Standing on the ocean’s edge beside my knee-high nephew, I notice his Pixar-smooth cheeks flutter with amusement as the slurry of white sugar-sand consumes his ham-hock feet, battering them like pigs in a blanket.
The Gulf Coast’s emerald-green oscillations lap against the dimpled pudge of his ankles until, rhythmically as the waves marched inshore, so too they begin their startling retreat. The boy’s expression, for an instant transfixed by the ecstasy of early-childhood discovery, shifts to one of sheer panic as he registers the tugging tide’s betrayal; in borrowing back its granular deposits, the ebbing current slurps at the squish of his too-cute tootsies and suctions the sand out to sea.
He begins to tumble backward but, just as his legs are swept out from beneath, I hand-hook his armpits and he convulses in a riot of laughter.
Swinging him squealing into the warm breeze, I’m overcome by memories of my own inaugural ocean odyssey, a thrilling occasion that transpired 36 years ago along the same spit of pale sand in Siesta Key, Florida.
It’s not by coincidence that my family gathered here, on an expanse of beach we first vacationed to decades ago, but rather the upshot of a long-planned reunion thoughtfully arranged by my kid sister, Emily, whose metamorphosis from a sun-kissed, soggy-bottomed toddler to a masterful mother of two boys is the very picture of grace. Regrettably, it’s a picture that has revealed itself to me over irregular intervals since I left Minnesota near the turn of the millennium, migrating west and eventually making a new home in Montana.
My family’s collective goal of condensing those intervals, of healing the breach, has gained greater urgency with each passing year, and even greater still with the advent of Miles, 7, and Arlo, the 19-month-old bundle of mischief I now hold swaddled in a beach towel, pressing the pink half-moon of a seashell into his marshmallow palms and peppering his forehead with slippery saltwater kisses.
The carousel of memories this trip evokes for me is potent, triggered at once by the fragrant aroma of tanning lotion, or the carmine-tinged crescent of sun smoldering on the ocean horizon, or the shudder of gooseflesh as a zephyr cools the slick of seawater on my shoulder blades. Scrunching my toes, I seek purchase in the shifting sands, which bear the familiar parallel tread of folding chaise lounges raked across the seaboard by languid beachgoers, as well as the peck-and-run calligraphy of shorebirds — plovers and terns and sanderlings. Indeed, everywhere I look our narrow margin of marine sand is inscribed by the enterprise of interstitial fauna, the micro-castles of molting hermit crabs intersecting the spiny scuttle-scoot smudges of sand dollars.
Any evidence of this activity will soon be effaced by the tide, washed out with the surfgrass and the seaweed, a community of marine biota known as “wrack.”
But for now, Arlo and I collect our seashells and kelp pods, admiring the workmanlike digging of crabs, the plucking of marine worms by willets and the laughing gulls reduced to stitches, their hysterics reverberating along the shoreline. Seated on the steps of the boardwalk, our arms slung over the sagging rope railing, we lean back and admire the ocean’s bric-a-brac, counting our currency while cradled in the high tide of early evening.
There’s a moment when the keen reek of a red tide causes my nostrils to flare, but then the cool breeze returns and I don’t think about the falling water again.
For today, at least, we are rich.
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