“Look at that sky,” I point out to my daughter. The sky is soft pink and stretches out before our eyes, meeting the blue line of the ocean many miles from shore. I am mesmerized by the pastel colors surrounding us and can hardly move, but my three-year-old fidgets in my lap.
“Pink sky at night, sailors’ delight; pink sky at morn; sailors be warned,” I softly whisper, not quite sure if I am talking to my daughter or myself. My daughter glances up at the sky. “What does that mean, Mommy?” she asks.
“We know that tomorrow is going to be a nice day because the sky’s so pink,” I explain.
“So tomorrow will be sunny?” she asks.
“Yes, it should be,” I answer, and she seems entranced by the idea of being able to know what tomorrow’s weather will be. Her hazel eyes open wide, trying to take the whole sky in.
We are sitting in a white Adirondack chair on the roof of my parents’ beach house on Long Beach Island, New Jersey. It is a balmy July night and nearly 8:30 pm, after bedtime, but I am in no rush to tuck her into bed. The sky is too beautiful.
The silence between us only lasts a moment, and my daughter’s attention falls on something else.
“Mom, can I go play?” she asks while longingly staring at the purple bubble machine that sits on the wooden table to the right of us.
“Don’t you want to keep watching the sky?” I ask. She shrugs. I long to continue to sit with her, to feel the weight of her body against my shoulder, but I can tell she is bored.
“Okay, go play,” I encourage her. She slips off my lap and onto the roof deck.
When I look down at the beach, the white sand seems to go on forever. I notice a group of kids playing soccer farther down the shore. Their laughter and shouts travel through the muggy summer air.
I smile, remembering what it is like to be a teenager living here for the summer. The days were endless. I scooped ice cream in the afternoons and by the time my shift ended, my whole arm was caked in stickiness. I rode my bike home from the ice cream parlor, smelling like melted Rocky Road and whipped cream, and immediately ran into the outdoor shower to wash the stench off my body. After dinner, my friends and I went to bonfires on the beach. I still remember how their faces looked in the flickering orange light and the taste of the light beer slipping down my throat.
My daughter’s voice pulls me from my memories. She is singing “Let it Go” to herself while dancing between the bubbles.
“Let’s go to the other side of the deck to see the sunset,” I suggest, but she protests.
“I want to keep playing with the bubbles,” she explains, with a slight whine in her voice.
“Okay, you can stay here, but I’m going to watch the sunset,” I explain.
When I walk to the other side of the roof deck, I am greeted by a brilliant orange sunset that fills the evening sky and reflects in the bay across the street. This part of the island is so narrow that we can see both the ocean and bay from the roof.
I marvel at it until the sun drops down into the water and disappears to the soundtrack of my daughter’s singing.
Only then, when the first stars appear in the night sky, do I reluctantly bring her to her room and tuck her into bed.
The summer after I turned one, my parents rented a small green house on Long Beach Island for a month with their friends, who had a daughter my age. It only took them a few weeks to fall in love with Loveladies, a small town on the northern part of the island. A year later, they bought a beach house.
The following summer, every weekend between Memorial Day through Labor Day was spent in Loveladies. This was my family’s routine for years. When my sisters and I were young, we lived there for the whole summer with my mom, while my dad commuted back and forth every few days.
My father still refuses to travel anywhere else between Memorial Day and Labor Day. “You will find me on the deck in Loveladies,” he jokingly says, because to him, there is nowhere else to be in the summertime.
This singularity has rubbed off on me as well. On those summer holiday weekends and the last two weeks of August, I can be found in one place: on the deck of my parents’ beach house, right next to my dad, looking out at the ocean.
As a child, I spent all day on the beach, building sandcastles and swimming in the salty sea. Lunch was always a sandwich that crunched due to the sand on my fingers. Rainy days were reserved for seeing a movie at the big theater on the mainland. My sisters and I pretended to be mermaids as we played along the shoreline. I understood early on how magical the ocean was, how she held secrets, how she was stronger than I imagined. Watching the dark waves at night under the reflection of the moon still feels otherworldly.
