Jean-Marie J. Crocker

Mar 31, 2011 No Comments by Sea Stories

Nahant Remembered

Rimming the lawn where I ran in the sunlight of my childhood summers was the ocean, sparkling, murmuring, tossing its foam as it crashed against the rocks below.  I was at my grandparents’ summer home in Nahant, Massachusetts, my kingdom, the site of the idyll that formed my first sense of place.

Jutting into the Atlantic Ocean some fourteen miles northeast of Boston, the larger part of the rocky peninsula, known as “Big Nahant,” has long been famous for its spectacular views and magnificent estates.  However, it was the smaller knob of the peninsula, the simple, sun washed village of “Little Nahant” that formed my early and lasting love of the sea and its surrounding shore.

Each summer, while my father’s business kept him in the hot Midwest, he sent my mother and me back East to escape the heat.  As we drove away from the hiss and steam of the Pullman trains in Boston’s South Station and settled into the comfort of my grandparents’ Packard sedan, I peered out the car window with anticipation while we headed to the North Shore.  The ride seemed long, past industrial Chelsea and Everett, the marshes of Revere and Saugus, and eventually through the city of Lynn.   There at the outskirts a narrow, two mile neck, bordered by beach and ocean on one side and Lynn Harbor on the other, connected the mainland to Nahant, our long awaited destination.   Through the rolled down car windows came our first tangy whiff of the prevailing East wind.

The first turn off the neck led up a hill past closely set, two-family summer cottages, then curved around the highest point with its wide flung view of the ocean before continuing downhill on Little Nahant Road to the larger homes and lots that bordered Nahant Bay.

At 191, behind the white painted gate and high bridal wreath hedges, stood my maternal grandparents’ home, a gray, shingled house with cream trim and green shutters, its windows and welcoming porches open to the sea breeze.  Here each day’s routine proceeded as certainly and gradually as the turning of the tide.  Slowly the sea withdrew, exposing the rocks festooned with sea weed; slowly it returned, filling natural pools and coves.

From the dormer window in my small nursery I could look across the lawn and gardens, along the continuing rocky shore and sea wall, to the beach that joined Big Nahant and to the white Coast Guard Station with its lookout tower and big gray row boats; always ready to rescue someone, the adults explained.  That shadow of unknown danger gave me a little shiver of awe, as did the moan of the fog horn on days when mist rolled in to enclose us.    However, those were brief, passing clouds in my sunny existence and I accepted the power of the sea long before I understood it.

On the wide, glassed-in sun porch that faced the bay, I invariably found “Garmie,” my youthful grandmother with her titian blonde hair and her cigarettes, seated in one of the gray wicker chairs, keeping an alert vigil with her binoculars. She watched the local fishing dories set forth, stared out beyond the island of Egg Rock, once the site of a light house that guided schooners away from treacherous rocks.   On the distant horizon an occasional large ship slid past; perhaps an ocean liner heading to Europe, she told me, and I began to dream of travel to romantic places.

While I stood at her side watching the sun-spangled ocean, Garmie drew me within the circle of her arm.

“Those are sunbeams dancing on the water,” she said.  I became .permanently enchanted by the image.

For my mother and me the days centered on our outings to nearby Short Beach.

My royal blue wool Jantzen bathing suit, which covered my chest modestly, had a white webbed belt with a silvery metal buckle that I liked to click into place.  A multicolored soft straw hat shaded my face from the sun and white rubber swim shoes protected my feet.  Reaching up to hold my mother’s hand, I walked past the summer houses ornamented with shutters and striped awnings, through a field of tall yellow buttercups, then along the boardwalk at the base of the sea wall.  Through the cracks in the gray, weathered walk I could see masses of gold and brown sea weed left by the receding tide and I wrinkled my nose at the pungent smell.

Between the warm rubble of smooth rocks at the top of the beach and the ridged sand darkened by the lap of the waves, my mother would find an uncrowded space among the scattered groups of beach goers where she spread our blanket and belongings on the soft dry sand.   Soon I would move to the expanse of damp, hard packed sand nearer to the ocean and with my shiny red pail, matching shovel, and fluted molds become totally absorbed in digging, lifting, and carrying sand and water to build cakes and castles.  Whether looking along the length of the beach dotted with umbrellas and chairs, or staring out to the wide horizon, I felt myself contentedly alone, part of a limitless world of blue ocean and sky.  It was a marvelous freedom from the strictures of childhood discipline and obedience.

On days when the tide brought in calm water warmed by the sand I settled in at water’s edge, enjoying the small ripples that slid over me, feeling the push of the salt water lift my legs slightly, turning onto my stomach and pretending to swim.  I had begun to realize that going to the beach meant more than merely playing.  It also meant learning to swim.  I watched the adults, including my energetic girlish mother, pull on their bathing caps, plunge into the rolling waves and come back to stand dripping and sniffling, toweling and shaking out their hair, exclaiming how invigorating it was.  I watched them with puzzled curiosity and returned to my sand projects.

