exit, and our mother is not at the end of it. We tug on the yarn, hoping to feel the weight of her; to know she is under the water and can be pulled back up. But the yarn returns to our hands in a few quick pulls. She was always good at untying knots.
The first newspapers read Woman missing from Nahant Beach and we grow cold at the sight of them, at our mother reduced to “woman,” and the word “missing” painful for how and blunt and inaccurate it feels. She is not quite missing, but somewhere else. We are missing her.
We imagine her riding estuaries like highway lanes, visiting as many parts of the country’s bodies of water she can, like the gulf and the rivers that run through mountains and the rock beaches she likes best because she doesn’t get sand all over the back of her thighs. For weeks we scan articles online about bodies discovered washed up on shores around the country: Lake Champlain. Lake Michigan. Laguna Beach. Every time it’s not her, which shakes us up like a cocktail mix of relief and disappointment. We don’t want it to be her, but knowledge is more steadying than worry.
She once told us she likes the anonymity of swimming in the ocean, how you can lose yourself to it and forget your own name in its sheer size and presence. Perhaps even if we saw her, we wouldn’t recognize her: a woman whose age and body are in constant flux like the very water she is traversing. Time passes and for our own peace of mind, our mother is every joyous and dreamy girl, teen, and woman we see in bays and streams and the vast Atlantic, the ones whose reflections in the water just look like more waves.
10 March, 2021