For years I'd had a grudge against my father. As a child I'd long imagined him to be depriving me of all the important opportunities that I saw other children my age enjoying. I was surrounded by people who knew tap dance, jazz dance, and could do ballet on point; kids who could play the trumpet, xylophone, saxophone; and others who competed in soccer, racquetball, tennis, or chess. Some even did needlepoint, watercolor, programmed computers, pronounced the dishes on French menus correctly, and baked three-tiered birthday cakes in two flavors. My father, on the other hand, offered my sister and me no lessons, no training.
It wasn't until much later that I realized what we did have. Every summer, my father would give up his jobs as a log salvager, a university instructor, a logger, and a computer programmer to camp with us on the rocky beaches of British Columbia. We rose with the sun, ate when we were hungry, and could not remember the day of the week or guess when one month rolled into the next.
While our classmates partook of macrame classes, baseball camps, and Suzuki violin lessons, my sister and I spent all day on the beach under a cool, distant sun that looked like a quarter in the sky casting silver light over driftwood, over sand, over footprints in the sand.
We filled bread bags with bits of green, brown, and blue glass, ground smooth as jewels by sand and waves. We climbed giant driftwood tree roots, calling, "This is the bedroom; see, you can lie here. And this is the kitchen because you can cook here. And this is the bathroom because your bottom fits just perfectly into here."
We had no dolls, but my father carved faces in the bulbs of giant sea onions that we named "seaweed mamas" and kept in buckets of salt water so they would not dry out.
I learned to mix water with the sand to just the right consistency to create sand balls. I would line the balls in rows on a log until the sun dried them, creating a white and crusty skin. When I touched them again, the balls would crumble back to powder.
We searched patiently for the crabs with purple speckled backs, guessing at their hiding places, overturning rocks, and risking their claws as they scuttled backward into crevices - their pinchers out in front of their faces like boxing gloves. We filled margarine containers with their flat, armored bodies, but as the sun sank, turning to copper, my father insisted we return them all to the sea.
One day I found a large piece of plywood and dragged it over two rocks, creating a desk. I would be like other children. I would visit my father's office. I found sticks for pencils. I piled green seaweed on a piece of bark and crumbled the bodies of dead, dried crabs on top for my own "executive crab-salad lunch." In the right-hand corner, I placed my margarine container filled with cool ocean water, a piece of purple kelp, three crabs, and two stones: my own office fishbowl.
After sitting cross-legged in the sand at my desk, dusting the grains off the desktop, and arranging my office items neatly, I abandoned my work to play with my sister. We jumped over waves until our knees numbed, then we dug a hole, and finally we ate my father's cheese and sardine sandwiches with mustard on wheat bread - all cut and spread with the same dull and blackened knife - each bite slightly metallic.
Late in the afternoon, I dragged my sister to my office. I looked in my fish- bowl, only to see my crabs motionless and turning soft and white around the edges. When I stuck my finger in the water, it was warm to the touch. The crabs had expired.
Iremembered this all the last summer my family went to the beaches of the Pacific Northwest where the sun was far away in the sky and turned to silver the hair on my legs, the sand under my legs, the rock under my hand, and the sea gull drifting over the water. I then understood that my timeless days offered me great lessons. I learned that I should not take a creature from its home in order to please me; all our small lives and homes are to be protected.
I also concluded that a father who quit his jobs to watch the stars emerge from a blackening sky and who let me go to bed in a sleeping bag with my fingers and face covered in roasted marshmallows might be just as good as one who would let me sit in his office playing with his stapler, photocopying my fingers on his Xerox machine.
Most of all, I learned, in my timeless and dateless days, that as the sun goes down and turns to copper like a penny, all our work crumbled to sand; at the end of the day we must all return our work to the sea.
And when we have given our crabs back to the ocean, what we have left is the moment of the work, the moment of pure concentration in the silver light, and our father reading a book. We take with us those memories and the memory of the crab backing into a dark crevice, his pinchers in front of him like boxing gloves, and the waves crashing on the shore, scooping the sand back out to sea.