There is something about the beach that brings out the best in everyone. We smile at one another more. We wave and wish good will towards strangers, their toes in the sand and surf. We are a fellowship. We all connect.
I take in the view. The beach washes away all my concerns. Nagging thoughts drift out with the tide. Carpe Diem. The beach frees me from the pressing concerns of everyday life, if only for a few hours or a few days. We are all on vacation.
Recently, on a still-cool April morning Tim and I walked along the shore. We are collectors. We bring home cat’s paws, coquinas, scallop shells, and stories. It was a glorious day. Our ankles were tickled by the 60 degree water, the waves glistened in the sun. As we walked and talked we noticed a family consisting of an older man, "PopPop”, his son and two granddaughters. PopPop had cast their two fishing lines beyond the breakers, the poles anchored on shore with PVC pipes. He was teaching surf fishing to his two granddaughters. He groused and grunted, but it was obvious he was loving every moment. His son stood patiently by. Smiling, he watched his father, most likely remembering this ritual he had been part of years ago as his dad taught him surf fishing.
The girls, about seven and nine, scampered about until suddenly one line jerked, once, then twice. PopPop jumped into action and reeled in his prize, a large Sail Cat.
The older daughter danced around the landed fish, amazed by its glistening gray, shiny pulsating body and large dorsal fin. The younger daughter was repelled. She hid behind her PopPop, adamantly refusing to go anywhere near that fish. No amount of begging by PopPop and her dad encouraged her to approach the flopping Sail Cat.
Her sister was more brave and was thrilled with PopPops’ catch. She gently touched its glistening skin. She ran her fingers along the Sail Cat's length to its tail.
Her dad unhooked their prize and returned the Sail Cat to its home, the Gulf. His older daughter watched intently as the Sail Cat swam quickly into the surf. Her younger sister retreated and scrubbed her toes in the sand. Clearly, she wanted nothing to do with fishing, or fish. Ever.
We continued our walk down the beach, laughing over the family and their different personalities. We imagined what their world would be in the future. It was a beach story to savor. A story beautiful with its generations and the girls' unawareness of this very special moment. I hoped that their memory would be embedded in their hearts and souls forever, as my earliest family beach memories are embedded in my heart and soul.
Further down the shell-encrusted sands Tim took a selfie of us, with the background of incoming waves glistening in sunbeams and beach rainbows.
“Would you like me to take a picture of you together?” An elderly man, deeply tanned with a slightly rotund tummy, asked, smiling at us. He was clearly a gentleman, with graying hair and a well-trimmed mustache. His smile lit up his entire face, from his eyebrows to his chin. He is a very happy man, I thought. After taking our photo we thanked him. As we began to depart we heard his voice again,
“Today is the tenth anniversary of my rebirth.” Immediately Tim and I were suspicious. Was this guy a beach-roaming evangelist?
He continued. “Yup. Ten years ago today. The day I almost died of a brain aneurysm. If it hadn’t been that I was with my buddies who knew what to do, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Tim and I stopped in our tracks, curious. I found my voice, “What?” I said.
He smiled with all-encompassing joy. “Yup. Doctors gave me a 6% chance of survival. If it weren’t for me helping out doing plumbing at my buddy's place, with a bunch of our friends, I never would’ve made it. Ya know, I have a lot of great buddies. Been friends forever. So, when one of us asks for help we all show up.” His voice dwindled to a faraway look in his eyes. “Uh, sir,” I asked, gently nudging him back to his story.
“Oh, yeah. So I had this god-awful headache. Wouldn’t go away, and you know I never get headaches.” He pondered a moment, examined his hands, then looked up and said,
“I was on the third floor, waiting for someone to bring me an aspirin. The last thing I remember, like it was a slow-motion movie, was watching my hand reach out, turn the doorknob to go downstairs and watching the door open.”
Tim and I were transfixed, captured like the Sail Cat. The man smiled happily at the remembrance. His eyes raised to the clouds drifting in the blue sky, the horizon, and the bright blue water. He gestured towards the beauty of the beach, looked at his toes in the glistening white sand, and continued, “Well, if one of my buddies hadn’t been a firefighter and paramedic, hadn’t known how to give me CPR, hadn’t had his firemen buddies transport me to the best ER and treatment center for aneurysms, right close by at New York’s Saratoga Hospital…” His voice drifted off again, then he recovered the memory, “Yup, one of the best aneurysm units in the country, and that’s where they took me. If my buddies hadn’t known all that, then I surely wouldn't be here right now.”
Tim and I stood on either side of him. I touched his arm and shook his hand. He smiled his enormous smile and shook his head, as though thanking us for listening to his story. We wished him a happy tenth rebirth-day. I said, “Well, I’m a writer and I promise you I will share your story.” He smiled and turned, waving as he departed. Suddenly, he stopped, faced us again, gave us a long look, a final smile, and was off. His was another episode of life we collected with our shells, all the more treasured for its spontaneity from someone brave enough to share with a stranger.
On Thursday evening I looked around the Oxford Exchange Book Fair where I was selling and signing my first book, Writing in Wet Cement. The rooms were crowded with readers and writers. Voices were lifted in excitement and laughter, heads were nodding in understanding, hands were touching, reaching out to express the pertinence of a thought. There were military and war stories, words of crime and passion, romance, history, sci-fi and adventure. Discoveries made, love and loss, achievement and regret. And, no doubt, beach stories. Every aspect of life was exhibited in this room.
None of us would have been at the Oxford Exchange were it not for the stories humankind has been compelled to share since the beginning of time. It all began with spoken family tales and legends passed from generation to generation. Then, from cave drawings and handprints outlined in red ochre and plant dyes to crude pictographs, exquisite hieroglyphics, to ancient stories launched forward to become the written word, to this moment at the Oxford Exchange.
Our imaginations, lives and memories propel us into the future. They are the engines that move us forward, the drive behind our secret moments shared with a stranger who may become a friend.
These are the gifts we offer to one another from the earliest cave drawings to this Thursday evening in April at the Oxford Exchange. Words become engraved in our hearts and on paper. Stories preserve our lives, and create pathways to our future. Like shells collected on the beach or a story told by a stranger, may it always be so.
We bring it all home, shells and stories, to gently place in an old blue canning jar on a windowsill or onto the bookshelves of our lives.