GRAPHIC: PHOTO: 'FAMILY ON THE CAPE' (1994): Oilstick on paper, 30 by 22 in., by Diana Rutherford. COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Once upon a time when I was young and everyone else seemed older, there was no end to summer, no deadlines except to be home for supper.

Someone must have known where I was, but I didn't notice. I can't remember taking lessons in anything. My father taught me to swim and hit a tennis ball. I got the hang of other sports by watching my older sister and her friends. I never went to camp. No one ever asked me if I wanted to. But there was a special beach close to home where I roamed free most every summer day, a child's wilderness.

After breakfast, I'd grab a sandwich, roll my bathing suit in a towel, and meet my best friend, Betsy, at the foot of the driveway. Sometimes we took the shortcut, hoisting our bikes over an old stone wall and pushing them through the cattails and across the cow pastures. Or we'd ride up the long, relentless incline of the main road and coast gratefully down the lane toward the shore, morning air crisp on our faces.

Just before the stone gates, a hidden sandy path branched to the right. Again we had to push our balloon tires through the cattails that grew high above our heads. Then, suddenly, we were on the beach.

An uneven row of rickety wooden bath- houses stood leaning against each other like old friends. Inside, they smelled of sour and musty towels, stiff with sand, that had been dried, hung up wet, and dried again a hundred times until someone, in midsummer, took them home to wash.

There were faded bathing suits of all sizes hung on wooden pegs, old socks like fossils, and unmatched sneakers; rusty pails and shovels, and toy sailboats long ago dismasted. On wooden seats nailed to three walls lay scattered treasures not to be disturbed: stones precious to someone; brittle starfish and horseshoe-crab shells smelling of the sea; shells like toenails, others scalloped, perfect for Italianate swimming pools.

The doors hung askew on rusty hinges whose latches wouldn't close. Betsy and I didn't care. Flinging our clothes in a corner, we'd skinny into our salty wool suits and head for the high-water mark to scavenge in the seaweed, which we popped, letting the sticky liquid coat our fingers.

In the water, we spent most of our time under the swimming float playing hide-and-seek. There was barely enough headroom to breathe. We teased each other by pounding on the oil drums that kept it afloat, deafened by the echoes until our heads ached. At last, shivering with cold, our fingers shriveled like prunes, we would race for the beach and bury each other up to our chins in the warm sand.

When Betsy and I tired of the beach, we took off for the rocks. They seemed like mountains. We played King of the Castle with friends and spent hours grinding up seaweed, sumac berries, bayberry leaves, and shells into a powerful "poison" we called Moxie - to be used against enemy invaders. Our favorite hideout was a deep crevasse in the rocks. Perched there, we could look out to sea or spy on the nuns swimming in front of their retreat house.

In a brisk westerly, the waves would crash against the rocks, sending spray sky-high to soak us. There were no lifeguards. No grown-ups followed us there. In late afternoon, exhausted, we headed for home, pedaling slowly up the lane with the sun on our backs, waterlogged, sandy, and content.

I often go to this same beach with my grandchildren, laden with bright plastic toys. The bathhouses are gone, swept away in the 1938 hurricane. Blacktop has replaced the dunes and their wild roses. But gulls still ride the wind and fight for food with raucous, saltwater cries. The sound of the waves has not changed, and the rocks, like great, gray elephants, remain the same. They only seem smaller. I sift the sand through my fingers and wonder how much of it remains from the time when Betsy and I tried to dig all the way to China.

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