There have been other waters. Once and again. But they were waters that promised more than could possibly be delivered, waters that took what wasn’t theirs to take. It took me what could be measured in decades and what could not be measured in regret to find the healing waters of the East End. To become, if you will forgive me, sound.
I was born on a winter’s day as snow became sleet and the freezing rain changed the Queens streets to icy rivers. My father, who was not present at my birth, could not find his galoshes and so, with a stroke of what he believed to be ingenuity and what my mother would later testify as nothing short of mortification, found two Wonder Bread bags, slipped them over his shoes, and sloshed through the torrents and onto the ward where he was asked by the doctor if this was the best he could do. The doctor was not talking about the makeshift boots. I was just five pounds four ounces soaking wet.
And I cried. Constantly. Huge, hot tears that rendered my small world boggy and my mother frantic. Fretting that her tiny, miserable daughter may not live until a spring christening, she turned the taps in the kitchen sink until the water ran tepid and I was free from sin. I stopped screaming. Momentarily stunned, she turned off the water. Shuddering sobs again. The water back on and blessed silence. Relief for us both, but short-lived. The people in the apartment below complained about water sluicing forever through the pipes and that was that. The faucet baptismal waters didn’t run long enough to soothe me or catechize me. I have hope, but I am afraid that is not the same as faith. As for the sin, that’s another story entirely.
Scores of seasons later, I was a young mother with daughters of my own. I took them to the beaches along the Atlantic as every Long Islander must to show their children that their home is not comprised only of malls. We hurdle over scorching sands toward a horizon that is mercilessly stark and straight, as if to imply there is only one way to approach anything in life. They jump in the waves, but warned, will only go so deep. In a sun-blinded moment, I have discovered that pigtails, whether the color of wheat or copper or chestnut, appear black when wet and that head counts are impossible in that over populated surf. I peer as they laugh when the white caps froth at their knees as prettily as debutante dresses from another century, but I am remembering a small girl who drowned thirty years before in those same fathoms (a little jump rope friend, just six, ash blonde curls damp with city heat: she ran for the ocean before her parents could stop her) and another who later may have. On my father’s shoulders and suddenly not. Many summers later, I easily remember the colors of the briny green ocean and my own eerily white limbs as I flailed underwater, unable to make out anything else in the cloudy tumult of sand filled, brackish sea. I recall my father recovering from the crashing wave, gripping my ankle, hauling me up. One child is saved; he shoots my mother a look of anguish I will not see again until twenty years later, when one is not.
When I was a girl, our family had a bungalow on a lake. Family legends abound. The time my grandfather floated on his back and read a newspaper; the time my father in his own boyhood rigged a rope so he could swing out Tarzan style. My siblings loved it as their own Neverland: two mermaids and a lost boy. But the lake was the color of camouflage, those varying shades of mud and algae that hide people and secrets. Water snakes waited in the darker depths and dragon flies swooped near my ear but gave no explanation for their ability to walk on the skin of the water. I watch, shivering on the mossy shore as my brother dives and the lake slithers over him. He is gone. Seconds tick. Nothing visible but lily pads wilting on the stagnant surface. It seems impossible that he can ever surface, but he does. He did. Then. Hair flicked back, eyes squinting in laughter. It is beside his beloved lake where he will return not too many years later and decide that twenty seven is enough. I never saw his sorrow, a very unoriginal sin and one of which my mother never thought to cleanse me.
She did, however, tell me and my sisters and brother all about the healing waters of Lourdes. We never got there. Still, I dutifully dipped my fingers in holy water every Sunday and dreamed of being a nun (if I could be the celebrated kind who had visions). But the magic of that weekly solution evaporated, as did the years. I am fifty four now. Those birth numbers apply once again, but now in decades and years instead of pounds and ounces. I am twice the age my brother lived to be. I cannot say I am any the wiser, but this is what I believe: if the soul has a color, then it is the color blue. The blue of the eastern Long Island Sound.
I have a summer cottage. Oh, five simple words that cannot express the heaven of simply staring at the sapphire water in which this primordial fish of an island swims. Generous neighbors, old timers welcome me. They try to explain the complicated network of families in this little community, and I smile, remembering other names, other old timers. They tell me how to search for what they call the Sleeping Giant on the shores of Connecticut. I strain, but cannot perceive any giant due north. Sleeping; that sounds about right. But I am not interested in further shores. The hazy, soft summer sky blends like a reverie with a horizon that gently curves and seems to remind that not all journeys are straightforward. This is the horizon that would have comforted the old explorers, terrified they would fall off the edge of the sea. This is the horizon that would have assured someone to try, just try, a twenty-eighth year.
There are the names for every shade of my water in every moment of the day: cornflower, azure, cobalt, royal, iris, midnight, periwinkle. And more. But the lovely names cannot portray the movement as the ripples slowly roll to the coast, lit to glowing by the sunlight, twilight, starlight, moonlight. The names cannot capture the tranquility, the serenity the Sound evokes. I take a kayak and paddle out as little rivulets flutter by. Quiet as church, except for small swells lapping. Looking back at the shore, I see my little house waiting. Fireflies, old wicker chairs, geraniums, books, love. The kayak bobs with the slowly undulating surges. Clear water lifts me; cerulean water buoys me and my spirits.
Now, I know the color blue is often associated with sadness, and this may be true in life as in literature or song. But there is a softness to melancholy when worn over the years. And when gazing at the indigo waters of the Sound, troubles too are softer. Like the ebbing currents, they are there, but somehow more distant. Troubles, like these tides, are now more familiar, more mellow, more easily slipped in and out of.
Others will long for sugary sands of another beach, another shore. That is not my coast, not my life. There are rocks. But the millennium-old glacial waters that mightily separated Long Island from Connecticut also made the kind effort to try to smooth the white pebbles. I lift nearly translucent stones, luminescent and cool from the lapis water, and touch them to my face. They soothe cheeks stinging from sunburn or a tear, and I walk the shoreline collecting them, clad in flip-flops. Wonder, indeed.
And there is another rock here. A massive boulder, in fact, that bounds from the water to what must be over fifteen feet. At high tide, the children jump with swimmers’ glee the likes of which I have not seen in many years. I watch a little anxiously and hold my breath: will they resurface? They emerge, eyes round with their own bravado. Their parents rejoice to see a family tradition live on. A revelation, truly.
I, too, will live on. And I understand now the desire to die beside a dearly loved body of water. When the time comes, I will be here, and I will remember Emerson:
Tis time to be old,
To take in sail:–…
The port, well worth the cruise, is near,
And every wave is charmed.
For now, though, I will live by the East End Sound. I will live for it.