The Beach

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Opa, Awaiting Conversation

Today we enjoy our last full day at Holden Beach. For as long as I’ve known them, my in-laws have been going to Holden Beach in North Carolina every couple of years. It’s a practice begun when Liz was a child. I and our family first went in 1987. After that we lived in Colorado and rarely if ever went. In recent years we’ve gone quite regularly. Now I wouldn’t miss it. It’s a practice that grows on you like an incoming tide. Objections like sandcastles are overwhelmed and disappear.

My family did not take consistent vacations when I was growing up. We took special trips—to Expo ‘67 or to see my father’s parents. Most trips were to folk dance camps. So the regular family vacation spot, where you accrue memories and build legends across the decades, and which you re-anticipate each time, was a new to me. But I love it.

Holden Beach is a long sandbar on the southernmost coast of North Carolina, facing south. It separates the inland waterway from the Atlantic Ocean. Our trips have most often been in July, so the weather is always hot, the ocean warm, and the air-conditioning cranked. Liz says that in her childhood they stayed in much simpler houses with no air conditioning. I imagine it being too hot to fall asleep easily, yet wonderful to hear the sound of the waves breaking and the gulls calling, sounds we miss in our closed-up air-conditioned palace.

But the closed-up air-conditioned palace is remarkably comfortable, something that has always been important to me—more so as I’ve aged. And so every two years we make our way, by airplane or car, to the cottage at Holden Beach. For the past two visits, the “cottage” has been a wonderful 9-bedroom beachfront house with an elevator for Opa and a swimming pool for the grandkids.

We arrive when we can, and stay as long as we can. After we get there, we quickly head for the ocean. It makes the week last longer. That first sight of the surf, soft dashing of the waves against the sand, and the smell of salty hugeness in the hot, moist air—these conspire to baptize our senses for the week to come.

Many families taking beach vacations eat out at restaurants nearly every evening. Barnetts do not. They eat out one night and the other nights each family takes a turn cooking. This year was the first year each of our three children and their spouses took a night, sparing Liz and me. We have great kids. But it also places us officially into the ranks of “old people”.

Food is always tasty and abundant. A giant plastic jar of cheeseballs makes the rounds early in the week but disappears quickly, leaving behind orange-stained fingers and lips. Two years ago I made pancakes for breakfast at least two of the days, but this year I didn’t have the energy. No one complained. Or made pancakes.

People who are not small children do as they please, sunning themselves on the beach, building large sand castles to be flooded by the incoming tide, bobbing in the ocean, looking for shells or “diggers” (tiny clams that wash up, right themselves, and dig quickly back into the sand), sitting in the shade of a beach tent or on the porch reading a book, playing Minecraft on laptops at the dining room table, snacking, napping, or going shopping at Beach Mart.

The beach week is not without its tensions. Parents of small children do not get to relax as much as those of us past that stage. Small children get tired, have trouble sleeping, or don’t get to do everything they want when they want. Old people such as myself sometimes get worn out by the kerfuffle and have to retreat to the bedroom for a nap or solitude.

One afternoon I am walking on the deck with a preschool grandson, following him as he heads downstairs to the pool. Let’s go in the pool, he says. But you have your clothes on, I point out. That’s okay, he says. We can swim naked, and removes all his clothes as I laugh and call up to his parents on the top deck (their problem to solve, not mine). He doesn’t make it into the water. A teenage niece looking on from the deck above, covers her eyes.

Last Saturday was the seven hour drive, right after my horrible last day of work. I felt surprisingly good all day, even staying up late to welcome the last of my family. The other days I’ve felt less good. Sleep is patchy. Much of the indoor time I am cold, so I carry my freebie Provenge fleece around with me as though I am Linus from the Peanuts comic strip. At least once a day I feel chemo’d, even though my chemo ended a year ago this month. Most years, I’ve swum every day, spending an hour or more in the ocean riding waves, or bobbing around with whomever is out with me, talking. I only do that twice this year, and only catch a few waves. Mainly I sit under the beach tent.

I shop with Hannah on her day to cook dinner. We spend about $400. People keep texting us other things to buy while we’re shopping. Wal-mart is all out of cheeseballs. Sadness. Hannah is a cheerful and efficient shopper, so I enjoy the trip, though it wears me out. When we get back to the beach house, we load all the plastic bags of food into the elevator and use it to carry the food up the two stories to kitchen level.

Unlike on previous trips, I take few photographs and only with my cell phone, leaving my good camera put away.

My mood lability is in evidence. In our car as we began our trip to the beach, I prayed, as I often do, for our trip. I started crying in the middle of the prayer. That’s new. This afternoon when Hannah’s family left for the airport, I watched their car pull out of the driveway and I cried. And I still cry when I think of it, like now. I’m not sure why Hannah’s departure is so evocative. Maybe it is because her family lives the furthest away so we see them less often. Maybe it is because she is our firstborn.

I miss the several people who didn’t come this year, but mostly I miss Oma. She would always cuddle the youngest great-grandchild in a rocker out on the porch. She was superbly soothing.

Oma and I, and often others, made the ritual trip to the Holden Beach new and used bookstore, Lowell’s Bookworm. It was a smallish but respectable bookstore with a ready supply of cats. One visit, perhaps 20 years ago, was magical: I found an original Ballantine Fantasy Series copy of E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros on the bargain shelf for 25 cents. It looked identical to the one I read at Mama’s house when I first discovered the book as a teenager. I have since re-read the book every two or three years.

Lowell’s Bookworm closed permanently the year Oma died. The shop couldn’t compete with ebooks and other retailing trends. Barbara Lowell had lost her husband Jim, a former mayor of Holden Beach, to cancer the year before, which also made it difficult to keep the store afloat.

Oma thought about photographs. She was the one who urged me to take The Picture, a telephoto shot from the porch of Opa sitting alone on the beach next to some empty chairs, in the shade of colorful beach umbrella, waiting for conversation to arrive, and to ensure anyone swimming in the ocean had a buddy. I made a print for her and it was one of her favorite photos. I couldn’t have taken it without her. Although she often fell asleep during my slide shows, she valued the photographic image.