I wasn’t born on the beach, but I nearly was. As the story goes, my mother, heavily pregnant with me, had sought solace from the August heat by heading to the shore and immersing herself in saltwater. She’d been out a while, when a lifeguard swam out to her and said, “Ma’am, we think you’d better come out of the water now. Your mother is worried about you, and frankly, so are we.”
I didn’t know it at the time, obviously, but that was the first time my grandmother had been my guardian at the beach.
For the rest of my young life, I had as many – or more – beach days with my grandmother as I did with my mother. But it was never just my grandmother. It was my grandmother and my grandfather in his cabana-striped shirts and fishing hats, or my grandmother and my best friend’s grandmother in matching black, skirted swimsuits, or my grandmother and an old family friend who refers to herself as my “non-biological aunt.”
My grandmother, however, was my universal constant and primary caretaker (as my mother worked). It was she who made sure that I always had a hat on. It was she who was the keeper of the sunscreen and the buckets of collected shells. It was she who packed the lunch cooler with tuna or egg salad sandwiches, thermoses of iced tea, and many, many napkins (the latter came out of the cooler feeling powder-soft and slightly damp from the ice packs).
It was also she who insisted that at some point during each beach visit, that we write the names of people we loved and missed (because of distance or death) in the sand.
She would watch my cousins and me as we played in the sand, and danced back and forth in the waves, letting the surf nip at our toes. She would keep a sharp lookout as we entered the water waist, chest, and then neck-deep, sometimes with kickboards or colorful pool floats, but more often with only our youthful exuberance and eagerness to get the best wave for body surfing back to the sand.
When my grandmother finally deigned to enter the water, it was always a dramatic event as she inched past the foam and froth and walked out to where the waves came to her thighs, and then her waist. She’d shriek from the perceived cold (the Atlantic can be kind of chilly even in high summer) and then scrunch down so that she was immersed up to her neck. Once her ritual was completed, she would relax, kicking and floating, the strongest swimmer of us all. Miraculously, she never lost her hat; I lost too many to count.
Twenty years later, the death of my grandfather had diminished my grandmother’s strength, and our roles were reversed. My mother was her primary caregiver, then, but I lived nearby, and was often called upon to help – not that I minded.
Going to the beach, then, became something of an adventure. We had to pack extra clothing and hygiene products (we were all in California by then, and unlike New Jersey, the beaches there don’t all have restrooms and changing cabanas). Of course, we were all well trained in the art of changing behind towels held up by whoever was with you, but after my grandmother’s hip replacement, she needed a wheelchair, and that made things a bit more complicated.
We found special wheelchairs with fat tires that could roll on sand, and even enter the water. My grandmother couldn’t swim anymore, but she could sit in the surf, and let the water flirt with her legs.
But some things didn’t change, so much as shift: we packed the lunches with the chilled napkins, and we were the ones who slathered her skin with sunscreen and reminded her to wear her hat.
Eventually, things reached the point where dementia and mobility issues took the beach away from her completely. She moved into a board and care home, and we alternated weekend visits. When she felt up to it, we took her for walks around the neighborhood, she in a wheelchair, always stopping for ice cream or espresso. But she missed the sand, the shells, the sea, and she spoke of them wistfully.
I don’t remember if it was my mother or me who came up with the idea to bring the beach to my grandmother, but I know my husband and stepfather did the heavy lifting. We collected buckets of sand and shells and filled a kiddie pool we’d set up in the courtyard of her care home. We raised one side of it very slightly so there would be some exposed sand, and we filled the rest with water.
My mother and I packed an old-style picnic lunch in a cooler and had it waiting in the yard for her, then we wheeled her down the ramp and right up to the pool, getting her close enough to put her feet in the damp sand.
She giggled like a girl and splashed water at us with her feet. She hogged all the grapes and refused to eat the crusts of the sandwiches. At the end of the day, we gave her a stick and helped her write my grandfather’s name in the sand.
I think we all knew, though we didn’t acknowledge it, that this would be my grandmother’s last beach day. That knowledge was tempered, though, by her joyful expression when her bare feet touched sand once more.
My grandmother died in 1999. I have inherited her sea glass and her love of the shore. I think of her whenever I see an older woman in a black bathing suit, though I’m fully cognizant that to my nieces and nephews (and grand-nieces and -nephews) I am an old woman as well, and whenever I see a person being pushed into the surf in a wheelchair.
We had to adapt our beach days for my grandmother, but none of us ever resented it. And to this day, whenever we go to the beach, we make sure to write her name in the sand.