Over the weekend I took Charley with my Mom, Aunt and Grandma to Jekyll Island, Georgia. Four generations of the same family under one roof, but that’s another story. Jekyll Island exists much the same as it always has, even despite an expensive, large convention center and new entrance with a roundabout. The trees remain littered with Spanish moss, the air is sticky and warm, and the people and attitudes are the same. People don’t vacation there because of the amenities, they go because they have been vacationing in the same place for as far back as they can remember. That’s why we still go. My grandmother has owned a condo there for at least twenty years, and we would vacation there when I was a child. You aren’t getting anywhere quickly on the island; vacationers seem to go at their own pace. Food will come when it arrives, the bartender will show up when she feels like it, but always, always, there is that Southern charm. You might be annoyed until you hear that syrupy sweet accent, “And how are you doing today sweetheart? What can I get for you?” It struck me that it wasn’t just the landscape that hadn’t changed, our family hadn’t really changed that much either. When I was Charley’s age, my Grandma had an older shih tzu named Maggie, and we hated her. She nipped at every kid that came past her path. I distinctly remember her huddling under the Christmas tree one year with crazy, half-blind eyes, guarding the presents. Now my Grandma has another shih tzu named Mickey. They look the same, but Mickey is friendly and doesn’t nip. But if you saw a picture of me as a little kid with Maggie, and Charley with Mickey, you would think no time had passed at all.
Since we had vacationed there when I was a child, my Mom kept pointing out things that were different, or the same, and activities we had done back then. And I had trouble remembering any of them. I have few early childhood memories. My earliest memory is probably the day my brother was born. I was five. They lay him down on the ottoman in our living room and neighbors came by and oohed and ahhed over him. I stood from afar and contemplated what I should be doing. No one was paying any attention to me. Then I remember things sporadically until high school. My third grade teacher? Couldn’t tell you her name. The year we got our minivan? No idea. I seem to remember the stressful, bad moments, or the really good moments, and everything in between falls through the cracks. There is one place though I remember quite strongly, and that’s the beach.
My brother and I would spend hours at the beach, especially the summer my father owned a bakery and worked nights. We would walk the three blocks up the hill to Lake Michigan and swim all day long. My brother would dig, and dig, and dig in a wild frenzy of flailing arms, sand slinging across the way. I would act out elaborate scenes in my own little play. In some I was a star gymnast (it was the year of the 1996 Olympic games). I would throw my arms upward dramatically, my toe pointed forward, and the water would be my balance beam. I flipped and twirled, both things I couldn’t do on the sand, or in real life. But there, in the water, I could be anyone. The sun would be setting, glistening off the lake, and you could see Chicago in the distance, and I would still be practicing, dancing until it dipped below the water. The beach was my happy place.
Now, in Florida, I take Charley to the beach at least once a week. It’s where we relax and bond and just play. I have a theory in parenting that everyone has a happy place: it’s the location or activity you remember so fondly as a kid that when you have your own child, it reconnects you to your younger self. It’s much harder as an adult to get to the happy place. It involves a level of mental distance from the things adults think matter so much: money, cleanliness, work, laundry, dinner. It takes forgetting everything you should be doing, and just letting go. It’s a challenge, and the beach seems to be the only place that I don’t feel the need to check my phone or the laptop, or do the dishes or laundry. My husband’s happy place with Charley is playing Legos. I see how he lets go any stress he has, and just plays with him. And he actually gets into creating elaborate staircases, castles, and barns all out of those multi-colored plastic pieces. He lets his imagination take over. What is it about being an adult that makes imagination so difficult?
The longer we stayed in Jekyll, the more memories came pouring back to me. We spent all day at the pool, and at one point I turned to my mom and asked, “Wasn’t that bar a hot tub before?” And she laughed and said yes, it had been. I would notice little things like that, small flashes of memory. We rode horses on the beach and through the woods. It was hot and buggy and I was scared. My horse bucked going over a fallen tree. I had a crush on another boy vacationing named Tai. He walked down to the beach with me on the boardwalk stairs. I think we talked about music. My skin was cold and prickly when we came in from the pool into the air conditioning. There was no worrying, only being.