First view

I look around this shambles of a house. Do I at last dare paint the rooms pale gold - put down the fawn carpet I've longed for? After all, I am a phoenix, rising from the clutter of motherhood. Suddenly there is nothing - no one - blocking my view of these walls. No gangly boy in football gear, no svelte girl pestering for designer jeans.

I am a liberated mother. No one to cluck over - unless you count the balding individual there, puffing a little as he ties his conservative black shoes. What? He's asking me something.

A conference down on the coast. Be gone several days. Would I care to come along?

I could start the painting while he's gone; maybe even put down new no-wax linoleum over the old, cleat-dented one. I bite my lip. Is that my purpose now? To make the house as perfect as I never quite made the children? Surely there is more! Surely - something Worthwhile, something Significant! ''Now,'' the clock ticks. Now, now, now. And I close my ears to the tock: ''Or never, never, never.''

The black-shoed individual straightens. He must be off. Will I come along on the trip? Do me good.

But I should be doing something that Matters - not lolling on the beach!

He kisses my brow. Sometimes lolling has its value.

He knows I love the sea. While it has never brought me answers in some philosophical bottle, its honest exuberance, its predictable tides, reassure me.

Different surroundings, too, might help me discover new horizons.

''You're going to the beach, Grams?'' Our nine-year-old golden girl, visiting , fondles my favorite conch in hands tanned by a backyard sun glinting on a plastic pool. ''I've never seen the real beach.''

So. Well, now I do think best obliquely. Mightn't her chatter along the edges of my quandary help?

At this resort the sea is first an aroma, than a hint of openness beyond leaning palms and hunkered-down oaks. As the conferencing individual in crepe-soled shoes squeaks across the motel lobby, the golden girl and I race along baking concrete past a blue jewel of a pool.

''I can hear it!'' She laughs up at me, her sun-glossed hair blowing across her lips so that she spits at it impatiently.

The sand's heat, then, laps our ankles; low growth reaches for us. ''Watch that Spanish bayonet!'' We crunch up a dune, push aside dangling moss, and there it is, sprawling as far as we can see, inseparable from the sky. I hear her sharp breath and don't look down. It's always like this for me - like snow - never quite real till I see it.

I release her hand, sensing she desires it, and our flesh sticks a little, damp, then parts. Her small profile is still, webbed with hair the color of sea oats flagging just beyond her. Her blouse flaps like a sail. When she looks up, her eyes are full of sea color and lights.

''You can't even see the other side!'' she screeches. ''Grams! You can't see the other side!''m And she points, as if it were my first time, too.

And it is, in a way.

We spend the days doing all the old things - swimming, crouching still in the water to hear the waves sing, drifting on incoming tides. Building sand castles, accepting philosophically their impermanence.

Yes, this time the sea has given me an answer. Well, the sea and a nine-year-old girl. Grams! You can't see the other side! And that should bring joy, not panic. A time of gathering shells for the simple delight in their formation and coloring - and not worrying over what we will do with them. A time of building and not fretting over impermanence. A time of relishing this girl whose hot, gritty skin brushes my own, a time for this old woman to learn patience and openness - and wonder. But most of all to believe there need be no such thing as ''never.''

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