Friday, August 25, 2017

How love (and food) helped me to make friends with my mortal enemy - the ocean


My kids-sized, red and navy beach towel is wrapped around my shoulders.   My hair, which was once in braids has been undone by the ocean waves and is plastered down on my face and neck.  I shift uncomfortably on a small, gray, beach towel that feels as though it's been washed too many times without fabric softener.  I grimace when I move, because the gritty, yellow sand feels like it's taking my skin off "down there."  I want to lift my butt cheek off of the towel and empty the sand out of my bathing suit, but I'm just too cold to move.  I look around for my mom but I don't see her.

She must have gone to the bathrooms down the beach.

I can't feel my hands, so I cup them over my lips and nose and blow in them to create some warmth.  Without making any obvious movements, I look over to my right to make sure that I haven't aroused the curiosity of my stepfather, Kenny.  But he seems to be occupied by a game of catch with his brother, Paul and his cousin Emerson a few yards away.  Satisfied that he's not checking for me at that moment, I turn my attention to back to my blue fingertips.  Just then, my step-cousin, Jay Jay, comes running up from the waves, screaming with delight.  He rushes over to me and sprays me in the face with chunks of sand as he skids to a stop in front of my towel, his bathing trunks dripping the 50 degree ocean water on to my bare feet.

"Come on Laura," he implores, "what are you doing out? Come back in the water."

I'm shivering too hard to speak.  I shake my head furiously and mouth the word "no."

Jay leans in closer toward my face.  His expression is one of genuine confusion.  He places one of his ice cold hands on my arm.

"What's wrong?  You don't want to go back in?"

"I'm frreeeezzzing," I say finally.  "Its too, too, too cold."

"What's too cold, the water?"

I nod again.  I'm irritated with his wide-eyed innocent act about the temperature of this water.  All summer long,  I try to stay as far as possible from that ice bath they call the ocean and each day we're at the beach, little Jay Jay runs around trying to pretend like the ocean is something we both like.

"Laura, Laur," Aunt Becky's voice reminds me of the syrup Jay Jay pooled all over his blueberry pancakes that morning.

"Do you mind going back in with Jay Jay? He was really looking forward to you guys getting to play in the ocean today."

I squint up her, unable to really see her face against the sun.

"Sorry, Aunt Becky.  I'm too cold."

"I know you guys are in The Cape for another couple of weeks, Laur.  But you know we're leaving tomorrow.  Jay Jay starts 2nd grade next week,  (she reaches down lovingly and pats his wet, curly head) so today is our last day."

I suck my teeth and look down at my numb, frost bitten, water-wrinkled toes.

I wish I was leaving tomorrow.  I hate it here.

"I already did go in with him." My voice is almost inaudible against the crash of the waves and the din of the other families chattering excitedly on all of the other beach blankets.

I glare over Jay Jay's way and lift my head so they can both hear me.

"I went in once, Jay -- just like we agreed."

"You were in like 5 minutes!" Jay Jay's voice is just short of a screech.  The noise catches the attention of Kenny, who tosses the football away and plods over to the three of us.

I keep staring at my toes and shake my head again. I feel my insides stealing for the inevitable stand-off.

"I'm not going back in," I say under my breath.

"You will go in with Jay Jay," says Kenny.  The impatience in his voice is visceral.  I literally dig in my heels as he tries to grab the edge of my towel with a jerky motion.    "They're going back to New Jersey tomorrow," he says nudging me hard in the back with his knee so that I'm forced to move forward.  "It's their last day at The Cape."

Panic starts to boil so quickly in my stomach that it feels like a cramp.  Seized with desperation, I whip my head around, looking for my mom again, but don't see her.  Finally I look at him with what I hope is a pitiful look.  Just to be sure, I poke out my lower lip.

"But I'm freezing. And I already went in."

"Didn't I just said that you're going in?"  This time there's a definite warning in his voice.  I look over at Aunt Becky to see if she's heard it too.  But she is just staring at Jay Jay, who dancing around in a circle like he has to pee.

"Come on Laura!  Come in the water! Come on Laura.  Come in the water," he chants.

My goose fleshed skin sings as Kenny strips the towel completely from my shoulders.  I feel like I've just been thrust naked into an ice storm.  Slowly I get up, keeping my arms crossed over my stomach to quell the ache and to keep from being completely exposed to what feel like arctic crosswinds coming off of the ocean.

