Parent and child at the edge of the ocean at sunset.
Parent and child at the edge of the ocean at sunset.
Photo by Jacub Gomez from Pexels

I Finally Understand Beach Obsession

Watching my sons bond with their stepfather, I finally got it. It’s not about the sand and surf. It’s about ourselves.

This was the year I finally set foot in the ocean.

This was also the year my husband bonded with his stepsons.

Both of these developments filled me with awe, and because of them, I think I finally understand why so many people are constantly daydreaming of beach vacations to get away from their stress.

I’d always felt that people who liked to lay around on the beach were “basic.” And maybe they are — because the attraction of the ocean hits something deep down in a human’s soul. It’s something fundamental, something profound. Basic, if you will.

And now I appreciate my own basic attachment to the ocean. I’ve received my atheist’s baptism.

I’ve been reflecting on the passage of this year as we approach the end of December. Much can and will be said about the events of this year on a national and global scale. All of those external developments exert a pressure onto us in ways we only partially comprehend.

It has also been a stressful one for me on a personal level. I’ve been raising a baby into toddlerhood, seeing my older two boys through high school, working and writing as much as possible.

As frenetic as my days were, it’s hard to look back and see the contours of the past year as more than a blur. Few memories stand out in the day-to-day scramble. For that reason, I want to memorialize a moment that holds special meaning for me.

Even though I’m in my 40s, I had never been to an oceanside beach before this year. Neither had my sons.

In late May, our family took a real vacation. We hadn’t tried this before.

My husband is a big fan of traveling. He’s been all over the world, walking holes through his shoes on action-packed tours of exotic places.

I’ve never been out of the country, and like to spend time at home. I’m a homebody by habit. Since we married five years ago, we’ve gone more places than I had been in the rest of my life before I met him.

This time, I wanted to try a vacation where we could actually rest.

Traveling exhausts me. With a family, traveling is more than grabbing a backpack and heading out. I always did all the packing for myself and the kids — suitcases of clothes, extra food, camera. Now with a baby, we needed diapers, baby food, stroller, and more. I was tired before we even left the house.

But we were going on a proper vacation, not a long-weekend race that leaves you out of breath. I wanted to try something like what you see in the movies, where families go away to a resort and lounge around. Where if we felt like sleeping in and just taking a walk down the beach, we could. Where we weren’t scrambling to get everyone showered and packed each morning and then wearing ourselves out touring random lighthouses and presidential homesteads.

My restless husband compromised. We booked a hotel room for multiple nights in one place — Savannah, Georgia, and several more nights at a nearby beach resort town called Tybee Island.

The week we went happened to coincide with record-breaking high temperatures across the South. We toured Savannah’s ancient cemetery and downtown squares in the withering heat. We did all the sightseeing stops my husband had marked on the map. Museums and historic buildings were a reprieve from the weather. But the kids were grumpy and we were all exhausted.

We were packing everything in — and by “making the most” of our time, we were making the time we were having worse.

I wondered if the beach would be unbearable, with both the sun and powerful ripe tides to worry about. We departed Savannah and drove east toward the Atlantic ocean in late afternoon.

Though we weren’t that far from home, the landscape here was exotic. Tall grasses blowing, palm trees swaying, low pastel buildings — even the light and air was different. My teenage sons, flanking the carseat in the back, were staring out their windows at the scenery rather than bickering with one another. They were taking it all in, and that was something special.

We were staying in an old motor lodge just a block from the beach. Its neon sign blinked over the narrow parking entrance on the ground floor. Our room was on the third floor, where a balcony afforded us a view of Tybee Island’s boardwalk, restaurants and bars below. The hotel was rundown, and the worn furniture and floors of our room were covered in fine sand.

Our youngest boy was nine months old, teething, needy, and gregarious in the hotel room. He tested everything, pinching his fingers in the dresser drawers and doors. Our teens flopped onto the bed they would share and fortified the center with a wall of pillows to demarcate their sides.

We changed into our bathing suits and gathered supplies into the diaper bag. My husband tucked several beers into the waterproof compartments of the bag and winked at me. He caressed my lower back, happy to see me for the first time in a swimsuit. I struggled to reapply sunscreen to our baby and argued with the teens to do the same.

I was scared of the ocean. I didn’t like being on water, whether on a river or lake. I couldn’t swim very well. Neither could my older sons, though they had inflated confidence in their abilities.

The ocean is imposing. It is not merely beautiful. It is terrifying and powerful. If you underestimate it, it will kill you.

