Storm Surge

Written By: Susan A.  Cohen

My daughter, Sara, ordinarily a late sleeper tugs me out of bed for an early morning walk on the beach. She’s eager to see Hurricane Bob’s aftermath. We are in Montauk visiting my mother, who fifteen years earlier built a small house here for her retirement. Sara, eight years old, wastes no time brushing her unruly hair or putting a tee-shirt and shorts on over her bathing suit. Dressed only in her flip-flops and bathing suit, her hair flying, she hurries me out the door toward the beach.

Hurricane Bob is her first hurricane experience, and all day on the day of the storm she begged to go outside. She listened intently to the wind, alternately melodic and frightening. She watched as tree limbs and other yard debris flew past our windows, and she opened the sliding doors on the deck allowing a small flood into the house. This morning she races ahead of me on the quarter-mile walk down to the beach, overflowing with questions about what we might find. I cannot slow her down as she runs down the hill.

When we reach the top of the dunes, we cannot find the narrow path we usually walk to get to the shore. It is gone. The dune grass and Sara’s unbrushed hair share a certain similar wildness; there is no part to be found anywhere. We eventually decide to create a new path approximately in the place where the old path might have been. “Watch out for ticks,” I remind her. “Be careful where you step,” I call ahead. Is this really me calling out all these cautions to my daughter? How, I wonder, did I turn into that person who wants my child to slow down?

Sara, through instinct and excitement, finds the remnants of the old path and reaches the beach first, but when I catch up to her, we are both silent. This is not our beach or at least not the one we felt we understood. The day after a hurricane, the changes to our shore are astounding. Whole sections of the beach are gone, the cliffs are reconfigured into patterns like witches’ fingers, and small pools of still water have formed to the east of where we stand. Shocked to discover that the waves are breaking directly against our feet, directly against the dune cliffs, we look for any familiar image or curve of the shoreline, but we cannot find our beach.

So we go walking. We walk the two miles into town and then head back home. The sandy portion of our beach remains hidden, but Sara the Scavenger discovers strings of seaweed, crabs, shells, piles of smooth white rocks, lost footwear, and all sorts of odd debris. We are relieved to see the bank swallows emerge from their small oceanside dwellings, and for a while we watch the flickering patterns they make against the sky. The aftermath of a storm, we learn, is a tangle of new and old images, and we are forced to reimagine a landscape we once took for granted.

For me, the most familiar aspect of this morning scene turns out to be my daughter. She sings a little song to herself as she walks with one leg in the water and the other on the sand. I watch as she tips sideways with every step. She walks and sings and navigates the tides while I daydream about my childhood walking with my father on this very beach, and then sort through my worries about the return of my mother’s breast cancer. Walking along the newly configured shoreline with both the familiar sounds and smells and the unfamiliar damage, I let my thoughts drift.

After a while, I move closer to Sara and try to imitate the off-kilter rocking pattern of her footsteps. I want to know what imaginary world she has created. She is singing a pirate song complete with the requisite “yo-ho-hos.” She then tells me that she is not Sara at all, but “Captain Long John Peg Leg Black and Blue Beard Hook,” and she has been washed ashore after the hurricane. “It was a terrible storm,” she tells me, “with fierce navy-blue winds.”

“Long John Peg Leg Black and Blue Beard Hook?” I ask.

I smile recalling my own childhood penchant for creating alternative names, such as the year I wished to be called “Mermaidia Oceanica—Queen of the Absolutely Amazing Atlantic Ocean,” only to be dubbed “Shipwreckius Susanicus,” or “Shipwreck Sue” for short, by my father.

“That’s quite a mouthful,” I say. “Do you have a nick-name for short?”

“Of course not, Mom. That would be disrespectful. I am a ruthless pirate captain!”

I’m not sure what makes me happier this morning, having an eight-year-old child who uses words like “navy-blue winds,” “ruthless,” and “disrespectful” or having an imaginative child who responds to a hurricane with a wild new persona.

We linger on the shore for as long as possible before returning to my mother’s house. There is much to do at the house in the aftermath of the hurricane: go to the firehouse to fill our water jugs, clean up the debris from the yard and deck, pull the tape off the windows, help my mother change her bandages. Both Sara and I have had to accept illness as part of our childhoods. When I was five, my father was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, and Sara at eight years old struggles with her adored grandmother’s breast cancer. Like me, she will always connect this shore with freedom, imagination, sorrow, and loss.

The next night, still without water or electricity, Sara and I trek out to the lighthouse, in part to escape from the troubles at the house and in part to sit on the jetty to star-gaze. We perch on a large rock directly beneath the revolving Fresnel lamp of Montauk Light. The waves, still stirred up from the storm, wash over the rocks, but the night sky is clear and star-filled. We don’t talk much at first. Sara slips into humming songs while I consider the string of years I have been finding my way across these slippery rocks behind the lighthouse. At twenty-three, when I married and moved to Idaho, I did not realize that I would find a way to return to Montauk every year, that I would become migratory arriving in late spring with the terns.

I want to understand how specific places shape individuals. How is it that we resist the imprint of one place and accept the imprint of another? What factors have to merge to create those of us who are place-oriented — some of us connecting to the mountains, others to urban environments, some to deserts, and some, like my daughter and me, to the coast?

Many have written about the connection between place and identity, and others have studied the role of imagination in forming one’s personality, but it seems to me that a place that triggers one’s imagination has a better chance of settling into one’s identity. No matter where I live, somewhere inside I will always carry Mermaidia Oceanica, Queen of the Absolutely Amazing Atlantic Ocean — a little girl version of myself who imagined great and heroic adventures that all began at the shore. The older self is here too, empathizing with the restlessness of the tides, surprised by her daughter’s intense connection with the ocean. I did not anticipate having a child who shares my affinities for the shore, whose call to the water is as strong as mine, who needs to sit by the ocean to sing songs and create sea stories.

When I was a little girl, I believed that Montauk was the end of the world, the place where maps stopped and stories began. Maybe that notion still holds true, but sitting with Sara on the erosion-control rocks just behind the lighthouse, I revise my childhood sense of place and consider the role of the tides. The force of a hurricane may reconfigure and disrupt an entire ecotone, but such destruction is rare. On a daily basis, tidal currents ebb and flow with a reliable precision and tumble and heal the coast. Tidal cycles teach us how to adapt, change and cope with a frightening beautiful place. The shoreline might seem like the end of the mapped world but turns out to be a fertile place for a child’s imagination to expand and develop a connection to place.

After sitting on the rocks for a long while, watching the lighthouse beam roll across the water, I say to Sara, “Can I tell you a story about a mermaid named Mermaidia who was saved by a ruthless pirate from a fierce hurricane, many many years ago, before lighthouses were ever imagined?”

“Yes,” she says, “and his name was Captain Long John Peg Leg Black and Blue Beard Hook, right?”