My mother loved the beach. She could sit for hours in the shade of a beach umbrella with her toes curled in the sand, watching the waves. She got excited when she spotted porpoises leaping close to shore or a big ship coming into view on the horizon. Yet, my mother was afraid of the water; she couldn’t swim, and she would not get on a boat.
When mom was a girl she had a bad experience on the river. I vaguely recall that she fell out of a boat and almost drown or she almost fell out and worried about drowning. I don’t recall the exact story, but getting water up to her ankles at the edge of the shore was as deep as she’d venture into the ocean.
She liked to collect seashells. After our summer trips to the beach, we would gather all of her shells and stuff them into her suitcase for the trip back to Kentucky. There were shells from summers in Duck, North Carolina and Ocean City, Maryland and the Delaware Shore. She brought back pink sand from a pretty beach in Bermuda where we went on her 70th birthday. On the taxi ride from the airport to the hotel the driver was talkative. He obviously loved his island home. “You have come to paradise,” he said, smiling in the rear view mirror. “This is a beautiful place,” Mom replied, looking out the window at the passing palms and pretty bougainvillea, “but it’s not paradise.” The driver looked disappointed. Mom was a religious person whose image of paradise didn’t include taxis and boats and neon signs.
In her 90s it became too difficult for Mom to walk from boardwalk to beach in the hot sand. She was slow and apt to fall. But, by then, the guard station had wheelchairs with big plastic wheels and one of the lifeguards would transport her over the sand and help her get situated in the shade. Some people may have been too embarrassed to do this, but not Mom. She liked to experience life and she did so in whatever way she could.
The last time she went to the beach, she and I went alone since my husband and son were back at work and school. It was October. Summer was long gone and she had spent the last part of August in the hospital getting a pacemaker. She was 93. Once the doctor said she was fit to take a short trip, we headed to the beach. She didn’t have her beach attire with her (she usually brought a red bonnet to wear in the summer; it got a lot of attention, but she didn’t care in the least). In any case, I didn’t have a red bonnet, but I offered her a big, floppy straw hat with a nylon sash in a leopard print (out of style, but it fit). She snapped the dark lenses onto her glasses and off we went to the Eastern Shore.
Mom and I talked about everything and everybody. We could laugh and cry and pray together. We were alike in so many ways but still as different as day and night. I was educated; she was wise. I had a temper; she had “the patience of Job.” I liked to cook ethnic foods and dream of exotic places; she cooked perfect fried chicken and talked about home. Home had always been the hills of Eastern Kentucky. When someone at a restaurant or shop in DC was intrigued by her accent and asked where she was from, she’d simply say “Barbourville” — nothing more — as if anyone and everyone should know Barbourville. Her neck of the woods was the center of the universe.
Still, she did love the ocean. On that last trip to the Eastern Shore we were crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, more than an hour out of DC, when Mom said, “Well! Would you look at this.” I glanced quickly toward her side of the car to see what was wrong. She was pointing to her feet encased in pink terrycloth house slippers. “I forgot my shoes,” she said. The sun was already high in the sky and it was too late to turn around if we were going to do this in a day. So we laughed all the way to the shore.
We had crab cakes with a view at Mango Mike’s in Bethany Beach and then sat on a bench on the boardwalk for a long time and watched the waves break. Mom in her pink shoes and leopard hat. We were an odd sight. It was off season and there were no crowds. Still, people smiled when they walked by. Some stopped to chat, and they’d ask my mom where she was from and she’d ask them the same. They’d never heard of Barbourville, of course, and she’d never heard of their hometowns in Pennsylvania or New Jersey or Maryland or Delaware. But it didn’t matter. “People are just people,” she’d say. “That’s what makes the world go round.” She never met a stranger.
I like connections, too, and that’s why I ceased being a mere tourist a long time ago. I’m a traveler; I go places and meet people. Though I have always understood intellectually that we are all more alike than we’re different, it still amazes me each time it happens — when I discover the familiar in the foreign and make a new friend. I realize, yet again, that Mom was right. That’s what makes the world go round.
HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY!!