As we stepped out onto the street and headed toward the beach, the heat became less oppressive. A salty breeze kissed us. It was as if the ocean was saying hello to me, and asking me not to worry anymore. It was time to relax, its surging song told me.

We staked out a small spot in the sand. All around us, families lounged. Many were drinking, playing music, even sleeping.

I settled onto an already sandy towel with the baby, and watched my older boys self-consciously remove their tee shirts. They walked slowly down to the water with their stepdad.

“Be careful,” I told them for the millionth time in their lives, and repeated it silently to myself like a prayer as I watched them go.

Teenage boys were always the ones who were carried away in riptides. What if my “Be careful” and their rote “Okay” were our last exchange? What if my beautiful, daring boys never heard me say my millionth “I love you” before they were swept under?

I hugged my baby close and watched the boys playing with my husband. This was a bonding experience for them. Their stepfather had finally brought them to the ocean. Their mother and biological father never had. It was their stepdad, with whom they were on a friendly first-name basis but who exercised no parental affection or disciplinary role.

They were big boys, and they already had a dad. My husband loved them and had always been good to them, but he came along when they were already too big to bond in that hugging, nurturing way.

Now, as I watched the three of them bobbing together in the waves, I rethought that assumption. From a distance, I had trouble telling their heads apart. The rip currents were rolling them down the length of the beach. They would climb out of the water looking disoriented, then walk back to where they began and go in again. They were laughing together almost like a trio of friends. My husband stayed close to them and they belly-flopped together against incoming waves.

Perhaps what my sons needed was that freewheeling, adventurous energy that my husband brought to our traveling. He was worldly and they were teens eager to shed their sheltered childhoods. Perhaps they needed a father figure who could provide safe passage. They were being given an atheist’s baptism in the ocean. Tears flooded my eyes as I watched them bobbing in the tides.

The baby was too young to swim in the ocean. He hadn’t even learned to walk yet. All around us, other children and toddlers were running around with buckets and balls. My little nine-month-old was happy just crawling in the soft, warm sand and laughing at seagulls.

I cracked open a beer and took a drink. Out here by the water it tasted better than a beer ever had before. I was thirsty and drank it more quickly than I realized. The baby was grabbing handfuls of sand and tasting it. We were covered in it.

My teens and husband ran up laughing. “Riptides are crazy!” my older boy said, catching his breath.

My husband cracked a beer and swilled it back. “I think you’re beautiful,” he said.

They were going back out again for a little while longer. He asked if I needed anything. I hesitated. “I gotta pee,” I said.

He laughed. “Just go into the water and pee then!”

Did people do that? I supposed there was no harm in it. But I’d never been in the ocean before. Was there a big drop off? How cold was the water?

I walked down to the water and stepped into the waves. The ocean was warm, salty, and deafening. The water pressure made it hard to tell if I was even done urinating. I let myself get pulled along in the waves and looked back at my family on the beach. My tiny baby, in his orange onesie, was crawling like a windup doll across the sand. Then my husband scooped him up, and carried him down to the water’s edge. They sat and let the tide wash over their laps.

The sun sank lower and backlit the town. The ramshackle buildings, festooned with gaudy signs, were made picturesque in the evening light. I pulled away from the ocean and walked back to my husband and sons. The baby clamored over into my arms, fussing to nurse.

I sat down and wrapped my little one in a clean towel. My teens and their stepdad were already lurching back out into the waves. The baby rutted against me, his eyes narrowing with exhaustion.

No one scrutinizes you on the beach. Bodies of all sorts were presenting themselves in states of relaxation and repose. I undid the tie on my bathing suit and pulled out a breast for my son. He latched on gratefully, sliding his small hands around my breast, and fell into a deep sleep within seconds.

A profound contentment had settled over us. I sat there, propped up with one hand, cradling my baby with the other, and watched the ocean sky go pink. It was as near a religious experience as I had ever felt. I now understood the attachment that people have to this vast, frightening ocean, and why some seemed always to be either going to the beach or talking about returning. Soon the waves were a deep color and, as if responding by instinct, swimmers began emerging from the water.

The three long figures of my boys and husband were walking back from far down the beach. They, too, were a warm pink in the evening light. They walked with their arms swinging so loosely, their bodies so relaxed, that they seemed more like unhurried animals than the stress-ridden human beings we had been just a few hours before.

Remember this, I told myself. Remember this moment, because this is why you are here.

A compassionate and opinionated human being. | Fiction author and visual artist in Central Appalachia. | Give my newsletter a try:

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