By Barry Wallace
The waters of Long Island Sound sparkled a deep sapphire blue. The sunlight spread across its surface and lit up the waves. Shadows shimmered, zig-zagged like a school of fish and disappeared into the edge of the water.
September was cleanup time at the beach, and the weather seemed to be doing the same -- scouring away the leftovers of summer and bringing in a cleaner, drier season. The beach was splashed with bright sunshine and swept clean with brisk freshening breezes.
We were raking again using the old wood-handled rakes with their broken and rusted metal tines. In the pecking order of our Irish-American family at the time we, the twins, "weren't worth much" when it came to work. Our older brother Kevin could already drive a nail straight and true and had the instincts of a born carpenter. He was paired with our Uncle Phil doing the more skilled jobs of fixing porches, mending screens, measuring and sawing.
Brian and I helped the women changing bedding, sweeping up sand, mopping floors, lugging junk and moving furniture. But even these things, especially the cleaning and scrubbing, were considered somewhat advanced for us. So we were handed the old rakes and told to clean the sand around the cottages, removing nails, broken glass and anything else that found its way into the sand during the summer season. The tenants spent most of their time in the front near the water. Things sometimes fell out of their pockets and bags into the netherworld of beach sand.
The yards were all sandy back in the 1950s. Only a few Pine Creekers (pronounced "Crickers") had planted lawns then, and these were considered by the rest of us to be unnecessary and pretentious.
Before the huge stone jetties were built by the town to protect the beach, the yards were fronted by simple wooden bulkheads that did little to hold back the flood-tides. If your cottage survived hurricane season, your front yard would be left with the smoothest, whitest beach sand in all of in Fairfield. Such fine grains could easily flow through an hourglass. As kids we enjoyed making hourglasses with our hands and watching the sands of time sift through our fingers.
For us raking sand wasn't just busy work. After you scraped the surface it was surprising how much could be found hidden in it. We discovered toy guns, nail clippers, keys, coffee cups, cigarette lighters, ladies' compacts and all kinds of silverware. The sand was a lot like the water. After you dropped something into its depths you might never be able to find it again. Just one careless move and it vanished before your eyes. The distraction of relaxation also played a part at the beach. People settling back into a snooze or a novel might realize only later that they had lost something in the sand.
My father was especially pleased when we turned up shards of glass. The green and brown pieces of broken soda and beer bottles were easy to find. The clear glass that you couldn't see in the sand could deeply slice your feet or hands. We wore thick gloves on this work detail. Rusty nails and screws popped up everywhere. So did weathered hammers, screw drivers and other items lost from the tool box. These were rescued and put back into service, never the quite the same but still useful for a while longer. Even if the items were completely rusted, my father would throw them into a box for possible later consideration. We were a thoroughly Catholic family, who took the idea of resurrection seriously.
Of course, being kids, what we really hoped for was buried treasure. We believed we would find diamonds or rubies that would make us rich. Each unearthed piece of costume jewelry was breathlessly brought to the adults for inspection. It was all worthless but we remained convinced that we had discovered the imperial crown jewels. The rings were probably from gumball machines or Cracker Jack boxes. I should have realized there were no dowagers renting our humble beach-side shacks. They were working people like us out for a couple of relaxing weeks in the summer at an affordable price. A little bit of heaven close to home.
Once we found a condom in the sand and showed it to my father. I naively thought it might be some kind of a balloon. After that incident I remember him saying we shouldn't pick up everything we found in the sand. There was a peculiar expression on his face that I couldn't read, but that look told me we had discovered something that couldn't be explained to us just then. Certainly none of our guests would ever engage in such behavior, but there was a steady stream of beach crashers moved by moonlight and cheap beer to romantic interludes in the sand. Sometimes at night soft sounds would emanate from the shoreline and into our open bedroom windows -- bird calls, bell buoys, muffled laughing and whispers. The beach was filled with magic, but that kind of magic was well beyond the understanding of two still innocent young boys.
Although we recognized our low status on the family totem pole, we knew our father wanted the job done and done right. He would come out and check every so often to make sure we were still raking and to tell us how important it was for us to stay with it. "You boys might think you get all the dirty little jobs, but they need to be done well, too. It's like that in a big Irish family. You can be forty before they think you're old enough to hammer a nail." He was referring to his aunts and uncles who were also at work at Pine Creek. Although he was our father, he was still a boy to them. I sensed that Dad was trying to tell us something about himself and the family that he deeply loved. He wanted us to know that we were one of them in ways we might not understand. The beach was our familial place where we worked together as a family and told family stories. It was where we sometimes awkwardly stepped on toes in the dance of the generations and the complex feelings that were our heritage and our curse. We knew we were loved even if they seemed to have little use for us; even if we were made to feel we were in the way; even if the words we spoke were never enough to express what needed to be said. I may have learned all I ever was to learn on those weekends long ago. Life is filled with repetitive hard work coupled with steady progress and understanding. If you learn anything at all, it is important not to blindly grasp at something you can't see -- like sharp glass and rusty nails. We can't always understand the people we love, and even their love can be hurtful in ways we can never imagine. Time is like an hourglass that runs out on all of us. The older you get the more quickly the sand slips through your fingers. Almost every face and voice I remember from the beach is gone now. All the aunts and uncles, all the beach characters, my remarkable grandmother, Mal, and the father I was never ready to say goodbye to. And you never do find any buried treasure.
So there we all are in the sand next to the sparkling sound under the wide blue skies of a September Saturday. We are working together in the brisk breeze that entwines our breath as it races across the flat expanses of the beach. We are touching each other's lives like the shadows jutting out from the cottages and spreading longer across the sand as the sun slips lower in the sky. What falls into the sand is irrevocably transformed or lost forever. And it is beautiful, piece by piece, because it is all a part of our lives. READ MORE: http://www.fairfieldcitizenonline.com
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From Fairfield Citizen 9/23/09