August to me means real summertime: dog days and a holiday stretch of beach. Most of my summer breaks over the years have been spent on one, even if it was only a lake with a sandy shore rather than the ocean. My mother was a beach person and so in turn her children became beach people. There is always something magnificent about the changeableness of the sea—its gradations of colour, its shifting surface, its relentless movement—but just as important to me is the safe harbor of the sand—whether spun sugar or pebbly strand.
I have a photo of my sister and myself taken on a beach, with the sea in view behind us. She can’t be more than three and myself two. We are windblown, faces glowing, protected from the sun in our long-sleeved, cotton shirts. In the area where we sit, the sand is wet and packed; no footprints visible on it apart from the faint trails of two pairs of small feet. It is clear that we have been startled into looking up. With shovels still half buried, we beam on command at the long-legged beauty in her slim suit, camera in hand, hair blowing and whipping as wildly as the whitecaps breaking behind us. “Smile,” she tells us.
That was Wildwood, New Jersey, USA, where over time my mother’s parents had built two homes: the Flat Top and the Peanut House. From them we could walk to the beach, carrying what little we needed in the morning, and walk back for showers, lunch and a nap in the afternoon. There, the beaches were white and wide. While it was actually a barrier island facing the Atlantic Ocean, we just called it “the Shore.” I recall a constant steady breeze, and running inside in the odd thunderstorm so as not to get too wet—but only after running around madly to actually getwet. The nights were cool in Wildwood and unique for a variety of reasons, not just the great dormitory at the top of the Peanut House where cousins of all ages and sizes vied for beds of every different description. (Mine was the one with the white, wrought-iron bedhead, complete with perfectly crafted heart.)
Summer nights in Wildwood were longer. We got to bed later, or not at all. There was no pressure about work or school the next day for anyone—unlike today when cell phones and tablets continuously blur that line. In Wildwood, nights were also special because gone was sleeping with just our siblings in modern far-flung homes where there would only ever be one mother and one father. In Wildwood, the floodgates opened and cousins, aunts and uncles, a grandmother and grandfather, all tumbled in; so many arms to run to. So many people who came at the double when one day I cried, “Ouch!”
I’m unsure how I did it—maybe on the slide behind the Peanut House—but the bulk of my little body went one way while my arm, snagged at the top, went another. Which older cousin was it who pushed me? “Go. Just go!” Who knew? But it was my grandfather Patrick Joseph who came running up first, freeing my arm while saying simply, “You know, I once had a Charley horse*.” A horse called Charlie? What was. my grandfather talking about? As they say, Pop-pop had me from the word go. He carried me away from the busiest part of the grounds, but not so far that we both couldn’t still be part of the happy commotion.
With my seemingly mangled arm limp at my side, my grandfather poked it, prodded it and pronounced, “You’ll be alright.” Of course, one of the key questions he asked me was whether or not I could still sing. I nodded bravely that I could. He told me he would take the first verse and I should come in on the second. With the tears still wet on my lashes—couldn’t he see I was hurt? —he commenced. “Hey, playmate,come out and play with me, bring your dollies three,climb up my apple tree, cry down my rain barrel, slide down my cellar door, and we’ll be jolly friendsforever more…”
When that didn’t do the trick and I didn’t pick up on the next verse, my grandfather pulled his chair a little closer, smiling the magnificent wide smile that graced his tanned faced topped with silvery Irish hair. “Okay,” he said, “then we’ll sing our favorite song.” He took a deep breath and in a bounteous baritone sang, just for me: “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are grey. You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.” When I finally sang along, he knew his job was done. Lifting me up, he whispered once more, “Please don’t take my sunshine away.”
Bucket in hand, it was back to the beach for me, and despite the odd threatening cloud, even a crack of thunder overhead, it was heaven to be plopping down on the sand once more, shovel in hand, feeling the sea breeze, and—oh, yes—humming “you are my sunshine, my only sunshine.”
Happy August, happy summertime,
* In America a colloquial expression for cramp or spasms in the arm or leg.