Home at the Beach
I begin in the present, though the past will break through before too long. The soft off-white sand swallows my olive green boots, making every step an effort, until I reach the estero’s damp packed shore. It’s only a short stroll now, alongside fairly calm water, and then a quick climb up what looks like a dune. Reaching the top, I am rewarded with the view, the one I never tire of seeing, even if I saw it only the day before.
I have just hiked the easy Abbotts Lagoon Trail, named after the body of water I passed on my way out. The lagoon comes into view on the far side of a meadow that, in May, bursts with wildflowers. On the opposite side, the green rolling hills are dotted with cows. This is the Point Reyes National Seashore in Northern California, a mix of protected ocean, bays, lagoons, ponds, woods and hillsides, existing in harmony with historic farms.
Several times a month, I make the drive to Point Reyes from my home an hour and a half north. I come because I need this view of the Pacific Ocean, her wild crashing waves, and most especially the horizon blending with sky. The view makes me believe in limitless possibilities, something I don’t ordinarily feel.
Here is where the past and present merge, gazing out on the water, walking down the beach, watching sandpipers scurry away from the waves. I was born here, I tell myself. This is my home, though a check of the facts doesn’t exactly agree.
Officially, I was born in Cleveland, Ohio. Lake Erie was the only body of water anywhere in sight. My memories, though, begin someplace else.
My earliest and only recollection before I found myself on a beach was standing in front of our living room window at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, watching my best friend Hillary Sheehan’s blue plastic swimming pool fly past. We were having a hurricane and Hillary’s parents must have neglected to bring the little pool in from the back yard.
I often think that image has stayed with me, because I was only five and assumed a pool I sometimes splashed in couldn’t possibly fly. But that pool lifting up and heading into the unknown, landing who knew where, would soon describe me and the many ensuing years of my life.
Not long after the hurricane, I boarded a plane in San Francisco with my parents and two older sisters and flew to Honolulu. My career military dad, a major at the time, had just gotten orders to transfer from Andrews to Hickam Air Force Base, whose fenced-in, nondescript buildings began not far from the Honolulu airport, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. It might have been my age and the fact that I was about to start the first grade, but my memories, which prior to the move are blank except for that flying blue pool, suddenly emerge from the dark. Writing or talking about Hawaii, I find myself walking contentedly around in my mind, seeing our first house with the brown wood roses growing in front and a banana tree in back, its tiny curled fruit resembling short fat fingers.
But the point of traveling back to the three years we lived in Hawaii, the second year moving to a duplex at 4A Julian with a distant view of the gray Navy ships docked at Pearl Harbor, is to talk about the beach. Because Hawaii was where I first became acquainted with the beach and found my home.
We went to swim at a beach not far from Waikiki for the day. When my father wasn’t flying off to Japan, he took us to a hotel on Waikiki, where we sat on the beachfront lanai, helping ourselves to cold boiled shrimp and mango and papaya from the Sunday buffet tables. And several times a year, we drove over the Pali to the Windward Coast, where we stayed in a rustic, mildew-smelling cabin overlooking waves that sometimes rose as high as tall office buildings.
We went to that beach with several other families, who rented the neighboring cabins. While our parents sat inside drinking, smoking and playing Canasta, all of us kids bodysurfed that towering water.
It was there that I learned to swim out to the exact right spot, a temporarily smooth pool of green-blue water. I turned my body toward shore, my short, skinny arms stretched out in front, and my head turned back to assess the waves. I watched each wave begin to build, feeling the pull of the water away from me, preparing myself to go. There was always a decision to make, what even now seems a life-and-death one. Would the wave fall just right, hurtling my small, short self safely to shore? Or would it crash on top of me, tossing me around with the sand and broken bits of shell it picked up, making it impossible for me to claw my way back up to the surface again?
If I thought the wave wasn’t going to break in the correct spot, I would dive under. But when I judged that the climbing water looked exactly right, I rode the wave, turning into a dolphin for those brief moments, swimming as if I were flying and could travel anywhere in the world.
Three years after landing at the Honolulu airport, we boarded a massive ship, the S.S. Matsonia, and sailed to Los Angeles. I cried, of course. My mother scolded me, saying I should forget about everything – my friends, Hickam Elementary School, the officers’ pool across the street where she taught me to swim, the warm, sugar-dusted malasadas my father brought home from the bakery on Sundays, the smell of plumeria in the leis we made, and dancing the hula at an outrigger canoe race. She told me to forget the beach and reminded me that our family, being military, looked forward. Never back.
And that’s what I tried to do. For years, as we moved from one temporary resting place to the next. But the yearning for a home refused to leave me.
Every year or every other year, I helped my mother wrap the Noritake china and glasses of all sizes and shapes in sheets of newspaper. In a small New Jersey town, we lived in the only home my parents ever owned, a three-bedroom split-level, on a street where every house looked exactly like ours. Next we moved to an apartment on an Air Force Base in Illinois. I don’t remember the interior of the place at all. From there, we rented a house in a small town, and my father was gone. And so it went. On and on.
I continued moving as an adult. In some ways, I packed up and left because moving was the only life I knew. Happiness, which eluded me, might be just around the next bend, in an apartment across town or on the opposite coast. I didn’t have a clue how to make a permanent life, even though I kept moving in search of one.
