Woman to Women
Just the Way It Was
A walk on the beach and a glimpse at a life lesson
The clouds are blowing in. Craggy rocks like ancient devotionals jut out onto the sand. The waves are wild and impossibly loud. Montauk. It’s Sunday afternoon; I’m walking on the beach with my 8-year-old son. Wind and water carry the sound of my husband playing guitar on the porch; we can just hear the strings bend under his strong fingers.
We’re alone on the beach, save for a few surfers who take on the feral waves, until we come upon a large family. They sit in a horseshoe, their yellow-and-white beach chairs arranged around two umbrellas and a cooler filled with fruit and beer. The cooler has wheels. Their afternoon’s worth of supplies would last my family a week. The adults seem to be a brother and two sisters and their spouses, with a couple of kids each.
An enormous radio plays Bruce Hornsby, his melancholy piano a perfect soundtrack to the cheerless sky: That’s just the way it is.
Their loud conversation pierces the afternoon. “Do you remember when Joanne locked herself in the bathroom to call some boy, and then couldn’t get out till we took off the door?” the brother says, swigging a beer. His sisters laugh, remembering, but it grips me like the undertow. There will be no scene like this for my son when he is older, for like me, he is an only child. There will be no clan to remember with him, to join him on the beach on a cloudy Sunday afternoon, to be there for him.
The children make a ruckus as they dig a deep hole. At night, as is the custom in Montauk, they’ll gather around it and light a fire, tell tales and roast marshmallows. Two of the younger ones argue over a shovel and about who is working harder. “I hate you!” one shouts. Sand is kicked, more words exchanged. Then the fighting stops and the digging resumes. This quick switch, alliances broken and remade, the stuff of siblingdom, is something I’ve struggled to learn, something I will have to teach.
I’m sorry, I want to say to my son, I didn’t mean to hurt you, to put you at a disadvantage, to open you to the loneliness that became as familiar as my own hand. I never planned it this way.
“Why don’t we dig a hole and have a campfire too?” my son asks. I point to the sky and the imminent rain. “We have dinner plans, and it’s a lot of work to dig a hole,” I tell him.
Later I walk the beach. In the distance I see the family around their fire. The wind blows seaspray. It’s a raw evening. One sister complains that the other is burning the marshmallows. The kids refuse to eat them. The guy scolds them, a bit too harshly, the beer from the afternoon thickening his tongue.
The women huddle by the kids. “Lay off the beer, Jack,” one sister says. “And who sainted you?” he replies.
A soft rain falls. I hug my jacket around myself as I head back to our room, and then hug my husband and son. A perfect triangle. My son smells the campfire in my hair. “Next year,” he says, “we’ll build a fire. I’m strong, Mom. I can dig the hole all by myself.”