They say to never begin the story with a dream. It’s been done to death, it's amateur hour. But what, may I ask, in the best of this world doesn’t trip off a dream's tongue?
I’m on the sands of a southern California beach. My parents are a little bit ahead of me. Dad. Mom. Big. Small. The ocean, stretched out like a mirror on its back, is blue and white, like clouds and sky.
And my mother’s eyes.
The beach was a Mom place. There were Dad places, too, like sitting on his lap in that cigar-yellowed den, getting my cuticles pushed back after he cut the nails. And sometimes the two places intersected, like at the dinner table, where each green bean had to find my mouth, or over a family game of Boggle, where I hunted for the words to gobble and impress. But most places were Mom places, and the beach certainly was.
Don’t those waves just sound like a womb?
I know it’s winter. And the sand is cold on my soles. Even California sun is a little bit sedated in the leaner months. I don’t ask why we’re here. It just feels strong and familiar, as I watch my parents' backs against the long, flat water. Even if I haven’t been back to my birth state in many, many years.
The beach was still a Mom place after we moved to Ohio in 1984. Her parents lived in Yorba Linda, California, and we went back by car each summer. My mom, sister, brother, and I. These were long trips of six weeks or more. Educational, in the truest sense. I tried to count the colored cobs in the South Dakota Corn Palace. I couldn’t forget the Alamo, even if I wanted. The Grand Canyon, Zion, and Yosemite are the Sunday schools I most revere.
And all those good books, gobbled in a car's backseat.
But the beach was always the ultimate destination. Even at ten or eleven, I could claim the glow and rub of nostalgia. The squawks of seagulls the cries of old friends welcoming me back into the flock. The velvet saltiness in the air a favorite, dirty perfume.
Dad turns around, shading his eyes against the sun. I hurry to catch up. He always wanted me to run, not walk.
I have no memory of seeing my dad at the beach. Though there are photos of him looking tolerant enough, while my brother and sister buried him in sand. Some twig of patience for it must have snapped by the time I hit my stride, dragging boogie-board and towel and, as it turned out, never enough sunscreen to prevent beach fever from branding itself on my nose and cheeks for the next few weeks.
They’re both wading in the ocean now. Barefoot, the water shin-high. I’m uncertain, sticking to the shoreline, knowing that cold sand means colder waters.
Why did it never occur to me to ask why my father didn’t come with us? Even when we lived in Ohio, he had an unconventional job that would permit him long stretches of time off. But he never came, and I don’t remember ever wondering why. Maybe I was just relieved. Mom was the tender one. While Dad could emotionally tenderize me.
This was a true vacation, then.
And looking back, I recognize how exceedingly lucky I was. Stupid, drunken dartboard luck. The sort of luck that could only be claimed by another swig of innocence.
The water is warm. Against all odds. The water is the golden state.
I smile at the incongruity. Maybe the ocean isn’t merely a mirror, reflecting the sun’s rays, the cold expectations we harbor and nurse. Maybe it’s a reservoir of unplumbed depths, still capable of holding and surprising.
I’m not sure why some people can’t show their love, the way that others do. But I’ve never really doubted that my father loves me, and with all that he is. For me to expect more of him is to deny the contradictory currents of his true nature.
The path to hell is paved with good intentions? I don’t know. Maybe so. But I'm very far from hell. And the subjective goodness of those intentions has to count for something. This is how I feel today.
Still very lucky. My kids only knowing Mom-and-Dad places.
The water is lucid and clean. I can see my toes wriggling. The bones of shells bedded in their wet grave. Beneath the warm embrace.
I told my dad I loved him the other day. Not a big thing, right? But yeah, it kind of is. It took something nearly tragic for me to admit it to him. And he didn’t say it back. But he let me kiss him on his cheek without it being too awkward. I think he appreciated it.
Anyway, it was something I could do. He always preached personal responsibility. But it's my gospel to interpret.
The water remains blue and white, as I wade further into its depths. Like my mother’s eyes. Mine, too.
Blue eyes are a recessive trait. My father’s eyes are brown. But he carries the gene, buried deep inside his cells, and he gifted it to me.
I had other dreams last night, ones that were less kind. But this is the one I choose to remember. This is the one that makes me salty with something better than nostalgia. And this is the one that makes me smile.