In late August, my friends and I stayed up extra late and huddled on the deck in oversized sweatshirts to look for shooting stars. We squinted up at the inky black sky with our hopeful eyes, waiting for the streaks of white light to appear. “Don’t blink,” we whispered to each other, for fear of missing even just one.
My friends from those years are still my friends today. We gather on holiday weekends and watch our children dig on the sandy beach, oblivious to how it makes our hearts expand to see them playing together.
I describe Loveladies as a “special place,” but those words don’t encompass how I feel. My childhood and adolescent summers on Long Beach Island were my blueprint and built my foundation. After 37 years, I still watch for shooting stars every August and crave the feeling of sand under my feet.
My daughter first dipped her toes into the Atlantic Ocean on our Loveladies beach when she was 4 months old. During that first weeklong visit with her, I carried her down to the shoreline in a baby carrier every morning and whispered into her tiny ear as we walked along the water.
This summer was different: my daughter is three-and-a-half, with her own ideas about the world. She is developing fears and passions that have little to do with me. In my mind, I compile lists of adventures I want to have with her, mainly activities that I did as a child, like visiting the white and red lighthouse in Barnegat Light, trekking to the other end of the island to the crowded amusement park, getting ice cream at night and crabbing in the marshy bay. But as she grows, she is forming her own ideas about Long Beach Island and deciding what she wants to do in the summer.
She asks to go to the playground nearby, which I only discovered last year. Her favorite restaurant is Scojo’s, a low-key diner a few towns over, which I never knew about as a child. She has no interest in the little amusement park on the island, which I looked forward to every summer when I was a kid. Instead of building sandcastles, she prefers to bury her plastic princess dolls in the sand and pretend they are swimming in buckets full of seawater. My heart swells as I watch her finding her own reasons to love Long Beach Island, even though her reasons are different than mine.
My mom plants a garden on the side of the house that my daughter carefully tends to. When we arrive for our two weeks in August, her first order of business is checking on the garden.
“Mommy, don’t forget to check the strawberries!” she calls out the next morning as we walk up from the beach. I veer off the well-worn path from the house and walk over to the garden with her. My daughter points out the different herbs and vegetables, before peeking under the green leaves to find a strawberry.
I am rewarded for this diversion; she pulls a plump berry from the plant and places it in my hand. I take a bite and smile at how the saltiness from the air has mixed with the sweetness of the fruit, creating the perfect berry.
I want my daughter to fall in love with my favorite parts of Long Beach Island: the way the warm water feels on my back in the outdoor shower, the joy of digging up sand crabs on the beach and the satisfying crack of the blue crab shell at dinner. I want her to appreciate early morning walks when the beach is quiet and the joy of finding a tide pool full of sea creatures at low tide. I want her to look at the evening sky and be able to predict tomorrow’s weather.
This is why I relive my childhood summers with her, hoping that she will love what I love, but understanding that perhaps she will not. I find myself wondering on the beach if she will always be able to spend hours playing in the white sand, or will she outgrow it? When she finds a piece of deep blue sea glass, I try to explain how rare it is, that I haven’t come across one of these for many years, but she tosses it in the bucket, and marvels over a shell instead. I am baffled when she complains about using the outdoor shower. For me, nothing is as relaxing as showering outside, with the late afternoon sun peeking through the cracks in the wood, filling the small space with light.
I know she loves Long Beach Island, but still, I wonder what she envisions when she thinks of the beach house. Does she dream of the salty sweetness of my mom’s strawberries in the garden? Perhaps that will be what pulls her back each summer, year after year.
When dusk descends on our house and the tired beachgoers walk up the path back to their homes, I suggest to my daughter that we go up to the roof deck every night to watch the sunset. Most nights, she chooses to dance amidst the bubbles instead of sitting with me, I let her, knowing that she will find her own connection with this narrow, sandy island.
My heart swells as I watch her silhouette against the pink sky, dancing to her to own song, to the sounds of the waves below.
After 10 years as an attorney, Becky Tountas retired from the practice of law to become a stay at home mom. This allowed her to develop her love of writing. Her work has been published in Literary Mama, Scary Mommy, Mamalode and the Huffington Post, among others. Her twitter handle is @BeckyTHC, and she blogs at http://www.beckytountas.com.