Looking back now, it was the summer when everything changed. It was 1974 and I was eleven years old, not exactly a child but not nearly a teenager yet.
My family was poised to move to a new city where I was excited to make new friends and even have a new identity if I wanted to. I was pleased with myself, my looks, my accomplishments at school. I’d graduated from sixth grade with all A’s and had the lead in the school play. No reason to think my experience in junior high would be any less successful.
My father had left his previous church and was taking a sabbatical to write a book before taking up a position as rector of a new parish. In the fall we were moving from a small town in West Virginia to Charleston, the capitol. I knew that life in a bigger city would feel completely different, but I was confident that it would fit perfectly into my plans.
But I wasn’t thinking about all of that, because three long months stretched out before me. And during that time we were spending the entire summer at Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina. My parents had rented a cottage one block from the ocean in that sleepy little town.
Everything was on hold – I didn’t have to worry about a changing body yet, or chasing boys. I didn’t have to deal with a math class or impressing my peers or acting like some cool girl I wasn’t.
I remember spending every single day on the beach, from right after breakfast until dinnertime. My older brother and younger twin sisters and I would spread out our towels to mark our place and then launch right into the ocean.
We’d bodysurf and watch for dolphins, build sand castles and catch ghost crabs. We spent endless hours trying to ride the waves on a surfboard that my brother had made out of wood.
Sometimes we walked to Johnny Mercer’s Pier to study the fishermen. We learned to read the tides, to notice the tiny changes in the surf and in the color of the water, how to predict the best waves to ride all the way in.
Every day was perfect in its sameness of sun, water and sand. Over the weeks our bodies turned as brown as pecans and our hair and eyebrows were bleached white by the sun, our skin softened by the sand.
But it seemed like the salty air did more than just scour my body, it also cleared out my mind. My brain became like the inside of a smooth, curved shell, empty and perfectly open to the things around me. And my bones felt light and my calves grew strong from running in the sand.
My spirit was optimistic, there was a certainty about things. The horizon was so clear, even during a summer storm I could see the outline of each dark cloud laser-cut into the sky.
There was a beautiful girl, Diana, who lived across the street, who was sophisticated, boy-crazy and so self-assured in her new sexuality. She had lithe curves that filled out her pink bikini and she walked with a coy sway in her hips. She was friends with me even though I had a cantaloupe belly that protruded from my one-piece suit, especially after my fourth piece of watermelon. But I didn’t care.
I read constantly. There was a used bookstore in town, and my father would take me there to pick up 25-cent paperbacks. It was the summer of Agatha Christie mysteries and Silas Marner and, of course, To Kill A Mockingbird, my favorite.
I was fascinated with morality plays and any book that allowed me to enter into another character’s world view. I wanted to understand why people thought and acted the way they did, and what exactly made someone a good or a bad person. It was probably the beginning of adolescent mindset – when we are forced to see the in between.
I remember my parents borrowing a small television set so we could watch the Watergate hearings. I knew nothing about the events, only that President Nixon was secretly recording people on tapes and he was lying about it.
Not many years later I would read All The Presidents Men. By then I’d become a knee jerk cynic who hated politics. It felt like a lifetime had transpired in those few, short years.
But that summer at the beach I was confident and ambitious. In my spiral notebook I was writing a novel based on my life with my pet rat, Nicky.
Developmentally, I was in between – bored with playing Barbies with my sisters, but not really into listening to my brother’s rock music records either. The songs made me kind of nervous, a little like the feeling I got when I swam out to the deep ocean water and thought about what swam beneath my legs.
But the thing that made me most anxious was that I could feel the hem of our family starting to unravel. I was worried we would all start moving in different directions in the fall. My father would be busy with political work and church demands, I would be in a different school than my sisters and I worried about my brother being in high school. It all made me uneasy.
Finally, at the end of the summer we drove back to West Virginia, moved into the rectory in Charleston and another life began.
I enrolled in seventh grade and a week before classes started I went to orientation at the school. In a loud, humid assembly the new students were introduced to the various clubs and activities. I wasn’t impressed by the debate club, student council or band, but I was starstruck by the cheerleaders. The cute, ponytailed girls looked so cool in their short skirts and pom-poms. I could just see myself as one of them in the pyramid.
Of course that didn’t happen. Any illusions I had of joining the squad were dissolved the first week of school. It was very clear what the social order was, and my 11-year-old nerdy bookishness sent me in another direction – wedged against the lockers, out of the path of the popular kids laughing their way down the hall. I promptly found the library and established my hideout position for the next three years.
For me it was three years of struggling – with depression, body issues, feeling alone. My father had become immersed in political issues, and things never felt simple in the same way again. Our family had lost its sameness – each of us had such different personalities and we were moving apart.
It turned out that city life wasn’t for me after all. I wanted to move back to a small town. Wrightsville Beach and being eleven felt like a different lifetime.
But sometimes I would open my old copy of To Kill A Mockingbird and remember my bare feet on the sandy hardwoods in the bookstore, the damp smell. Or I’d recall the way my sisters would cling to me when we jumped the waves and how our bodies used to touch so much more back then. Or I’d think about Diana and wonder – would she like me now, even though I wasn’t popular?
And when I thought about that time in North Carolina, it didn’t feel linked to my present life. In fact, it had nothing at all to do with the exhaustion of school, of trying to fit in, of hating a body that just felt too big.
And if I thought about the novel in my old notebook, I felt ashamed. Why did I think my life was anything special? I couldn’t even remember the freedom of running or even moving in my body like I used to, without worrying about the way I looked.
And beach sabbaticals didn’t really seem like things families actually did – how was our family so special?
I thought that maybe we were special because we were whole. Under one roof we were one organism. Our little beach family was one animal, each of us like tentacles of an octopus attached to a main body that was my father.
But for whatever reason, the tentacles tore off and drifted away – eventually my mom went back to work, my brother joined the military. And my sisters and I kept our own secrets behind closed bedroom doors. Nothing was as clear as before.
After high school I headed to college in upstate New York and another new life began. When I left it was like kicking free of seaweed around my ankles.
There is no carefree, endless summer, no perfect childhood. And yet summers very often define us. The pulsing waves that sluice over us can clarify and change us. We are like newly shaped sea glass, worn down and polished to translucence – but in the end we can’t even recognize the imperfect beauty of what we’ve become.
Today I’m thinking about this as I watch the Swiss children play in the yard. They jump high on the trampoline, squealing and daring one another. They ride their bikes with bodies as light as sparrows, drunk on the freedom of endless play days and firefly nights. And slowly, so slowly, they are ripening and becoming something new.
Growing up, the opaque clouds in our eyes begin to lift, and reality pierces through. Or maybe it’s the clouds that move in and spoil the sparkle of our idealism. Whatever it is, it marks the end of seeing ourselves in quite the same way again.
We develop a cloying self-consciousness while we learn to obsess over our looks and our popularity and sex. We learn to apologize for our moods. We dismiss our talent. We become ashamed of the cantaloupe belly.
We forget the feeling of the undertow, the power of salt water to hold us up.
Deep down I still yearn for that sensation of lightness – the ocean lifting me weightlessly, the warm sand cradling my body while I nap, the feeling of being nothing and that being okay.
The rites of summer, the tapering of innocence, a farewell to all that was in me that I’m searching to find again. A liturgy of loss, a wish to be made whole.