However, my mother, an expert swimmer, was eager for me to learn what she considered a basic skill.  She would come to me with a pair of grayish canvas water wings, a device meant to give confidence to the most reluctant beginner.  Having blown into them until the two ovals were firmly inflated, she would coax me to go with her into water perhaps up to my waist, then place the connecting band across my chest so that a wing extended on either side.  Smiling optimistically, she would persuade me to lie on my stomach and feel the buoyancy of the water while she held the back of my suit. Craning my neck above the lap of the waves, I bobbed along cooperatively with her at my side.

“You can’t sink in salt water,” she assured me.

Yet whenever she convinced me to try paddling without her reassuring hold or the support of the water wings, I would stiffen and indeed sink like a stone, further insulted by the splash of salty water in my nose, mouth, and eyes.

These tentative encounters challenged severely my wish to swim.  I would rather walk along the beach looking for the spiraled shells of periwinkles, the pearly lined blue shells of mussels, oddly shaped stones, or bits of glass, blue, amber, and green, ground and shaped by the sea.

When I did finally learn to swim it was in the natural, rock walled pool below my grandmother’s house.  At the lower edge of the lawn the boundary of the sea wall dropped precipitously some thirty feet to a jumble of rocks, then extended further into massive shelvings of tan, gray, and rose colored rock that jutted into the ocean.  Long forbidden to even approach the lower edge of the lawn, at the age of eight I was permitted to join Garmie as she maneuvered nimbly over the rocks with her fishing gear.

She had tamed the rocks for descent with occasional flat steps of cement

that eased the path to and from the water.  With typical zest and imagination she had a wide natural curve in the rocks below enlarged and smoothed with more cement, creating a sheltered pool for friends and family to enjoy.  There under her guidance on a sunny afternoon I finally realized the combination of surrender and control that constitutes the act of swimming.  Imitating her simple breast stroke and frog kick, I moved through the water for a couple of yards.  I was triumphant.

From that time on it was part of growing up to swim a little further each time, to march out uncomplainingly beyond the occasional influx of clinging brown sea weed at the beach in order to reach the deep, clearer water, to plunge into 62 degree water and assure less hardy summer visitors that it was not even cold.  This was pride, an integral trait, I think, among those who grow up by the ocean, even those for whom the shore is simply recreation.

Soon I was learning the crawl and the back stroke, diving into the surf, floating on my back while the waves rocked me gently and I watched the clouds move across the summer sky.  Now I was not just an observer.  I could feel myself a creature of the sea, comfortable in the embrace of silken water, supported and swayed by its buoyancy.

By my teens the implications of the beach-going rite changed, as I left the guarding eyes of my parents and went in the company of friends.  That early immersion in weather, water, and space bred a certain confidence in our physical selves, a delicious vanity over the glow of our suntans and our figures, trim enough in tight wool or satiny swim suits to survive the stares of less ambitious sunbathers when we walked up the beach.  With eyes alternately shy or coy we watched the groups of exuberant young men on the beach, and the free pleasure of swimming palled in comparison with the   exhilaration of those first slight flirtations.

After a swim I stretched my towel across the sand and lay on my stomach, lulled by the heat of the sun and the pulse of the sea.  Cradling my face against the curve of my arm, I could smell the warmth of my skin brightened by the lingering traces of salt.

As a young bride I followed my husband inland to the enclosed spaces of upstate New York, western Massachusetts, and central Maine.  Eagerly we returned each summer to the North Shore for family visits in the setting where we both had grown up.  The house at Little Nahant had been sold, but my in-laws’ home was within sound and smell of the ocean.  With renewed pleasure we explored the beach and tide pools with our children, breathed in the salt air, and were refreshed again by the everlasting power of the sea.

Now I am old, fated to live happily inland, but still I wait eagerly for my yearly return to the shore.  I walk along a seemingly endless stretch of beach, inhaling the fresh sea air.  Cormorants labor across the sky, gulls swoop low, sandpipers etch the sand at water’s edge.  I gaze out at the cobalt sea, to the clear line of the horizon with its invitation to the unknown.

Some nights the soft splash of the waves at low tide lulls me to sleep.  On nights of high tide I listen to the rush of the sea as it withdraws over the rubble of rocks beneath my window.

I wake to a calm morning. The ocean is smooth, its shallow waves unfurling in narrow bands of white foam.  Sunlight spangles the surface.  Once again I am at Little Nahant, watching the sunbeams dance on the water.

~~~~~~~~

Jean-Marie J. Crocker’s poetry and essays have appeared in numerous literary publications, including Off the Coast, Blueline, The North Atlantic Review, The Aurorean, and The Hartford Courant.  Having lived on the North Shore of Boston for the first twenty three years of her life, Jean Marie attributes her appreciation of the environment to her early familiarity with the sea and its surroundings.  A graduate of Simmons College, Jean Marie lives in Wilton, New York with her husband.

Adrift, Vernal 2011

About the Editors

Casey R. Schulke grew up along the Kuskokwim River in a rural Athabascan village in Alaska fishing for king salmon and mushing her sled dog team. She now resides on the shores of Resurrection Bay in Seward, Alaska. Casey's a poet, a naturalist, a dog-lover, has two birds, and is married to a wonderful man.
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