"Yay!"  Jay Jay raises his arms in triumph. "Thank you, Kenny!" he beams at my stepfather. "Thank you, Laura!"

I hate him.  I hate all of them.

The break is colder than I remember.  I steel myself against the surf as each, 6-Ft, foamy whitecap whips itself agains my 70-pound frame and tries to take me under.  I spend every second I'm in there fighting being taken in above my thighs, jumping up every few moments to avoid being splashed above my bikini bottoms.  My feet and ankles grow numb within seconds.  My teeth are chattering uncontrollably.

15 minutes later, I'm allowed to return to the shore because Jay has stepped on razor clam shell in the surf and cut his foot.


"I told you we should have gone out further, Laura," he says between tearful hiccups.   Aunt Becky is wrapping him up in a large, downy-looking, towel that smells fresh from the dryer.

"And I told you I wasn't going in above my knees," I say angrily.

"Hey!" the syrup is gone from Becky's voice.  "You two cut it out!  Jay, let me see your foot."

I settle back down onto my now ruined-with-sand-and-cold water beach towel.  I feel tears stinging the backs of my eyes.

I want to go home — not to the Cape house.  I want to go back to Cambridge.

"There you are!" The sound of my mother's voice looses a few of the waiting tears from my eyes.  I don't bother to wipe them from my cheeks.  I want her to see what "they've" done to me.

"Hey..." her voice softens when she sees my face.  She looks from me to Jay, who is now howling with pain as Becky sprays Bactine on the bottom of his foot.  "What happened here?  Why are you guys crying?"

"Jay, Jay cut his foot," I say dismissively, looking up at her.  "I just didn't want to go in, I told them but they made me..."

Suddenly I am silenced by the savory aroma coming from the small, overflowing, greasy, white bag that my mother has in her hand.

With a glance, I can see that she has tartar sauce and ketchup packs in her other hand.  I scramble to suck in the saliva that is edging out of my mouth before it hits my chin.

Fried clams....

"Who made you go in?"  My mom's face is full of concern as she glances nervously over toward Kenny.  I want to bask in her sympathy and the safety of her mommy-love but the fried clams have put me into a trance.  I find that my hands have dropped my soggy towel on their own and are now reaching up for the bag.

"Mommy! You got me clams!"

My mom laughs (that great laugh she has like she just can't help herself).  She hovers down and hands me the bag and the tartar sauce.

"I thought you'd be hungry after all the time in the ocean.  I drove over to the Clam Shack. I almost thought the Rambler wasn't going to make it back.  We might need to head back home early and take it to our garage to get checked out...."

Her voice fades away into the distance as I pop the first clam in my mouth.  Too late, I realize that I've forgotten to test it first with my tongue.


The clam sears the roof of my mouth but I don't care, I so grateful for the heat of it.  I shove another one in before I finish chewing, blowing out my cheeks and sucking in air dramatically to cool off the steamy bite.  The spicy, salty, unctuous crumble of the crisp batter and the briny, chewiness of the clams fill me with feeling that warms my whole body.  I want to leap off of my towel and dive head first into the bottom of my clam bag, absorbing all of its yumminess and warmth.  I smile broadly up at my mother and lean my cold, dripping, head against her bare leg.

*  *  *


The line at the first gas station is too long so we stop at the one near the beach.  Mumbling something about "OPEC," my dad gets out and wrestles the huge, deflated, orangey/red, whitewater raft out of the back of the car and walks in between the lines of cars with Florida license plates, dragging the raft behind him.

I lean out of the open window so that my stomach rests on the edge of the panel.  I am spellbound with anxious curiosity as my dad proceeds to fill the raft with the tire pump near the bathrooms.  A woman with bright orange lipstick walks by my dad wearing a cut off shorts and a tank top that reads, "Fort Myers: City of Palms."

Did they mean for the two palm trees to go right there?

My dad and I both turn for a moment to watch her walk by before looking back at the raft. I watch in amazement as the raft twists and grows — like a monster coming to life.  Soon the red, rubber is taut and shiny and the raft stands taller than he does.  I shout through the window at the top of my lungs.

"Come on Daddy!  Let's go!"

My dad laughs as he hoists the raft into the back of the station wagon and pushes it toward the front.

"We're 3 minutes away," he smiles as he slides behind the wheel.

