In the morning, Miz Norfleet, as everyone calls her in drawn out Southern tones—two long syllables, one to evoke her and one to call her back—slices peaches for cold cereal. She saves the soft mound of juice and fuzz on an old newspaper for the compost pile. There is no garbage disposal other than the two old dogs hanging around the back porch. No automatic coffee makers, no electric can openers, not a blender in sight. Her pots and pans are huge—left over from a time when garden surplus was a necessity and had to be put up for the winter—peeled, pitted, cooked down or cut up, and ladled into wide-mouthed jars. There are sauces, jams, relishes, and vegetables placed neatly in rows on cellar shelves lined with red and white-checkered oilcloth. Preserving is an activity for the unhurried.
Miz Norfleet runs a house where the pace is slow, and nothing is wasted. In the bathroom small bars of soap have been welded together to make a new one. Shampoo bottles stand on their caps so that the last drops can be shaken out. It is a disturbingly familiar frugality and I am beginning to feel guilty about every sliver of soap I’ve tossed out and every tin can I’ve failed to scrape clean. Leftovers don’t fare well in my refrigerator, and often, with silent apologies to my mother, I boldly pitch the last two tablespoons of this or that casserole. Usually, I can do it without flinching, but today, the taste of warmed-up string beans makes me penitent.
We pile into cars loaded down with vegetables for our week at the beach. Another day of driving, more small towns. These, it seems, built on giant sand piles but no less familiar for all of that, and then finally, the ocean. Despite the long trip, it is surprisingly sudden—over a hill to the top of a bridge and there it is stretched out in front of us like a restless, grayish-blue blanket. The ocean is like nothing I have ever known before, and it pleases me to find something at my age that can surprise me. But as we stare at it, not speaking, I feel my heart pick up, my breath become shallow and quick. The ocean is urgent and demanding; there is nothing of the slow pace I equate with rivers.
The ocean I expected to be Walt Whitman’s soothing motherly cradle, endlessly rocking turns out to be a chilling ruthless bully. It refuses to accept me—pushes me roughly back toward shore, stinging salt into my eyes, jerking me off my feet. My skin scrapes along the rough bottom like pine against sandpaper. The ocean turns out to be endless frenetic motion—false ambition. Its wild ride is foreign and hurried—sand crabs skitter away, waving one long claw over their heads as if conducting some deep sea orchestra; jellyfish bob whitely on the littered foam near the pier; seagulls shriek overhead, diving for tidbits and small fish. The ocean insists I throw myself headlong into every wave or get out of the way—there is no time to be timid.
I decide living at the beach would be impossible; there’s too much sand and wind and sun. Lives along the ocean are pitched higher—everyone has to be doing—flying kites, jogging, swimming—even people just sunning themselves are restless and exhilarated. There are no comfortable little niches out there, no cooling shade.
Everything is flung open and public—the sky too wide, the sand stretched out too tight and glaring, blowing gritty and stinging against sunburned skin.
Falling into the frantic manner of the other vacationers’ we drag air mattresses out past the breakers, flop onto our stomachs, and turn our backs to the waves to wait. The noise of the ocean, already loud in our ears, becomes a roar like a freight train about to run us down. It’s never clear until the last minute whether it will be a wave that lifts us up and sends us flying toward shore or one that comes crashing down, driving us to the bottom, ripping our floats away from us, tumbling us head over heels over head. Each wave is part of the larger, perpetual rhythm of the whole; and each one has its own unique tempo, completely unpredictable. Exhausted but hypnotized, we throw ourselves into the ocean over, and over, and over.
On our last day, we decide against going back to the beach except for a short morning walk. We spent hours the night before shaking sand and salt out of everything and are reluctant, and too tired, to clean up all over again just for a couple hours of sun. We walk empty-handed except for a ball jar that we’re going to fill with beach sand to take back as a memento. Digging through the top layer to find sand guaranteed to be free of cigarette butts and pop tops from Coke cans, I almost feel guilty, as though I’m taking an animal away from its home. I have the momentary insane idea I should punch holes in the top to let air inside.
It’s almost noon and we have to start back. The wind pushes us along. A line of pelicans threads across the horizon and pale, while jellyfish slap up against the pylons of the dock. Because of the chill morning, the beach is almost deserted, making the ocean’s endless motion seem now more like restlessness than frenzy—like loneliness.
This ocean is neither Whitman’s endless cradle nor a recreational playmate but something powerful and eerie. I am amazed that it ever let me go once it had me rocked inside its waves. Without the screaming tourists, its affability disappears and something primeval and slightly malevolent takes over. It is a prehistoric landscape and I shiver with a mixture of momentary fear and indefinable dread. If we turn around, will the civilized rows of beach houses still be there? And then suddenly, against the bright blue, past the line of pelicans, farther than the lowering clouds, way up and beyond, the thin white thread of a jet stream streaks the sky.