Lifetimes Unfold on Scarborough's Sands
We ran ahead, past the Coppertone billboard, with the dog pulling down the little girl’s bathing-suit bottom. We kicked off our rubber flip-flops and let the hot sand burn the bottoms of our feet. Our mothers, in their one-piece bathing suits and Jackie O. sunglasses, sat in woven plastic chairs, lit up cigarettes, and told us not to get lost.
But getting lost was the whole point. We lost ourselves in the tumult of the waves, letting them lift our skinny bodies and toss us about. We lost ourselves in castles, building elaborate ones with dripping-wet sand and pieces of broken shells. We walked as far away from our mothers as we could, until they disappeared in the throng of sunbathers, returning only for the cherries and peaches they’d packed, now covered with sand. Finally, tired, we went back into the water, to float. Beneath us, the waves bobbed gently, and we got lost in our own private thoughts.
If it got hot enough, on a summer night, we’d get lucky enough to return to Scarborough at night. Our fathers came home from work and we ate dinner in the overheated air, one window fan blowing it back at us. Too hot to play outside, too hot to watch television inside, suddenly we were hustled back into the station wagon and headed to the beach for “a dip.”
A dip meant we couldn’t linger. No sand castles. No long walks. We convoyed with other relatives in their station wagons, parked in the now nearly empty parking lot, and ran directly into the ocean. On those hot nights, even our parents came in, our fathers in long, baggy swim trunks with their pasty legs poking out, bellies hanging over the waistbands. Our mothers wrapped us, wet and shivering, in towels. Back in the car, we huddled together, our sandy feet rough on each other’s legs. Back home, the air was still and heavy, but in bed my skin felt cool from the ocean, and when I closed my eyes I could almost hear the waves crashing, could almost feel lifted by them.
When I moved away from Rhode Island, I swam at beaches all over the world. On a Greek island, I went topless for the first time. In Portugal, I kissed a man who barely spoke English. I drank too much red wine on a beach on the island of Majorca and ate grilled sardines on a beach in the south of France. The waters of the Caribbean, and off the coast of Mexico, and along Rio de Janeiro, are warm and clear and blue-green. On Bermuda the sand is pink; on the island of Hawaii it’s black. As an adult, I was constantly drawn to beaches. They were more beautiful, more deserted, more romantic, than Scarborough. Yet, when I grew tired of humid summers in my adopted home of New York City and decided to rent a house on the beach for a month, it was Scarborough to which I returned.
For seven summers, my family and I took over a split ranch with an oversized deck in a development called Eastward Look, a stone’s throw from Scarborough. By then, my father’s emphysema had worsened, and even though the beach was a short walk across a busy road, he and my mother drove to the beach, usually staying for just an hour or two. My cousins and I, though, stayed all day. We rubbed sunblock onto each other’s shoulders and backs and shared our grownup problems. We weren’t Beatles wives anymore; we were wives of real-life men. And over those summers, our marriages broke up and new lovers appeared. Sometimes we cried on that beach. For fun, we read magazines out loud to each other.
At the ends of those days, we walked back to the rented house, eager now for margaritas and sophisticated hors d’oeuvres. Our parents sat back and let us cook for them — grilled pizzas and whole fish. Before it grew too dark, we played long, heated games of bocce, until our parents went to bed, tired, their noses sunburned. It was our turn to stay up now. On the deck, we opened bottles of Chardonnay and talked into the night, just the way we did when we were kids, our sandy bodies tangled together. I got up early and met my father in the kitchen to bake berry pies and homemade biscuits before it got too warm. Then the two of us sat together on the deck and drank our coffee and talked.
After my father died, I stopped renting the house at Scarborough. His birthday was the Fourth of July, and each summer he’d thrown himself a huge party at the beach house. He’d played John Philip Sousa music, bought kegs of beer, and grilled all three meals for dozens of people. To be at the beach in July without him seemed not only difficult but wrong somehow. And so it was a few years before I returned to Scarborough.
Now I was a mother, too, and had moved back to Rhode Island after many years away. With my two small children, Sam and Grace, I repeated the ritual my own mother had performed on summer mornings. I filled my station wagon, picked up my cousin, and headed south to Scarborough. Together, we sat and watched as Sam dashed in and out of the waves. We helped Grace build her own elaborate castles. We walked with them as far as we could, collecting shells and sea glass in their plastic pails.
I’d moved home, and that meant Scarborough on hot summer days. I could easily imagine my children coming here as teenagers, riding waves and whispering secrets to their friends. I believed that one day, as I had, they’d sit here on a starry night and kiss the boy or girl they’d hoped to kiss one whole long summer. Watching my own kids on the very beach where my childhood and adolescence had played out made me feel almost as hopeful as I used to when Beth and I had come here all those years ago.
But in adulthood we know better. Or perhaps we should. By the time we become adults, we’ve had our hearts broken enough times, suffered enough disappointments, learned enough lessons, to know that some dreams don’t come true. That day as I stood watching my children play at Scarborough, I never could have imagined that in a few short years, my daughter, Grace, would be taken from us, suddenly and inexplicably, by a virulent form of strep, leaving me and Sam and my husband, Lorne, in a perpetual winter.
I stopped going to the beach after Grace died. Something about all that bright sunshine, the sounds of children splashing in the water, the endless, relentless surf, was too much for my wounded self. Instead, I gathered my family and fled each summer to far-flung places — Peru and Vietnam and Thailand. We visited temples and monuments and tombs. We ate crickets and guinea pigs and a fruit called durian that’s so smelly it’s not allowed in public buildings. Instead of embracing the familiar, I sought experiences so different they couldn’t possibly worsen my grief.