Personality quizzes like to ask you if you prefer the mountains or the beach. I’m never exactly sure what this is meant to symbolise, but I always choose the beach.
I like music about beaches and water: as a kid I loved ‘Kokomo’ by the Beach Boys and ‘Orinoco Flow’. I even convinced myself that Rod Stewart’s ‘Rhythm of My Heart’ was the actual soundtrack to C. S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Incidentally my favourite Narnia novel). It does make sense–a lot of the song is Stewart mumbling incoherently and one of the few clear lines is the last one in the chorus, ‘Where the ocean meets the sky, I’ll be sailing.’ You guys, that’s what they were doing in the book. But I digress. What I’m trying to say is I feel a pull to the water, and while my associations with mountains (or other landscapes, for that matter) are generally vague, I have some very strong memories of beaches. Like…
Jones Beach, Long Island, New York
Jones Beach was my standard for beaches for a long time. In a way it was awesome–when I was about 12 I realized that kids in many parts of the country had no immediate access to the ocean, and that struck me as very strange. I had Jones Beach at least. But because it was my standard, I never really understood what articles were talking about when they lauded the ‘best beaches’. I loved Jones Beach, but to love it you have to really commit to the idea of loving beaches, because it kind of sucks: you park miles away from the sand, and when you finally get to the sand you have to walk across a mile of it to get to the water. The water is the Atlantic Ocean and it is always grey and freezing, even in the middle of July. Even when that was refreshing because it was 95 degrees outside (not exaggerating), the waves are so rough you’re guaranteed to get dunked under. Yet I keep going back, because…nostalgia? I even look forward to taking my kids there.
Paupackan Lake, Poconos, Pennsylvania
My grandparents bought a house outside of Hawley, PA before I was born. They had it newly built and chose everything, and their choices were deeply and profoundly reflective of the 1970’s, most especially notable in the skunk striped shag carpet in the living room and the matching paisley bedspreads and curtains in the bedrooms. That house was the setting of my childhood summers until the age of 17, and I friggin’ loved it, apart from a couple of super moody teenage years.
It was kind of a weird place–there were all these houses dotted in the woods, many of them the same because it was a development, but without the manicured suburban feel. There was also a lake, and the lake had a manmade beach with the grittiest white sand. Of course the lake, being a lake in the mountains, was freezing, and that was amazing. I spent entire days swimming in that lake, coming out only to drink some of the super strong iced tea my mother made, the kind that you mix up from a powder. She brought it in a cooler with a spout.
You could tell the beach was manmade because there was a concrete barrier keeping the sand back from the water. They included a step going down to the water, and this was always covered with green algae that looked like a tiny underwater lawn. There was also some of the sand at the bottom of the lake bed, but after about 3 feet deep it went to mud. As a kid I was revolted by that moment when I would wade out and plunge my foot into soft mud as opposed to gritty sand. At one end of the beach willow trees dipped their boughs into the water and it was like swimming in a fairy world. The end of the swimming area was marked off by a dock, and as a kid it was my life’s ambition to be big enough to swim out to the dock. All the older kids did, and they looked impossibly cool as they cannonballed into the water. When I finally achieved this goal, I found I was scared of plunging into the murky water, but I did it anyway. When we went to visit my grandparents in the winter the lake would be frozen over and the sand covered with snow, and it always struck me as bizarre that all the merriment of summer could be so completely stilled.
Megan’s Bay, St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands
My dad worked in real estate development when I was a kid. I think he approved loans for people to build hotels, although I’m a bit murky on the details. All I know is that he went on a lot of business trips and people treated him–and us, when we went along–really nicely. Fruit baskets in hotel rooms, fancy dinners out, that kind of stuff.
One of the deals he did was in St. Thomas, and he wound up going there several times, and we got to come along a couple of times. I feel like I missed school for the trip, but more likely we went during winter break. I was about 7 the first time, and it was the first trip I remember taking outside of the continental US, and our first big family vacation in awhile. I remember dressing for the plane in a corduroy jumper and a long sleeved blouse, and my mother warning me that I would be really hot. I didn’t believe her, until I stepped off the plane into the sweltering heat and cried ‘Mom! I’m boiling!’
St. Thomas was amazing. Leon drove us around the island, and when it looked like our bags were lost, he took me and my sister for ice cream while my mom sorted it out. Glover was our baby sitter, and I don’t remember much about her except that she had beautifully dark skin, that kind of complexion where she looked almost velvety, that she had a soft, accented voice, and that I had one of those kid crushes on her. I also remember Megan’s Bay.
When the plane descended over the Virgin Islands, my mom pointed out the aquamarine water to me, and I was astounded. Most of my experience was with grey and murky water, so I couldn’t believe this was the sea. I remember admiring how suddenly the clear turquoise would stop, giving way to sapphire blue. I asked my dad how that happened and he told me it had to do with depth.
My mom is a big beach goer so while my dad was wheeling and dealing, she found out the place to beach it, and was told to go to Megan’s Bay. One of the first things I recall about Megan’s Bay is how much my mom loved it. When you’re seven, everything is new, so the most astonishing sights blend in with the ordinary ones. I certainly liked Megan’s Bay, and I could see its superiority to Jones Beach, but I didn’t quite grasp how idyllic it was. All I knew was the water was clear and calm, so I could swim without fear of drowning, and those sun drenched days were extraordinarily happy. In thinking about it the memories come back more and more: the toy shop where I got a cockatoo on a perch that sang, the Pizza Hut where I watched the video of ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ while we waited for our food, Java Wraps which sold island print dresses and my mom bought a ton of stuff for herself and us. It was mostly me and my mom and my sister, and I don’t think I ever really appreciated that it was one of the best times of my life until now.
I think this post will have to be two parts, because I’ve only gotten through the beaches of my childhood, so to be continued…
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