This is totally off-topic: a family beach story.
It seems now that we went as a family to the beach every Sunday after church during the summer, but I know it mustn’t have been that often. After mass at St. Hyacinth, we would change into our “beach clothes” and load up the station wagon with beach chairs, a tarp with all of its attendant paraphernalia (poles, stakes, cords), a shovel, charcoal and lighter fluid, a hammer, suntan lotion, towels and more towels, a conch shell with the small end sawed off to be blown like a trumpet when it was time to come in, and a radio (one that looked like it had enough bands to pick up Russian radio broadcasts, short wave, and marine channels but that never seemed to be able to pick up anything on any band other than AM and FM).
There were ice chests full of food, beer for the adults in cans without pull tabs that required a church key to punch little triangular holes, and sodas for us kids. The beer was always Falstaff or Texas Pride or some other off brand, and the soft drinks were never Cokes or Pepsis (although we called all soft drinks “Cokes,” like some people call all tissue “Kleenex”), but Cragmont or Shasta or some other store brand. We never knew we were missing anything.
Sometimes we’d take the Interstate down to the island, and sometimes we would take old Highway 146 through the industrial wasteland of Texas City, past the smelly Union Carbide plant that was so rusted it appeared to be rotting. The risk of taking 146 was the drawbridge, but the bridge normally wasn’t up except for the trip back home. Watching the sailboats go past -- when we got caught by the bridge but were close enough to be on the bridge’s incline -- was an added treat that made the wait more bearable, but we were beach people, not boat people.
Once we got to the beach, we operated with the efficiency of a military advance team parachuting in behind enemy lines. The first thing to do was select the site for the tarp. This took some careful strategy, based on wind, the location of other bathers, and the position of the car. Once the tarp was up (raised like a circus tent, the older kids and adults playing roustabouts), the lawn chairs and coolers were placed in the shade of the tarp, and the serious beach business could get under way. As fair skinned children (all except Greg, who took after Dad’s coloring), we were lathered with suntan lotion as soon as the tarp was up.
While we kids were playing in the surf, the adults would sit under the tarp and enjoy the day at the beach, drinking beer and listening to the radio. Dad would dig the pit for the charcoal fire on which lunch would be cooked, the exercise a combination of archaeology and engineering. After lunch, we weren’t allowed to go back into the water for an hour (so we wouldn’t get cramps and drown), and we all had to put our shirts back on so that we didn’t get too much sun.
When it was time to go, the remnants of lunch that didn’t burn off the grill were washed away in the salt water and scrubbed away in the sand at the waterline. Dad would get a bucket of water from the Gulf and put it by the car door, and each of us would dip our feet in the bucket as we got in the car, in a marginally successful effort to avoid tracking sand all over the car. We would drive back home, tired and happy and glowing with the sunlight that we had captured in our skin that afternoon, sunlight that we would release in little doses over the next few days until our suntans and sunburns faded or peeled. We were happy and contented then, before college entrance exams, midterms and finals, before the Law School Admissions Test, criminal law, torts and civil procedure, before the State Bar exam, billable hours, and the partnership track. Before the general public had concerns about skin cancer, and before the family had to deal with metastasized breast cancer, heart bypasses, high blood sugar, and kidney failure.
The last time I saw my mother alive was in the summer of 1982 at the University of Texas Medical Branch hospital in Galveston, very near to that beach we had played on so often. Several days before, her doctor told my father, his sister, and me (I was there to drive Dad and Aunt Mary back home from the hospital) that she had a very short time left. She came home for a few days, one of which was great because she was up and about, full of her usual spirit. People dropped by the house, the great extended family that included us six kids and all our friends, and she was entertained and entertaining. But the next day, she couldn’t get out of bed, and by late in the day, she asked Dad to put her back into the hospital.
She had had breast cancer, underwent a mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy and radiation that cost her her hair and her strength. The treatments normally left her sick, and once I drove her down to Galveston for her treatment because she didn’t want to have to drive back afterward. It was the summer of 1981, between my freshman and sophomore years in college, and I didn’t have to work that day, so I agreed. After the treatment, she thanked me for taking her. I shrugged it off, saying that I didn’t mind at all, and that just being near the beach and smelling the salt air was my reward. “Let’s drive down to the beach,” she suggested. “It’s a shame to come this close and not go down there.”
I agreed, and off we went to East Beach, the beach I had favored in high school after the family’s beach trips trailed off, after West Beach was closed to traffic, and after I began to frequent the beach with my friends rather than my family, more interested in surfing and watching girls than in sand castles, the buddy system and Shasta grape soda. I parked the car on the beach, outside the area of the beach where you have to pay to get on. Mom just wanted to sit in the car and enjoy the breeze and the fresh salty smells in the air that only exist at the beach. I got out and took a short stroll down the beach. After we left the beach, we didn’t talk for a long time. We were probably off the island before I thanked her for suggesting we go to the beach. We weren’t there long, and while we were there I didn’t even think about all of those family trips to the beach as a kid, but I remember it now as clearly as if it was last week.
That last night in the hospital, I was among the earlier group to go down to Galveston to see her. I wanted to be sure that not everyone in the family was down there at once. I had read or heard that, when a sick person realizes that everyone has come to see them, when people who normally wouldn’t be there arrive to visit, they know that the end is near and they let go. I wasn’t ready for her to let go, so I was really angry when I got there and found out that all my siblings were on their way down as well. But they had been called, since the doctor said she had very little time left. We were all assembled in her room when she said she just wanted to go home. “We’re all here now, Mom,” Shawn said. “This is home.” I was in the hallway when she slipped away, telling Colleen how I wanted to go to the beach right then, to walk in the sand and try to figure out what was happening and why. I wanted to hear the sounds of the waves that threw the first forms of life onto the earth, to smell the unmistakable smell of the beach, fresh and rancid at once, the odor of the beginning and the ending of life.
The worst part about losing a loved one is that your memory of that person slips away from you from that moment on. You try to remember all you can, and some things will stay in your memory like a movie you’ve seen too many times, but the other things, the little things, disappear. Each time you gather together your memories of her, there are a few more missing. You don’t really notice them gone; it just seems as though there used to be so much more. Those memories are like a sand castle on the beach. You can construct it as well as you’re capable, embed it with seashells to protect it from the wind, build a berm to prevent the tide from reaching it, but try though you may, each passing minute will see the loss of a parapet, the softening and rounding of a once-square corner, the erosion of a tower. There’s nothing, ultimately, that you can do to protect it, and despite your best diligence, the finely constructed castle just becomes a lump of sand on the beach.
Sometimes, however, something will spark an old memory that you thought you’d lost, the way the smell of dust on old books always reminds me of the books from the top shelf of our old living room, the books that got neglected and forlorn waiting to be rediscovered. It is in knowing that these triggers exist that I can live with the fact that ever since I was 29 my direct ancestors live only in my faulty, leaky memory, and that even though my memories may only amount to a lump in the sand, every time I see a shell-encrusted sand castle or a well-carved tower, old memories will float to the surface like the turning of the tide. I’ll take my children to the beach and tell them stories about the ancestors they never knew, and hand my memories over to them so that the collective consciousness of who I am and, ultimately, who they are can instill in them a sense of belonging and an understanding of life, infinity, and the sea.