It feels like it takes hours for my dad to unpack the car.  I wait impatiently while he spreads an old, faded bed spread down on the sand.  This is my second summer in a row down here in Florida with him.  I never knew that a beach could be so -- warm.  We'd been every day of the summer so far.

I start hopping up and down in place while I wait for him to carefully put his camera in a paper shopping bag (which he also places on the blanket) and then takes off his t-shirt, folds it and then places it into the bag on top of the camera.  I have already wiggled out of my shorts and am standing on the soft, white, warm sand with my arms outstretched towards him.

"Daddy!"  My voice cracks with impatient anguish.

Finally, he grabs the towline of the raft in one hand and grabs my hand in the other.  He looks down at me with a mischievous smile.

"Race you!"

Together we both run toward the ocean as fast as we can.  My heart is beating out of my chest and I want to stop, but the full-of-air raft bouncing on the sand behind us gives me a thrill like we are being chased.  I scream at the top of my lungs for no reason as my dad slows down at the water's edge.  While he keeps going, I come to a full stop in the wet sand before the waves hit my feet.  My dad keeps running in, making several large splashes before diving in head first.  I watch amazed and frightened as the raft line in his hand acts like a floating device, pulling him back to the surface.  His afro flattens as he pops out of the water, framing his face with S-shaped squiggles.

"Come on!" he says, waving me in. "It's really warm, like 80-degrees."

I take a tentative step forward and gasp as a wave rushes over my toes.  My eyes are squinched shut and every muscle in my body is tense and I brace myself for the inevitable, unpleasant chill of my old enemy — the ocean. 

"It's not that freezing Cape Cod water," shouts my dad.  "Fort Myers is on the gulf of Mexico. Warm water, white sand..."

It's not cold.  It's not cold.  It's not cold! Get in!

I splash toward him at full speed, collapsing in to his arms once I get within range.  He holds the raft steady while I climb into it.  I slip around the inside of the raft like a fresh caught mackerel on the fishing boat deck.  I'm giggling uncontrollably as I start pinging off the sides like I'm the ball in a pinball machine.

He peeks over the side and me with a funny face as though he's confused by my giggle fit.

"Uhhh, what's so funny in here?" he smiles.

"Daddy!  Let's go!" I shout.

"Oh, are you ready?"



My dad's arm muscles pop as he turns toward the waves and runs out as far as he can before he dives in and swims, towing me in the raft after him.  Once we've passed the break, he surfaces, taking in big gulps of air.  He nods at me and turns the raft around while he treads water.  Suddenly, before I can steady myself, a wave picks the raft up and carries me toward the shore at top speed.  I scream with fear and delight as the raft gets tossed around like a toy.  Finally, thoroughly soaked and hoarse from screaming, I end up on the sand.  My dad has been swimming underwater behind the raft, he surfaces beside me with a concerned look.


My mouth is full of water.  I sputter a little and turn towards him with my arms out.


He lifts me out of the raft and hugs me close, careful to make sure he holds on to the raft's towline at the same time.

"Are you okay?" he asks.

I cough two or three times before I can answer him.  My water-slicked arms are clasped around his neck and my long legs dangle into the raft at our feet.  I look at him in the eyes with a pained expression before breaking into the widest grin I can manage between sputters.


Later that day, I am sitting at my dad's kitchen table watching him make dinner.  The setting sun paints the room a brilliant orangish pink and makes  the sand on my dad's brown arms  glimmer with hundreds of rainbow flecks.  I'm fascinated by his muscles as he tears the iceberg lettuce for our shrimp salads.  Still sandy myself, I wiggle around in my bathing suit and shorts at the table like I'm being eaten by fire ants.

"Daddy!  I'm starving!"

My dad laughs and pulls several large, pink shrimp from a container and throws them into the salad bowl with firm, red tomatoes and the lettuce.  My mouth actually waters as he gets the mayonnaise jar out of the refrigerator and picks up a table spoon.

Finally, our fresh shrimp salad is ready to eat.  He places a large bowl in front of me and I attack it without a word.  The first bite of buttery, tender shrimp causes me to close my eyes and pause mid-chew.  The lettuce is crisp and fresh.  The tomatoes are so firm and red they could be eaten like apples.  My dad and I both eat silently, faces down in our bowls until they are empty.  He looks up at me with a smile as I stuff the last bite in my mouth.

