I am obsessed with the sea. This river isn’t that, but it stretches out for eons. I gaze at the horizon, misty and distant. My parents grew up in Connecticut and I was born in a small town right outside of New Haven, only a five-minute drive from the shore. Long Island Sound, I think, shaped me more than I can remember. I have vague blurry childhood pictures of being at the beach when I was little, walking down a woodsy road with a yellow line in the middle and thick trees on the sides, until we reach a little wooden shack with stalls where we could change. In other still photos I see Mom showing me how to listen for the ocean in a conch shell, talking about seahorses during a sunset, walking along the shore combing for smooth rocks, shells or colored glass. My life was colored with the scent of saltwater until just before I turned six.
We were eating McDonald’s food for lunch the day Dad told us he got transferred. I still remember the taste of the salty fries in my five-year-old mouth after he told me and Randy, we’re moving. I didn’t think I much cared. We traveled often enough, all over New England, to Santa’s Village in New Hampshire and other amusement parks in Massachusetts and Vermont. My dad used to be a policeman, and oftentimes he had to work nights, but it seemed like we always had time for vacations. Then Dad decided to join the FBI and had to go to a place called Quantico for sixteen whole weeks. That McDonald’s lunch—a special treat reserved for special occasions—was so soon after his return. We moved to Buffalo at the end of that January, while Mom was newly pregnant with June.
And it’s true what they say sometimes in books and movies and in that old song, “Big Yellow Taxi,” done originally by Joni Mitchell, you really don’t know what you’ve got until after it’s gone. There is no way to calculate how much something means to you, especially when it’s something you always see, something you live with every day, like a nearby ocean and a nearby Nana. Those things creep up on you, so invisible and insidious until they’re a part of you that you can’t live without.
We did somehow though. I think I know already, intellectually if not intimately, even at my young, mostly still innocent age, that this is the nature of human life. We didn’t have seahorses and beach glass anymore, but I found outer space and Randy found dinosaurs. Dad worked for the Bureau and Mom got a job proofreading for a newspaper. I had elementary school and friends, girl scouts and sibling rivalry to keep me busy, and books about shipwrecks when all else failed. Randy and I played houseboat sometimes on dark days, pretending our whole dining room and sometimes our whole house, was a boat in the middle of a storm. Mom and Dad took us to parks, and on countless family walks, which we kids resisted.
We went back to Connecticut by eight-hour drives to see our family on holidays, and annoying as they were, those car rides have shaped me too, all those long days of sing-a-longs, kids books on tape, car games and long stretches of watching us pass through so many mountains which always in the distance looked almost blue.
On a day in the early May of my fourth grade, after school and homework, when Dad came home from work, he and Mom told us we were moving again. Dad was being transferred to Newark, New Jersey. I was ten then, old enough to know what I’d have to leave behind–our elementary school with its elaborate playground with castle towers, my best friend Maya, the girls in my classes I was finally starting to get close to, our house with its fireplace, our baby-sitter Emily who played Dracula games with us, my yellow room, our yard—and old enough to be heartbroken.
We moved to New Jersey in the middle of August. That first night, I laid awake for hours. It’s also true that sometimes you don’t know what you’re missing until you find it again. The warm, humid wind blew in through my open window, and for the first time in yeas, I heard crickets. It reminded me of Connecticut and it felt like home, as nothing has shaped me quite as much as Nana’s house, the one constant throughout these changes, her yard and her woods.
We were still too far inland at home though. The Jersey shore was an hour’s drive away and crowded. People talked more about boardwalks than seahorses and shells, but in our house all those years, Mom kept her heritage alive. There are nautical decorations all over the house. We have two different stets of couch pillows with lighthouses, lighthouse calendars, sea figurines, Christmas ornaments, trinkets on tables, hangings on the walls, nautical lampshades. My favorite is an embroidered picture that hangs in our family room of a boat with many sails on the water against a sunset that looks windy in the sails. When I had to interview my mom once for school, she talked in the tape recorder about a place called Nantucket and her voice sounded happier and more wistful than I’d ever heard it. It’s more than all this though, that makes Mom a seafarer. She has a yearning in her, something unspoken but more a look in her eyes, something that only comes after a long time spent with something as huge as the ocean.
Consciously or not, I’ve carried that heritage forward, beyond games of houseboat and dreams of shipwrecks. I have that same seafaring look in my blue-grey eyes, like my ancestors who once knew wild Irish seas still live in my blood or I was a sailor in a past life.
It’s funny too, how even the family walks have shaped me. Much as I detested them, I had to go and now when I look back, that’s where I look. It’s how I remember and mark the changing seasons. A few years ago, maybe when I was sixteen or so, I started to want to go. Soon after that, I loved it and still do, like the act of walking brings me back to myself, back to something primal, a way to remember. All my time outside at camps and on walks, all the deep thinking under trees, all the weather-watching, skygazing, marking my life like the rings on a tree by the yearly turn of the seasons, has given me a fierce love of the natural world.
Today on the Chester River, the water is murky and clouds hang down, heavy and dark. It’s a wonderful day for that love, a honeymoon sort of day, or even a middle-aged day when you see your love as if you were young again. I gaze out over the water.
This is an excerpt from my Moonchild memoir manuscript (which you can read about here). It’s a flashback and reflection of sorts that happens during my freshman orientation outdoor adventure on the Chester River in Maryland.
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