When did I first see the ocean? Well, to be honest, I feel a bit foolish, because I was 21 years old before I finally actually saw it. Before you make your exclamations, let me tell you that I’ve heard them all: “What?! No way! How in the world have you not seen the OCEAN?” Yeah, they’re all the same. But give me a break; I’m an Irish farm girl, and I grew up in very landlocked country in the middle of absolutely nowhere. We had a river (thirty miles away) and we had plenty of ice-cold creeks to splash around in, snapping turtles and leeches and all. But, far away, way across the state, we had a lake, a GREAT lake.
When I was little, the trip across the state to visit my grandmother who lived exotically close to that lake seemed an eternity. The packing of the car itself was an ordeal. Do you realize how hard it is to pack seven to nine children (depending on age and willingness to make the trip) into one car? And we didn’t make it a “light” trip. My two younger siblings, James and Clare,, and I had an ongoing contest of who could pack the heaviest bag for the (at the longest) weekend trip.
We would hold our breath as we each placed our bags on the scale, normally used to weigh squash and asparagus. “Ha! Mine’s twenty pounds!” James would exclaim, Clare and I would clamber over each other to check the verity of his proud statement. “No way!”we’d groan in dismay. James was the victor most often, but that’s only because he packed the most books. We should have just done away the books to even the playing field. There’s no way he could have won if we’d only weighed our clothing. I swear that boy wore the same, striped red t-shirt and tan, cargo shorts for the first ten years of his life, along with the same bowl cut for his sandy, stick-straight blond hair.
After the bags and children were packed, we finally settled down to read all of those books that we packed. The average number of books finished on our way to Grandma’s was 2.3, but if you were a big kid, it was more like 3.2. When we did eventually get to our destination, hands sticky with laffy-taffy and corn nuts, successfully begged from our parents at gas stations along the way, the first order of business (after the dreaded hug from Grandma and awkward hellos, directed more at our shoes than at Grandma) was to go down to the lake.
“Mom! Dad! Can we go to the lake? Can we take a walk ALL the way out to the lighthouse? Please, please, please!” We would dance around mom and dad’s feet in anticipation of an adventure. More often than not, an older sibling would take us down the four blocks or so to the lakefront. Mom and Dad would stay back home with Grandma in her quiet and intimidatingly clean house.
We always wondered how Dad with his knack for making messes came from such an ordered home. How did the man who regularly hacked and slashed away at mysterious cuts of beef and pork on our dining room table (so much so that I was determined to never sit at the first right hand spot from the head of the table ever again), blood dripping down to the floor in rivulets and flecks of fats and gristle flying every which way, grow up on white carpets and sit down to eat in that spotless kitchen? The spaces in between the pink and white linoleum on her floor never even had any dirt in them. I know because I’d seen marveled at it as I bent to hastily pick up piece of chocolate chip cookie, stolen from her cookie jar one time. And nothing ever changed at Grandma’s. It was a rule.
Anyhow, we would sprint down the street and finally, finally see the “ocean”, Lake Michigan, right there before our astonished eyes. The path down to the beach in front of the azure mass of clear, fresh water was perilous, and up until you were about twelve, you’d need an older sibling’s hand to cling to if you wanted to avoid tumbling down the sharp embankment, through the briars and burrs, and onto the cold, white sands before the foaming water.
But once you were down there, down on the beach, it was pure magic. I always thought I was looking at the ocean. I couldn’t imagine anything as beautiful and grand not being what all those writers talk about in books. It was enormous! And I was so small! When I got old enough to realize the reality of the “smallness” of Lake Michigan, I persisted in calling it the ocean. It was. It was my ocean. The water hit the sky at the horizon, perfectly flat and still, and stretched out and out and out. It was my ocean. The waves were always cold.
The blue-green water prickled my skin into a thousand goosebumps, and made me and James and Clare scream when we jumped in. Slipping underneath the waves and into a shock of cold, my hands numb, my hair flowing about my face, I was in my ocean. And then I would resurface with a scream of success.
And so, if you ask when I first saw the ocean, the answer is that, technically, I first saw it after a nineteen hour road trip in college, off the coast of the Atlantic, in Charleston, South Carolina. Really, it was too dark to see much when we finally arrived at the waterfront around two A.M; the air smelled different, though; there was something wilder in it, something raw. The water was quiet that night, and it shone blue-black under a waning moon, all the way out past human sight. I whooped and hollered, and truly, I loved the air, the night sky, the ocean. But some part of my heart asked, “Haven’t I been here before?” It wasn’t my ocean.