First Love

One of my earliest memories is of wading in the ocean. We were in Wilmington, N.C., to visit some elderly relatives of my mother’s. For whatever reason, we had some down time, so my parents took my brother Rusty and me to the beach to entertain us.

It wasn’t summer, and Rusty and I were dressed in our Sunday best to meet the old ladies. It was probably cold, but I didn’t notice. All I remember is I had to get in the water.

“Don’t get your clothes wet!” my mother admonished. Really, I didn’t mean to! But I couldn’t resist the ebb and flow of the waves. The sound, the movement, the water crashing on the sand, curling into it, then flattening out, receding, only to do it again. And again. I loved it.

I don’t remember meeting the old ladies that day, although I’m sure we did. All I have is that little snippet of time we spent at the ocean.

Looking back, I’m surprised at my love of water. My mother tells me that as a toddler, living in land-locked northern Alabama, I would wake up terrified, screaming about “sharps” under my bed. Now, I wonder how I even knew sharks existed. There was no Discovery Channel. We didn’t even have a TV. “Jaws” hadn’t yet been written.

We lived in the middle of nowhere, and my only social outings were Sunday School and church (my dad was the minister for three small Presbyterian churches in Sumter County, Alabama. Seriously — the middle of nowhere). I don’t remember sharks being the topic of any Sunday School lessons. My parents read Dr. Seuss and Madeline to me in the evenings. But somehow, sharks swam through my nightmares.

When I was six, my family moved from Alabama to John’s Island, S.C. The manse was fronted by Bohicket Road and backed by Bohicket Creek. My dad built a dock. My mom decided Rusty and I needed to learn to swim. She signed us up for lessons at the Y in Charleston.

The high school students teaching the lessons were clueless. I’m sure they were just doing what they’d been taught, but their approach wasn’t reassuring. They took us by the hands, and had us put our heads in the water and kick. The scariest part? As they walked backwards, pulling us with them, they took us into water that was over our heads. Yes, they could stand up in it, but we knew we couldn’t.

At the end of the first lesson, they had us jump off the diving board into the deep end. I was 8, and Rusty was 6. We were both smart enough to know that was a really bad idea for someone who couldn’t swim. We also didn’t know our instructors well enough to trust them to catch us.

I jumped anyway — hey, oldest child, can’t disappoint authority figures, even if it kills me!

But Rusty refused. He also refused to enter the water again, screaming every time anyone tried to pick him up and move him toward the edge of the pool. Both of our parents began to attend our lessons, in an effort to reassure him. It didn’t work.

Eventually, my mother made some inquiries and found a retired Marine sergeant who taught swim lessons in a backyard pool. He was calm, he was competent, and he was patient. By the end of the summer, both Rusty and I could swim and dive.

In spite of that less-than-reassuring introduction to swimming and my early fear of sharks, I was never afraid of the ocean. I loved our summer trips to Hilton Head with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins on my father’s side. I loved camping at Edisto Beach State Park with my parents and siblings as a child, and looking for shark’s teeth on that same beach as a teenager.

I remember running into the waves, ignoring my parents’ directives not to go past my knees. I loved the energy, the sound, the smell of the salt water.

I no longer live on the coast, but I find I need to return regularly to recharge, listen to the waves, and reconnect with my first love — the ocean.

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