"More?" he says

"Yes!" I nod, still chewing.  "Please Daddy!"

*  *  *

Costa Rica, 2012

"You're doing great, Honey,"

I try to scowl over towards Scottie and lose my balance on the surf board.  I laugh as I fall because I land with a thud onto the sand.  My surf instructor walks over and offers me his hand.  I look back over at Scottie as I accept it.

This man has got to know how much I love him.  He's got me out here learning to surf!

Scottie walks over to me and kisses my cheek, asking Emmanuel if he thinks I'm ready to try it in the water.

"Be patient with her man," Scottie says in a confidential tone.  "She hasn't spent too much time in the ocean."

"Yes, I have!" I protest.  I grew up in the ocean - We had a house in Cape Cod and I spent summers in with my dad in Ft. Myers and Ft. Lauderdale.

"Excuse me," said Scottie.  "She's right.  What I meant is that she hasn't spent much time in the ocean as an adult."

"Oh," I fight the usual flash of irritation that consumes me when he's right.  I can feel my mouth setting into a straight line. I avoid looking either of them in the eye.

Emmanuel's brown eyes grow big with disbelief.  He looks from me to Scottie and back.

"But you guys live in Cali, right?  You don't surf?"

Scottie laughs and puts his hand on his shoulder.

"I surf," he says.  "She most definitely does not."

"Wow!" says Emmanuel turning toward me with a look of quiet astonishment.  Then as if he's just remembered that he's my surf instructor, he snaps his fingers and points to me.

"So what do you think?  You ready to get out on some waves?"

I gulp and look toward the emerald green water.  The waves are calm, almost non existent.  Emmanuel has assured me that the water is warm "like bath water."  I look over toward Scott and nod.

"Are you coming out with me, Hon?"

Scott shakes his head.  "I can't really surf over here, Hon.  There aren't any waves."  He points about a quarter mile down the beach with the short board that he's rented for the day.  "Emmanuel says I can catch a break over there."

I squint and adjust my eyes so that I can see the 15 or 20 surfers on their boards where he points.  They look like ants to me, or floating heads...

But I don't want to surf without you!

"Okay," I say with false cheeriness.  "I guess I'm ready then."

Emmanuel grabs up our boards and starts walking toward the water.  I turn to face Scottie and kiss him goodbye.

Maybe forever...

"I'm not leaving you yet, Hon" says Scott.  He's holding me close to him.  I can smell the sweet, zinc scent of sun screen on his skin.  His breath smells faintly like the dark, Costa Rican coffee we'd had in the car on the way over.

"But I'm gonna grab some shots of you surfing first," he says picking up his camera.


"Good," I smile, kissing him on the lips.  "Make sure you get me once I stand up!"

I'm happy to find that it's not too hard to get in.  The water is warm, not as warm as the gulf of Mexico, but it's more than fine.  In no time I'm up to my shoulders.  Emmanuel, who is long and brown glides like a seal out into the waves.  I lay down on my board and paddle behind him as fast as I can, trying to keep up.

I'm out of breath by the time we get to where we're going.  He spins me around on my board so that I'm facing the beach and coaches me through the first wave.

"All right now, wait for it, wait for it - Go! Go! Pop up NOW!"

Where's Scottie?  I don't see him.

Throughout the first half hour, I'm off the board far more than I'm on it.  After my thirteenth or fourteenth dunk under the waves, my topknot has come undone and I've swallowed so much water that I feel it my sloshing around in my stomach.  My soaking wet rash guard is sticking to my skin and the light breeze that has started to blow causes me to cross my arms across my chest while I'm sitting up on the board waiting for waves.  Soon, my teeth begin to chatter a little and I get that familiar ache and panicky feeling in my stomach.

Where's Scottie?  

"Maybe I should go in for a while," I say, trying to sound casual.

Plus I'm starving...

 I look toward the shore, hoping to see someone selling tamales, but instead I see my Scottie waving at me from the beach.

There he is! 

I can't see the expression on his face, but his body looks positively celebratory.  He's jumping up and down with his arms raised above his head.

"Whoo hoo, Honey!" he yells.  "I''m so proud of you!  You're doing great!!"

He thinks I'm doing great?  Maybe he didn't see me drowning out here...

But something about his excitement brings up an unexpected wave of emotion and I feel the familiar sting of tears behind my eyes.

