After feeding my daughter’s cat while she’s away, I drive another block to the beach to check “whether the ocean is still there.” That’s what I tell my grandson when he’s in the car with me. Cooper is seven-year-old serious and likes his world anchored to reality. When we see the waves curling in and swishing out, he is reassured and chides me for doubting the ocean’s predictability.
Performing the ritual alone on this bright July day, I breathe in the salty air and feast on the summertime sights of the beach. The clean line of the far-off horizon, the ocher-colored boulder a handful of children are climbing, the flapping of the Stars and Stripes on a far-away large rock reachable only at low tide.
Living “inland”—three miles from the water—I often forget the delicious liberating feeling of the beach. Of enjoying this triumvirate of water, sand, and sun. Summertime near the water gives you freedom to live in the moment all day long.
The teens know what I mean as they move about in pairs or clusters. Their bodies are tanned, their feet bare. The girls wear Band-Aid-size bikinis, the boys carry boogie boards and drape towels around their necks. They’ve been sprung from their stuffy classrooms to this timeless ease. Summer unfurls endlessly in front of them. September, SATs, and their futures are as distant as Mars.
Although the number of lived-through summers have dulled my sharp enjoyment of something as glorious as a perfect July day, the universe has compensated by giving me a roomy mental drawer in which to file my memories of the past. One such memory is of spending the day with my pal John when we were both in our late teens.
John had a wide mouth, a shock of untamed brown hair, and a hearty deep-chested rumble of a laugh. Whenever my sisters and I returned home from school or from trips here and there, and John was back from wherever he’d been, he’d come by and we would all do things together.
One summer I was the only one of us girls home, so John and I hung out. We played tennis, and swam, and went to intergenerational afternoon parties. On Friday evenings we and other music lovers spread blankets on the grass behind the Catskill Book and Record Shop where the shop’s owner treated us to an hour or two of recorded Beethoven or Mozart as candles in glass jars flickered and we gazed at the stars.
But best of all my memories of that summer was of the day John and I spent at Apple Rock, our Norman Rockwell-style swimming hole, and later, as we followed the creek several miles downstream until it wound its way a few giant strides from the center of Woodstock.
Apple Rock got its name from the gray boulder around which the water swirled. We would clamber up it, careful to step over the split in the rock in whose dark gash water snakes lurked. The first plunge into the frigid water below was like being cut with sharp little knives. We swam, skipped flat rocks, and tried to catch little silvery fish that darted around our legs. But most of all we talked.
When we had enough of being in one place, we put on our beat-up sneakers and made our way downstream. Where it was shallow we waded, watching out for the algae-slippery rocks, or we hopped from stone to stone at the water’s edge.
Where the stream formed deep still pools and trout hovered, we cooled off by dunking ourselves. And all the while we talked: about our experiences of the past, about the books we’d read, about what we believed in, about our plans for the future.
A few years later, my mother, sister, and I ran into John and his bride on their honeymoon in Pamplona, Spain, at the running of the bulls, the closest he ever got to following in Hemingway’s footsteps, I guess. John went on to become a lawyer, not the writer he’d dreamed of being. And I became an editor, not working for the United States Information Agency or some international organization.
Nevertheless, I like to think we enriched each other’s lives by sharing our thoughts and dreams that summer. Although he may not know it, John gave me a precious gift. Since I can no longer do and experience some of the physical activities of my youth, he gave me a sweet summer day I can check out of my memory library and relive whenever I want to.
I wonder whether I did the same for him.