The sky was an icy slate gray and the wind blew lightly over the frozen road as we struggled up the steep incline. Frozen sand has an interesting consistency. It’s something like what I imagine the surface of the moon is like – cold, hard, compact, but malleable and crunchy underfoot. It was strange to be walking towards the beach in late November. It was a place we knew well, one we often visited during the summer when staying with my grandparents in Southampton. We went down to visit them for Thanksgiving as well, but never for the ocean attractions. This time was different however. As usual, my brother ran ahead of us, the other-worldly sand crumbling beneath his unusually flat feet. He clambered to the top of the hill, but instead of disappearing over the other side and running down to meet the ocean as he usually did, he just stood there, as frozen as the earth beneath our feet. Within moments we were standing alongside him, gazing down open-mouthed at the ransacked, unfamiliar landscape below, the aftermath of the havoc wreaked by Superstorm Sandy just one month before. Gone was the sloping stretch of sand gliding gradually down to meet the water. Gone was the swath of seagrass that blew and bent gracefully in the slightest breeze. Gone were some of the houses that hedged the ocean front – unless you could still call the crumpled, lopsided ruins behind us houses. We stared aghast at the barren wasteland that stretched out below. We stood at the pinnacle of what once had been a sloping hill of sand, but was now a cliff, the ocean having risen so high that it cut away at the bank until there was nearly nothing left. After this there was a drop of about four feet to a flat plane of sand extending down towards the ocean. What had once been a mass of small hills and valleys made by thousands of footprints now lay smooth and flat, as though some giant hand had descended from above to smooth out the wrinkles of the land.
What astonished me most, however, was the ocean. I had never seen sea water behave like this before. The mighty force that had swelled to nearly double its size to relentlessly attack the shore so recently now lay passive, flat, and dead, as though exhausted from its ransacking of the land. It looked like a sheet of cold steel stretching out endlessly towards the horizon. So stagnant and passive did it seem that I was nearly sure if I hit it it would break. I suddenly had an overwhelming urge to kick it, strike at it in any way I could to shatter that awful stillness that extended across what had once been a lively gathering place. All signs of life had completely disappeared. Perhaps this was typical for November, as I couldn’t imagine many people were often in the mood for seaside excursions this time of year, but I was used to shrieking seagulls, shouting children, scurrying plovers, and scuttling crabs. The land that now lay before me seemed almost post-apocalyptic, so dead was the air.
I thought of the summer, still months away, wondering if people would return to the beach as they always did, swimming in that dead water, building castles in that frozen sand. Of course it would be warmer come summer. The ground would thaw, the sun would come out, the ocean would ebb and flow as it normally did. But something about the atmosphere seemed permanent, as though even when the scars of the storm were covered by footprints and beach chairs they would still be there, deep down below the surface, a constant reminder of the terrible event. It was then that I realized with a jolt that it was not only the land that had been scarred. I looked up at the shattered homes and thought of their petrified inhabitants. Of course, many people had already gone home at the end of the summer, and most who remained had probably abandoned their houses when the storm warnings became serious, but what about those who hadn’t? Surely some must have stayed, boarded up with their belongings, huddled close together in some basement, hoping to weather the storm. Had they succeeded? How much had they lost as a result of this devastation? From back home in Massachusetts the storm had seemed a jolly adventure. Even its name failed to intimidate us as we curled up with our books or our televisions or our radios, idly watching the heavy downpour outside the windows and thinking how nice it was not to have to go to school. But for these people the storm had been no lark. Many had lost everything they owned. People were left homeless, injured, and even dead. I was struck by a strange and alien sense of loss, and a different feeling I had never before experienced. You heard all the time about earthquakes, monsoons, and hurricanes in far off countries. You saw pictures of homeless foreign children, and you held bake sales and walkathons to raise money to send to them. But now we were gathering winter coats and hats for children only a short distance away, collecting cans to send their harried parents so the family could eat while they struggled to pull together their lives which had been torn asunder by the gale force winds and massive waves. I had never before registered how wind could crash through walls as if they were cardboard and rip up lives as if they were paper. It was incredible how much punch a single gust could pack.
My brother was already sliding down the sandy bank, his shoes filling with sand as he did so. When he reached the bottom he called for me to join him. Without hesitating, I ran down after him. Hand in hand we pounded the first footprints into that frozen desert. We carved our names into that smooth crust, delighting at how cleanly our sticks cut through the sand. We found stones and shells thrown up by the storm and hurled them into the stagnant water, shattering its glassy surface. It seemed to come alive then, leaping up to receive our projectiles as if happy to have them back again. We left our mark upon that beach, a very different mark than had been left by the storm, and when we left it, it didn’t seem such a barren wasteland anymore.
That Thanksgiving, when our whole family sat around the table groaning under the weight of the food, I knew exactly what I was thankful for.