Poems & Essays

19 Aug

Grandma’s Day at the Beach

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Grandma’s Day at the Beach

I sit on the bed these days to put on my socks. They are tall socks and it has been a point of pride that I can stand on one leg and put the sock on the opposite foot. Well, I used to be able todo that. Now I wobble around, out of balance. I am too stiff to bend over far enough to get the sock mouth under the foot, which itself will not rise as high as it used to. So I sit before I fall down, and I grouse about getting old, about not getting to my yoga classes. 

Children, on the other hand, are natural yogis, or at least natural practitioners of whatever Baba Ram Dass was recommending when he enjoined us in the 1970’s to “Be Here Now.”  “Here” is where children always are right “now.” And generally where they intend to stay. As a rule, they are fully engaged in whatever they are doing, and have little interest in inducements and preparations to be somewhere else. 

So my first achievement is to get everything — towels, snacks, life jackets, water bottles, swimsuits, diaper bag, spare clothes, pail, shovel, sunglasses, hats, beach blanket —  and everyone, someone just two, someone four and a half, and myself into the car. It takes me only an hour and a half.

All the vehicles I’ve ever owned have been manual shift. That’s not to say I’ve never driven an automatic — I have, many times, but it’s not a regular thing. So the operations are not, um, automatic. Also, I have no patience with mechanical apparatus of any kind: things should just work. And if they don’t, after a couple of tries, I give up.  Indeed, in so far as I can, I organize my progress through life so as to avoid irritating encounters with things-that-don’t-work. For example, I don’t go out the east gate of our yard anymore because I can’t navigate the makeshift array of ropes and latches my husband has arranged to overcome the warping of the fence. And, based on unsuccessful, if limited, experience, I have ceded entirely the operation of can-openers, the automated sprinkler system, and the supposedly simple conversion of the upstairs futon into a spare bed. 

So when we arrive at the beach, I’m stuck when the ignition key seems to be stuck. I push and turn, but it won’t come out. I peer at the housing around the key, looking for directions. I try again. It’s getting warm in the car. I have two children in their car seats patiently, at least for now, waiting to go play on the beach – which is Right There. I do not have the leisure to indulge my own frustration, or the latitude to give up. I need to get this key out. I start over: turn the ignition on, off, push-turn, out. Nope. Stuck. While I’m thinking what to do about this, the four-year old says, “Get me out and I’ll do it for you.” I unbuckle him from his car seat. (This in itself a small victory. Only this year have I mastered the operation of these buckles.) He leans between the seats and confidently reaches for the key. It doesn’t move. “It’s stuck for me too,” he says, a little surprised. As I watch him, my eye falls on the gear shift: “P” – for Park. Of course. Once I shift from Drive into Park, the key comes out easily. 

At the lake side, a retaining wall makes two steep, narrow steps between the parking level and the shore. On my own, I would have settled for walking along the board walk. But I am not on my own. I help each child down a step and then slither cautiously over the first drop on to the narrow shelf of the second. From there, I see that the only way to the beach is to jump. My knees flinch at the mere thought. Again, on my own I’d have elected to stay where I was, assuring myself that this was just fine – close enough. By now however, both boys are on the beach, so, saying a prayer for my knees, I half-skid-half-jump down, Hunh.

 On my request, the four-year old climbs back on the ledge so I can help him out of his clothes and into his swim suit and life jacket. His younger brother, contrary to assurances from his parents when this expedition was proposed (“He’ll just sit down in the sand and root around”), marches down the shore away from me, toward where the water and the wall converge at a set of cement stairs which will block his way. He will have to clamber over them, or wade into the water in order to proceed. Neither of these is an acceptable option from my point of view, and so while my older grandson and I negotiate his gear, I keep the younger one in my peripheral vision. I am measuring distance and speed, his actual and my potential. After a few minutes, my sensors identify the critical point: where more steps will put him too far for me to catch in case of trouble.  I leave the older boy on the wall, half in his life jacket, and sprint off to turn around a loudly reluctant toddler.  He strides back, this time stepping his little yellow shoes in the shallows that lap along the sand. I return to clipping one boy into his life jacket, keeping an eye on the other, who is, for now, happily intent on pounding the sand. The first swimmer dressed, I deadlift him down to the beach where he wades out into the shallows. I collect his brother, hoist him onto the ledge and get him out of his clothes and into his swim suit and life jacket, this time tracking the-boy-in-the-water from the corner of my eye. 

