I lived in California for most of my childhood, and I was fortunate enough to make it to the beach with some degree of regularity.
My parents took the lot of us there on weekends, and there were field trips in elementary school. I remember walking under grey shrouded skies, jacket zipped against the chilly wind off the ocean. My third grade class studied tidal pools before our trip. Then, in high school, the beach meant baking in the sun or body surfing and getting cold Pacific salt water up my nose. I had less time in college, especially since I didn’t have my own transportation, but once I bummed a ride to the beach and saw a pod of dolphins swimming down the coast, which drew cheers from just about everyone there.
There is, however, no ocean in the Midwest. Once in a while a seagull strays too far from the Great Lakes, and I am overly excited about birds that used to be both common place and a nuisance.
A year or so ago I flew out to California for my youngest sister’s wedding, which was one of the loveliest I have ever attended. I have never seen her look more beautiful. My sister and new brother-in-law shone with love. It was a wonderful wedding up among the redwoods overlooking the bay, and I am blessed that I was able to attend. (And yes, I cried.)
The Sunday after the wedding, my other sister took me back to the beach.
I splashed like a kid through a shallow inlet, looking for shells and rocks. Rounding the rocks and turning north along the beach, there were tidal pools. Tidal pools! Of course I waded in.
The Pacific ocean was still cold, toe numbingly cold, but in the shallow tidal pools, the water had been warmed by the bright sunlight. From a distance, the rocks looked dull, but as I walked out further, everything was transformed. Toward the shore, the anemones were still closed, soft and brown, studded with broken shells. The seaweed lay on the rocks, dull brown in the sun.
The transformation began as the water washed over it all. The seaweed began to wave: translucent emerald ribbons fluttered in the turning tide. In another pool, thin grasses and long green strands with ruffled scarlet edges danced in the current. Rubbery brown ovals, though dull in the sunlight, shimmered iridescent as they pulsed in the tide.
Farther out, the water was cooler, laced with foam as the sharper rocks tamed the waves. Tiny crabs scuttled, black or brown, some small as moving grains of sand. Small shelled creatures, like rolly-pollies, scurried under the mussels. Purple snails held tightly to the rocks, while small things, borne in by the pounding surf, came to rest in a bed of tightly closed mussels. The mussels, a sharp living carpet, clustered in thick masses spread over the rocks. Holes and gaps in the rocks bore evidence of burrowing worms. Swarms of infantile creatures hid under and beneath the beds of mollusks.
Closer to the ocean, farther from the shore, the pools were cooler, deeper, more active. In one, an anemone had opened, a pale green star, waving short tentacles in apparent innocence, searching for food. It grasped a crushed mussel, enfolding the broken shell, collapsing itself around its prey.
The waves grew stronger as the tide came in. Wading back to the beach, the water swirled around my legs, numbing my feet. A cold foam raced past as the water pulled back and forth with the tide. The water squelched in my shoes as I waded up onto the sand. I removed the sodden things and let the heat thaw my toes.
Together with my sister and her boyfriend, I crossed the hot sand, and we loaded into his car. They had a big, orange bucket dull of freshly harvested mussels. I not only had pockets full of shells, but I’d loaded some shells into their bucket as well. When we reached the house, I carefully rinsed my shells and set them to dry on the deck railing. These small pieces of the Pacific were going to make it back to the Midwest with me. That night we had the fresh mussels for dinner with roasted cauliflower. (My sister is a very good cook!)
When I boarded the plane in the morning, I had shells in my bag, a faint sunburn on my nose, and new memories to share. It had been a very good trip, and it had been good to be out on the beach again, to splash through inlets and to investigate tidal pools, but I was so glad to be going home. True, there is no Pacific in the Midwest.
Being back with my family is grander than any ocean.