Monday, September 1, 2008
Living overseas, my family fervently looked forward to returning stateside. Postings with the Foreign Service were of varying lengths, and if you were sent somewhere for more than three years, your family got “home leave” midway through—a trip back to the U.S., courtesy of Uncle Sam. Our trips back were most often to the South, specifically to Pascagoula, Mississippi, where my father’s parents lived. We would spend a few days in Pascagoula before hitting the road for the Alabama beach, usually driving in separate cars, my parents’ little rental and my grandparents boatlike Crown Victoria. It had leather seats—I still remember their smell—and power windows, which seemed incredibly decadent and luxurious to my sister and me.
Even when my mother and father were growing up in the South, their families were summering in Gulf Shores, Alabama, the Redneck Riviera. They’ve joked for years that Mom likely kicked sand in Dad’s face when they were children, with no idea of what lay ahead years in their futures.
We went back to Gulf Shores over and over throughout my childhood, sometimes just the six of us, other times joined by my father’s brothers and their families. My father and mother can remember when getting from the west to the east to see Fort Morgan required a short trip by ferry. There were hardly any buildings along the shoreline at all.
When my sister and I first started going, the beach was scattered beach houses, far off the main shore road in the dunes, each an isolated little retreat at the end of paths made of bleached and broken shells. We’d rent a small, stilted house from friends of my grandparents, and for a week we’d live barefoot on sand-scattered linoleum, windows open to the sound of the waves at night, small rotary fans cooling the rooms. We’d swim in the mornings and late afternoons, spending the long hours through the blazing heat of the day reading or working jigsaw puzzles or chasing the scores of lizards that lived in the sea grass beneath the house. We ate sandwiches and tomatoes bought roadside and cartons of boiled shrimp. Going out was a major occasion; we had to drive half an hour to reach our favorite restaurant, a little diner called Hazel’s Nook. We got stung by jellyfish, we stepped on sandspurs, we got sunburned and mosquito-bitten and once, running over the weather deck, I got a splinter the size of a sequoia that required a trip to the tiny clinic in Foley. At night we chased sand crabs and watched hundreds of stingrays haunt the floodlit water beneath the pier. We listened to my grandparents bitch at each other as they played gin and taught us to play hearts. It was about as close to heaven as anything I’ve experienced, and it’s always that little beach house that I think of when I hear the word home.
Over time, of course, most of the beach at Gulf Shores has fallen victim to the same fate as every beach town in America: condos, enormous reefs of condos as far as the eye can see, all varying pastel shades, with names like Summer Sanctuary and Seafoam Estates. And now that my grandparents have both died, there’s no longer a strong force pulling the family south for the summer. Virginia Beach—much closer to home—has become the new family rendezvous.
But the sand seems dirty, the beach crowded, the water murky and rough, and the weather this past week was the pits (the picture here was taken by my sister on the one pleasant day, and there was so much seaweed in the water it felt like swimming through a bathtub hair-clog). The beach certainly doesn’t hold up to our nostalgia about the Gulf, where the sand was whiter, the water calmer, and all of us younger. I wish that the family could go back there and experience that slow summer torpor, which these days seems as far away as the Gulf does—even at the beach this past week, I checked my work email several times a day. I never reached a state of relaxation; sometimes my stomach felt knotted with the same worries. I would love to be able to go back to the Gulf and kick that white sugar sand at my husband, but I suspect it would seem like a forced gesture.
I did go back to my grandparents’ old house in Pascagoula after Katrina hit. The beach road a block from their house had disappeared into the ocean. I had to find my way through a city with no signs, in which every yard was full of debris and all that was left of most houses was concrete slab foundations. My grandparents’ house was still standing, but barely. The yard was full of rubble, the lawn was dead and salty, and dazed-looking strangers were wandering through the battered, junk-filled streets. Most times and feelings and places we can’t recreate.
With Gustav bearing down on the Gulf Coast now, I’m hoping that Mother Nature has the same limitations.
This draft choked on seaweed and a bottlecap.