The morning unfolds, warm and mostly relaxed. For hours, the kids have played in the lake and on the sand: wading, digging and building, channeling water into fortresses and smacking down sand castles. We’ve had snacks and watched kite surfers. We have looked for fish and for the best rocks. I have let the day run until the absolute last moment to get the youngest back in time for his nap. 

I retrieve the two-year old from the beach and bench-press him onto the wall. As soon as I get his life jacket and bathing suit off, he’s shivering with cold. I wrap him in his sun warmed towel and snuggle him. Then I put a diaper on him, but he doesn’t want a shirt. “No shirt!” he shouts as I slip the shirt over his head. I leave it like a collar around his neck, and he sits on the wall, bundled in his towel while I lift his older brother to get him out of his life jacket.

 At least that was the plan. But I can’t get the squeeze buckles on the life jacket to release; there are two, one on the waist belt and one on the strap that goes between his legs. I go from one to the other, getting nowhere with either. In both cases, one side of the buckle is simply solid, as if it was never meant to move.  I look carefully at the buckles to see if I am in fact squeezing the right places. My grandson stands patiently, the life jacket making it impossible for him to move or even see what I’m doing. I try some more, each try hurting my thumbs while having no effect on releasing the buckle. Frustration and tendrils of panic well up in me; for my grandson’s reassurance, and my own, I try for humour, “Maybe,” I say to him, “you will have to live in this life jacket.” 

“And I will get bigger and bigger and Explode the life jacket!” he says cheerfully, waving his arms, which is all the movement he can make at the moment.  We grin, and I try again; the buckles must require some combination of strength and technique that I am evidently lacking. Giving up — taking him home, wet and packaged in Styrofoam is, again, not an option. I consider an appeal to the kindness of strangers.

 I think it will need a man’s strength to overcome the buckle. Until this moment, it has seemed to me that there have been a lot of people around, walking along, enjoying the beach. Now, the boardwalk is suddenly empty, except for one elderly woman working her way along with the aid of a cane. No help there. From the opposite direction, come two men in shorts and sandals, shirts flapping open, youngish but not too young. They are absorbed in conversation. I have only moments to make a decision, to overcome the inertia of public privacy, not to say, fear. They look OK. How do I interrupt?  How can I tell who is OK? 

I speak before I lose my nerve. I hope they are not thugs, or pedophiles. “Excuse me. Could you give us a hand? We can’t get these life jacket buckles undone.” They come right over and the bigger one tries the waist belt buckle. It doesn’t move. 

“Sand,” he says. “It happens to my son’s life jacket all the time.”

 “He’s a dad!” I think.

 “You have to go back in the water and shake around to wash the sand out,” he says. I lift my grandson down and he races into the water. He does the “washing machine,” twirling and agitating the water around him.  When he comes back, I hoist him onto the wall and the man again leans over his back and squeezes the buckle which, after a little resistance, opens. The man does the second buckle and my grandson is free! 

“Thank you” we all say. Including the two-year old who has watched the whole thing from his precarious perch, wrapped in his towel and wearing his shirt around his neck like a scarf.

 “Life Jacket Rescue!” celebrates the four-year old, and we pack up and go home.

That day at the beach had me reflecting — about old people, and flexibility. And how, in addition to the loving charm of being with my grandsons, their company is also good for me.

 At home it is easy to get set in my ways, to have what I want where I want it, to abandon what is difficult to do. That day, I stretched my courage and my body. I did downward facing dog to retrieve floating sandals. I did balance poses, climbed — down and up. I lifted weights and persevered. I sat places I never would have sat on my own. I got my clothes dirty. 

I bet I can put those socks on standing up.

Susan Safford lives, writes, and teaches English in Kamloops, B.C. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Descant, and Mothers Always Write.

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