With the exception of the six months I spent living by the sea in the west of Ireland, I have always been a mountain girl. It took me to adulthood to realize (like so many other things) that I need to be within sight or, better yet, touch of tall mountains to maintain my emotional wellbeing. But that half a year I spent wandering the small, quiet beach in a small, quiet Connemara town, plus a week at the beach each summer of my childhood, have also inspired a love of and reverence for the ocean.
And so it was a joy to explore the beaches of my childhood with my own children last week, at the summer mecca that is Cape Cod.
Here, the beaches teem with sun seekers and sand lovers. The roads to the beach are many and filled with cars. Ice cream shops, pizza parlors and seafood restaurants, and stores hawking all nature of small colorful rafts and plastic knickknacks pop up regularly. Cedar shingled houses fill postage stamp lots everywhere. This is not the sea of the West of Ireland, with its beaches nearly empty of people, dolphins leaping through the dark water off the shore, and solitary fishermen rowing long curraghs out to check lobster pots – the idyllic and useful sea that tugs at my soul.
But on Cape Cod, amid all the hubbub, are the beaches of my childhood, when my family would spend a week at a friend’s house, walking down the sandy lane and ducking through a hedge of beach roses to reach the nearest swath of shore.
The return to the Cape, after a long absence and with my own children, was a replay of memories and the making of new ones, with new characters and changed roles. The parents of 30 years ago are now happy grandparents, holding on to the small hands of new swimmers. The carefree child of that time now the watchful mother, orchestrating lunch on the beach and sandcastle construction. The delight of children at the beach – skipping through waves, scooping handfuls of shells into bright buckets, chasing seagulls – is the same, though the faces have changed.
My children basked in a week of tiptoeing through seaweed and discovering hermit crabs and horseshoe crabs and sand crabs, returning to our cottage each afternoon with sand in their bathing suits and hair, the salty-thick air of the shore clinging to skin and filling noses. They played mini golf, nudging turquoise and yellow and fuchsia balls through tiny lighthouse doors and under windmills. They spit out the salt water of the sea when waves trespassed too far and savored the sweetness of ice cream at a place called Sundae School, my own childhood haunt. They took boat rides with old friends to quiet beaches that disappear when the tide rises and looked for lighthouses rising from rocky outcrops.
A Cape Cod friend gave my mother a card that reads “Once you get Cape Cod sand in your shoes, you will always return.” We have come home to our mountains, inadvertently and inevitably carrying Cape sand in our shoes, the car, our bags. Along with the sand, my children have carried home buckets of seashells from the seashore, picking up each newly discovered shell as if it is the most wonderful, most beautiful, most unique of all the millions gathered in long piles on the beach. I hope they also carry in their hearts good memories of the sea and all the joys of childhood summers at the ocean.