The ocean awakens my memory

It had been a long while since I'd seen the ocean, more than a decade. I felt as if I visually had to swallow it whole to get enough of it on a recent week's visit to Martha's Vineyard.

If you live in the landlocked Midwest, milking cows as I do, it isn't all that easy to get to the coast. There is the distance, of course, and also the fact that milk cows require daily attention and relief. Somehow I have not made it all the way to the ocean since taking on cows.

I used to visit the Atlantic Coast regularly as a child and young adult. Our family's first summer vacation on Cape Cod introduced me to the seaside at the age of 10, and we went back year after year, literally camping at Nauset beach by day.

We'd arrive early, often before the morning fog had lifted, and my father would get to work with his portable shovel.

The broad shallow semicircle he'd excavate in the sand kept out the wind and provided a sloping backrest facing the waves, with plenty of towel space for all five of us. We'd snuggle down there to eat our picnic lunches with salty lips. We'd rest in its shelter under an umbrella's shade after beachcombing and bodysurfing to our hearts' content.

At day's end we'd head back to our vacation cottage for a freshwater bath in the glacial pond it overlooked. The next day, barring rain, we'd be on the beach again.

As a young woman, I spent many consecutive summers on the northern shore of Long Island Sound, helping my geologist husband do field work up and down the Connecticut River Valley.

After a long day measuring outcrop lineation in hot farm pastures, tick-infested thickets and buggy woodlands, we would drive back to our coastal cottage, drinking in the cooling sea breeze, and straining for the first thrilling sound of the surf.

Keeping track of the tides became a passion with me. For days after we returned to Indiana for the academic year, I'd feel the ocean's rhythm deep in my bones. This link would slowly fade away - until the next summer, when I could renew it.

A divorce, a new career as a dairy farmer, and financial constraints have come between me and the Atlantic for the past 10 years. My return to it with my teenage son this July, to visit his godparents on the island of Martha's Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts, was nothing less than triumphant.

The ocean sang to me, crashing ashore with a cold, broiling energy that took my breath away. I have been to the Pacific, the Caribbean, even the South China Sea, but there is nothing quite like the North Atlantic for raw, bracing power.

Like a carelessly indulgent monarch, it flung armloads of colored glass, shells, and pebbles at our feet with each incoming wave - smooth, polished gems for the taking.

I scooped up handfuls, for the sheer pleasure of holding and having something of the sea. They wouldn't be the same in a glass jar at home, but so saved they'd remind me of this reunion, so long awaited.

Our hosts, Mike and Mary Jane, opened a picnic lunch on the beach as Tim and I bodysurfed. Back ashore I followed my son's bright blond head, rising and falling amid the waves, with the same watchfulness my parents must have exercised back in the 1960s, as my brother and sister and I played in the endlessly powerful swells.

Tim and I are both strong swimmers, and he has been schooled in hazards of undertows and riptides, but I knew how easy it was to venture out too far, blithe to caution in the ecstasy of a good surf.

And so, occasionally I called him back, closer to shore, as my parents had called me.

Now we are once again all-too-safely landlocked in the nation's breadbasket, where subtle reminders of the faraway Atlantic tease my yearning: swells of land, seas of grain, green-gold windrows of hay, stretching wavelike toward the horizon. There's real energy in these visions, validity in the association that they conjure.

But I have only to pick up my stash of pebbles, spill them out onto the table, and hear them clatter once again to know. I must get to the Atlantic more often in the decade ahead than in years past. For all I love to farm, one does not live by bread alone.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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