Moments at a Beach

Moments at a Beach

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A narrow expanse of sand embraces the coast of Rye, New York, between the county park, Playland and sumptuous private homes and clubs occupying their portion of Long Island Sound, views of the distant greenery and specks of mansions dotting the blue-grey expanse to the North Shore. But this “public” beach belongs to the residents of Rye and those non-residents willing and able to pay extra fees for entry.

An elite crowd we are because we, too, are privileged to enjoy a haven protected from the street by wide grassy lawns, to share the same spectacle of Long Island stretching eastward away from the bridges, the same watery freedom and beauty buoying up speedboats and wide catamarans tilting on the wind. Professional life guards survey our swim area, designated by flags of green for safe space, and red for out of bounds.

On a sultry Monday the day after the Fourth of July, hundreds still celebrated Independence Day here, lounging in chairs under umbrellas, the pinks, oranges, and rainbow stripes blending into a semblance of the Riviera, ice chests full of sandwiches and soda, books or mobile phones in hands and laps.

And then there were the swimmers. The calm tide rolling over them, some playing catch with volleyballs, tumbling in the surf, some standing half deep up to their waists, most of them a frenzy of kids playing Marco Polo, diving head first, discharging splashes, creating swirls and eddies, a city of swimmers engaged in pleasure. At times, I wanted to retreat from the mayhem and swim farther out for some peace, toward the rocks where egrets and seagulls sunbathed. Instead, serenity came my way in the form of a family approaching the shoreline.

The slim man who appeared to be around forty held the arm of a much older woman, perhaps in her eighties, who I assumed to be his mother, heavy set, leaning heavily on a cane. I marveled that her walking stick didn’t sink into the wet earth, and kept her balanced on the sandy surface. The two had left the safety of their beach encampment heading for the shallows, outside the green flagged area, approved for entering the water. A lifeguard’s whistle and directive gestures told them they were in the “red zone” and they had to move “over there” with his commanding arm waving, so, the couple continued what became their trek on the pebbly and unevenly packed sand, over the shells, to the “green zone.”

Their walk to the approved swim area proceeded at a pace reminiscent of sea creatures: tortoises and fiddler crabs coming to mind. With slow but deliberate progress, at last they reached the approved swim area to face the oncoming surf, she at his elbow as she clung to her cane, and he to her arm. Though the old woman’s spine bent forward, her heaviness belied her age; she appeared luscious like a nude in a Raphael, despite the wrinkles and pock marks on her flabby thighs. Her rotund belly stretched the seams of her bathing suit to the limits of its elasticity.

My worries that she would tumble were not realized as the young man gradually led her into water up to her waist where she leaned over, and he doused her hair with water; he held her tightly with his muscular arms, though at one point she began to float and when she tried to right herself, and couldn’t, the young man pushed and pulled and heaved the oversize woman until he rolled her over on her side like a giant fish and when he did, and her face revealed itself to me, I saw the broad smile, her teeth white and sparkling, her eyes squinting as she laughed at her joyous predicament.

A middle-aged woman joined them; I assumed her to be the man’s wife. She assisted him with righting the heavy-set mother, holding the old woman steady under her elbows, caressing the old woman’s wet hair out of her eyes. As I trudged out of the waves, my fingers puckered now from almost an hour in the water, I passed the family, wanting to talk to them, and tell them how lovely a scene they made. Their focus on caregiving, however, told me not to.

Later that evening, at sunset, I encountered the family again, this time at the outdoor showers, as the man and his wife held the old woman steady as they washed sand off her legs and feet under the cool jet, holding both her arms, easing her gently to a nearby bench where the man and woman knelt, leaning over as they dried her feet and gently swabbed her hair and face. All were silent. The old woman’s eyes were closed, her face turned upward, in the moment of a tender massage. This time, I called out to them. “You are so beautiful!” I exclaimed. They looked over and smiled. But they seemed to understood only the English word ‘beautiful.’ “Yes, beautiful!” the man called back, as he pointed to the sky.  

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