When I was younger, my family would spend a few days every summer on the Washington coast. While this may seem like a natural summer choice, it was generally cold and rainy. We frequently left the beach at three in the afternoon to go wrap ourselves in blankets, turn up the heater, and put some soup on the stove. Nevertheless, I loved it.
The main purpose for our beach trips was to visit Shirlee, a childhood friend of my grandmother’s. She and my parents would chat, and my brother and I would wander into her backyard, which was endless dune grass and sand. The gate that marked the edge of her property was hung with old sea floats that she had collected when they washed ashore, and each visit, my brother and I were allowed to pick one to take home with us. I spent hours choosing the perfect float, sometimes small and football shaped, others brightly painted and bulbous. I held onto those floats like they were treasures, and to this day, several are still banging around in my parents’ garage.
One night per visit, Shirlee would encourage my parents to go out to dinner at the fanciest restaurant around, a few miles down the coast in a building where the dining room jutted out over the bay. Take some time for yourselves, she encouraged them. Have a date night! She would take me and my brother out to the Dunes Restaurant, an old diner a few blocks away where we would gorge ourselves on chicken strips. After dinner, she let us have our pick of the forty flavors of milkshakes they could make for us. I always chose peanut butter.
The beach was a magical place for a kid. The idea that things washed up on the shore probably came from distant Japanese cruise ships was thrilling, even if all I found was the cap to a bottle of tea with some characters on it. Mostly, I found disintegrating moon snail shells, bulbous kelp that would squirt when stomped on, and rocks.
My brother and I would come to the beach laden with buckets and shovels to make castles and dig holes with, and leave with rocks of all shapes and sizes. Our favorites had rings running around them, which we called wishing stones and refused to get rid of. Sea glass didn’t hold our attention, but smooth rocks could keep us entertained for days.
On colder days, we would spend our time in the small town along the edge of the beach, which was home to a restaurant that made the best french fries we had ever eaten in addition as well as the largest selection of saltwater taffy that my ten year old self had ever seen. I’d beg my father for more watermelon taffy, saying I’ll pay you back, I won’t eat it all at once, when in reality we both knew that my allowance was a dollar every few months and I’d have a sickly pink stomach ache within twenty minutes of leaving the store.
In the town, we bought a rainbow kite and a frisbee, dutifully toting these items back and forth each time we visited. My mother became the master of the kite, my brother the frisbee, while my dad preferred to draw designs in the sand with a stick and I dug holes. A photo from one of the trips shows my dad and brother looking at my dad’s sea-side artwork, while I’m in the background, facing away from the camera with the frisbee around my head like a halo. This was the beach.
The beach itself was terrifying. The water was cold and boasted signs saying No swimming, danger of riptide. We would bring our rain boots and our sweaters, and my mother would tie her permed hair back with a bandanna and bring a thermos of tea. On sunnier days, my brother and I would walk barefoot along the path that lead from the beach to the hotel, trying and failing to avoid burr-like plants that would leave souvenir splinters in our feet long after returning home.
We stayed at a funky hotel where the proprietors knew our names, and where one year we’d be in a cabin, and the next a stationery mobile home with a mural of Humphrey Bogart on the side. At night with the window open I could hear the ocean, and while it was soothing, the reminder that we were along the tsunami evacuation route sometimes kept me awake.
For variety, some days we’d head into town where my brother and I would spend a few dollars at the empty carnival that was open year round. He’d ride the tilt-a-whirl while I rode the merry-go-round. Sometimes we’d compromise and ride the bumper cars. On a few occasions, our parents would join us and we’d all get in the bumper boats. We’d all pick a color and off we’d go, the boats spewing gas fumes into the air and the grimy water slopping over into the foot well.
I was an inexperienced captain and more likely than not managed to drive my boat into the far reaches of the pool. The attendant would try to coax me back to the dock, not understanding that my steering capabilities were limited and that I wasn’t purposefully driving myself in circles. Eventually, my panic would mount, and they would send someone over in another boat to tow me back in. The next day, I’d skip the carnival and beg to go back to the beach.
The town was well known for their annual kite festival, which my family would purposefully miss. We’d aim for the end of the summer, when the beach was deserted and we didn’t have to worry about getting our sandcastle mashed by some energetic horseback riders or an enthusiastic jeep driver. We were used to the cold, and we relished the solitude.
On the beach itself, my brother and I would build castles, giant shapeless mounds surrounded by a deep moat and a bridge. We’d build them as big as we could, rushing out again the next morning to see if the waves had broken it down, or if someone else had come along and stepped on it. Once we built the castle over a pile of rocks. It was the only time the castle was ever there in the morning.
My favorite pastime was digging holes until the sand became fluid, imagining caverns under my feet. On one occasion, I sat with my back to the waves, my boots at my side, completely unaware of anything but the drips of wet sand from my fingers that I would fashion into castles with wobbly turrets. My mother was reading on a log a few feet inland from me, my brother drawing patterns on the ground with a stick. With a roar, a wave rushed up past the tide line, sweeping around me and filling in the holes I had dug.
I was surrounded, my boots floating and bobbing back to sea with the receding wave. For a moment, it seemed as if I would go with them, that the sand beneath me had become soup and was pulling me in. It was startling, the reminder of how powerful water was. I was bewildered, my mother shouting in the distance, my brother still unawares. We reclaimed my boots. My castle and holes were gone, my clothing soaked. It took a while for the terror to leave, the thought that I was so little and the ocean so big.
Before the next summer, Shirlee, my grandmother’s friend, had died. We went to her funeral, which was inland. In the church social hall, I struggled to place my memories of her at the beach with these people that I had never met and the life that they described. She had left her fine china to my mother, the house to a family member. I imagined someone removing all the floats that she had so carefully collected and throwing them away, not realizing that they contained history.
The next year, my parents chose a different beach town. This new town was busy. We took a family bike trip through the dunes and I crashed, gaining massive scrapes on my elbows and knees. We took a small boat across a choppy patch of sea to another town for a day trip and fed pelicans stale bread off the back of our boat. We accidentally threw our frisbee into the ocean. I couldn’t find anywhere to get a peanut butter milk shake, and there were no bumper cars. When we were on the beach itself, I discovered that the sand was full of tiny worms that made it unpleasant to dig holes. We didn’t return.