Where are you from? Someone always wanted to know. All my life, I was the new kid on the block, in school, at work, and in the organization. Nowhere, I answered sometimes. At other times, I said the opposite, claiming to be from everywhere.
I kept moving, assuming that when I finally arrived at the place I was meant to be, I would know. I’m not sure I ever acknowledged this, even to myself. But the place would, I now assume, feel like home.
Home was what I kept searching for, after I began living on my own. No matter where I landed, though, I felt like a woman standing outside her life. I couldn’t commit to staying. Since it was easier to leave with only boxes of books and clothes, I didn’t buy much. Furniture would weigh me down.
One place felt familiar, though, no matter where I ended up. I went back there, like a migrating bird or salmon returning to spawn. The beach was that place, not just in Hawaii, but along the Atlantic Coast in New Jersey, and up and down the Pacific, from British Columbia to Mexico, and even down to Nicaragua. When I couldn’t reach the ocean, I substituted lakes and rivers, such as the Salmon, Metolius and McKenzie in Oregon, and California’s North Yuba and Merced. Creeks, especially in the Pacific Northwest where they resemble rivers, did the trick. Bodies of water. My refuge. My solace. And yes, my home.
An anesthesiologist about to put me to sleep for a minor operation, asked, “What do you like to do?” I told him I most enjoyed being out in nature, close to water. He wanted to know a favorite place of mine and suggested that I imagine myself there.
In response, I said, “The Na Pali Coast in Kauai,” and pictured myself hiking the Kalalau Trail. For those few moments before the drug put me out, I saw myself high up on a bright green cliff, where the trail wound perilously close to the edge, gazing out at the clear aquamarine water. I felt calm and at peace, exactly what the anesthesiologist intended, in those otherwise tense moments before an operation.
All the moves, magnified by a depressed mother who drank herself into oblivion every night and a father who also drank too much in the rare times he happened to be home, took a toll. I didn’t know until much later in my life that the lack of a home wasn’t my only problem. I had suffered from a mountain of loss I never got to grieve. The hurts from saying goodbye to friends and favorite places over and over again festered into a wound that refused to heal. It became easier not to get close. I expected people to leave me, men I dated and newly-made friends, even when I stayed in the same town.
The beach became my one true friend, the place that would never let me down. All the losses and hurt, and the fears of abandonment that haunted me, faded when I walked along the sand, my eyes gazing out toward the horizon. Or when I sat on a riverbank, watching sunlight dance across the dark green water. Or floating in a kayak, in Central Oregon’s one hundred foot-deep Clear Lake, ospreys soaring far above my head.
I return to favorite beaches as if on pilgrimage. Staying at a small rustic cabin accessed by walking across a wildly swaying cable bridge, I drag a plastic chair around the building to a spot feet from the North Yuba River. Hopeful miners still sift those clear waters, searching for gold. Looking down from the bank, it’s easy to see why. Sunlight hitting the water there makes the rocks underneath shimmer golden.
My goal when I am there, or at any of the long list of beaches where I feel at home, is to bond with my surroundings, as I imagine people do with family members or childhood friends in their hometown. Vacationers or day trippers might travel to these places for fun. I am there to heal the wound of loss.
And maybe, I think when I’m sitting on a fallen log atop one of my favorite hills in Point Reyes National Seashore, gazing out over wide, blue Drake’s Estero, the joy I feel is even greater because of the suffering. Though I still might not feel at home where I live, and know such an experience may never occur, I feel connected to so many places. That has made me someone to envy, I think. A child of the world. Or at least, of its many gorgeous and unforgettable beaches.
Author’s Statement on Beauty
I have a favorite cabin that sits on the bank overlooking the North Yuba River in California’s Gold Country, east of Nevada City. To reach the former miner’s cabin from the dirt parking lot just off narrow, winding Highway 49, you have to cross a high swinging bridge over the river on foot. The cabin is appropriately named the Bridge Cabin, and a stay there is only a few steps in comfort above camping.
So it’s not the interior of the cabin that I love but the setting. Walking on the bank in front of the cabin, I like to set a folding chair down at a specific spot, because of the view I get there of the river.
If you asked me about beauty, I would point to that spot and say, “There.” In the afternoon, sunlight hits the clear water and the rocks underneath, coloring them golden. When I gaze at the spot and then turn to look further upstream, where some Sierra peak stands in the background, I know this soars to the spiritual realm that classifies as beauty, because every way I try to describe it misses the mark.
And maybe that is what beauty means to me – a view, or a melody, or an artfully crafted line — that pierces me so intensely, I can only nod my head and say, “That. There.”
Patty Somlo’s most recent books are The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil), a Finalist in the 2016 Best Book Awards, and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), a Finalist in the 2016-17 Reader Views Literary Awards. Her fourth book, Hairway to Heaven Stories, will be published by Cherry Castle Publishing in Summer 2017. Her essay, “If We took a Deep Breath,” was selected as Notable for Best American Essays 2014. Her work has appeared in journals, including the Los Angeles Review, Santa Clara Review, and Under the Sun, and in numerous anthologies.