He's so happy that I'm out here.  He's... proud of me.

"Ready to get out now?" says Emmanuel reaching for my board. "I'll carry your board in for you."

"No, not yet," I say thoughtfully, still looking at Scottie.  "I think I'll go for the rest of the hour."

For the next 45 minutes I concentrate on giving myself over to the warm waves.

Flow with the wave — don't fight it.   Don't be scared.

By my second or third attempt,  when Emmanuel says, "POP UP NOW!"  I find that I can get up and balance longer than ever.   My rides to the shore begin to remind me of those moments on the raft with my dad all those years ago.  Thirty minutes later, when I've tumbled off and taken a particularly forceful header into the ocean, Emmanuel swims over with a sense of urgency and grabs my elbow, careful to untangle my ankle line at same time.

"Are you okay?" he says.  "That was a quite a fall."

I'm coughing and trying to get my legs underneath me.  I nod my head, but it's a second before I can answer him.

"Again!" I say with a smile.

As we are exiting the water with our boards, I feel giddy with the rush of my experience in the water.    I can't wait to tell Scottie how great it was.

"Thank you so much Emmanuel," I say giving him a hug.

"Great job," he says giving me a high five.  "You were really surfing out there!"

Scottie comes walking up to us, looking at me as though I've just won a surf contest.

"Honey!" He throws a towel around my shoulders and hugs me close to him.

"You saw me, Hon?!"

"Honey, you were amazing! Did you like it?"

I'm nodding yes and kiss him.  I just about to tell him how it reminded me of this raft rides in Ft. Myers, when I'm suddenly assaulted by the most gorgeous smell.  I look around frantically for the source and see two paper plates covered with aluminum foil sitting on our beach towel.

I point numbly to the plates and look up at him with excitement.

"What's that, Hon?"

"Um, they call it 'Casado,' I think."  He looks over at Emmanuel for confirmation.  "I got them from a guy down the beach."

"Si," Emmanuel smiles.  "A Casado is usually rice and black beans and maybe plantain and a..."

"Yeah!" Says Scottie.  "That's exactly what it is, rice beans, plantain and pork chop."

I've already popped the aluminum foil off and am sitting on the blanket,  looking around for a fork and napkin as I breath in the heavenly smell.

"Um, did you get forks, Hon?"

Scottie laughs and joins me on the towel as he hands me a fork.

"Here you go, Hon."

The fluffy rice produces a steam cloud when I stick my fork into it.  The creamy, dark, black beans make a gravy that cause me to smile.  The plantains are so sweet and soft that they almost melt in my mouth.  I lean over and rest my head on Scottie's shoulder.

"Thank you, Honey. I was so hungry."

"Thank you, Honey" he says looking deliberately into my eyes.  "I know your history with the ocean and I know this was really big deal for you. Thank you for doing this, Hon.  Thank you for trying surfing today."

I was inspired to write this blog by my fellow writer and blogger, Riva di Paola-Lombardi, who wrote this gorgeous piece, "Living in Motion," on her experience with water as a child.  Please check it out if you get a chance (it's a really quick read!)

Do you have your own love/hate affair with the water or the ocean?  Please leave it for me in the comments.  I'd love to hear your story!


  1. Every time I read your work I feel like I am reading from my own diary; except yours is written expertly.

    For most of my adult life you couldn't get me in the ocean past my knees. Having been tossed around too easily by waves as a child I was aware of the water's immense power. Then, I had children. As I see it, everyone has issues, but I decided early on that one hallmark of a successful parent is to make sure my kids didn't grow up with my issues (go find your own)! So, on every vacation we have been on with our children I have gone snorkeling, paddle boarding, kayaking, taken surfing lessons, tried water skiing, and being towed using a fiberglass water wing! I still don't like being in the water, I still have to talk myself into it and heart pounds while I'm in it but, our three kids love the water, anytime, anywhere; mom success. Amazing what love does to us, for us, and within us. Thank you so much for sharing!

  2. Thank you so much, girl. I love that you related to this. And I really love the idea of NOT passing this fear/dislike along to our children. I, like you did my best to give my sons the dignity of their own experience with the water - and they LOVE it! Very grateful...

  3. Wow! Yes, such a different experience! Haha Oh my, you are resilient. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks Riva! And thank you for the inspiration!