The first memory I am sure I remember is of a day at the beach with my parents. My dad swung my little sister in her carrier, which had its own awning to keep the sun off of her. She wore that little blue hat tied to her bald head, her little wrinkled face screwed up, always squinting as if an answer was about to come to her.
My mother wore her modest black bathing suit with a white terry cloth robe over it and a new pair of black flip-flops. She had a bright print scarf tied around her big black hair. She shook out a horse-hair navy-issue blanket and arranged herself on it with her freckled legs out in front of her, teetering a little from side to side, catching herself on her elbows. My dad always teased her that she never really tanned, just became one big freckle. I had a half a cup of my mom's freckles poured across my nose, but I was rosy and fair (flushed and pale?) with light pinky blonde hair, and I burned to a crisp in half an hour.
My dad loved to take photos and movie film. He pointed the camera at my mother, and she threw her hand up to her collarbone and turned her head as though she didn't want her picture taken. Later she would send out three copies: one to each of her sisters and one to Grandma. We had one in our album too.
I stood in front of my mom while she rubbed sun cream on my back. She spun me around and greased up my front side too. As my dad put the baby down his shadow fell across us. My mom looked up, and her husband was reflected in the lenses of her big black sun glasses. She looked like a minor movie star with her big white teeth glittering in the sun, her shiny black hair tumbling down her back. “Go on,” she said to me. “You can only spend fifteen minutes in the sun.”
“But I want to build a castle–”
“You’d better get going, then. You’ve already wasted a minute. Go with your dad and get in the water.”
My mom took sunburn seriously. The first year they were married, she and my dad had been attracted to the beaches as only two young newlyweds from
Everybody hears the warnings; they are all over the place. But the sun on a tropical island is not the same as the sun that ripens corn and beans on the
So one time my dad didn’t turn over when my mom told him to but said instead that he’d turn over when he damn well pleased. He thought the heat was clearing up the acne on his back. He didn’t really start to smell like frying bacon until they were on their way home.
He was so sick that a couple of times he said he wished he’d turned over when she told him to. He slept at the kitchen table the first night. He moaned and roared when he tried to move. A fan oscillated across his skin and my mom kept slathering on handsful of Noxema.
Mom said he was so sick she wanted to call the doctor. He was vomiting from the heat and dehydration, and his skin was as red as a hot dog. His body temperature was high, and his mood was hot as hell. He slept at the kitchen table the next night. The skin on his back curled up like pork rinds and fell to the floor like husks. He was in so much pain that he began to converse with my mother. “I could be court martialed for this,” he told her.
“For a sunburn?”
“For damaging government property.”
She put that piece of information away in her little mental tote, filed under “court martial” and cross-referenced to “sunburn”. By the time I was born her fear of the sun had gelled into a standard operating procedure, and I was always subjected to a lecture and a creamy rub before I went outside in the sun.
“Go on, go on,” she said as she shooed me toward my dad. “Dwain, take her into the water,” she directed. She lit a cigarette and blew the first drag up into the sparkly air. She checked my sister with one eye only, the other one squinted up from the smoke. She rubbed cream into her thighs with the palms of her hands, keeping her fingers splayed back so the Coppertone would not collect under her red-lacquered nails.
My mother never went into the water. Part of it was that she didn’t want to muss her hair. She did have a beautiful head of hair. The other part was that she couldn’t swim a lick, and my dad was a trickster. She might have enjoyed a lazy bob in the waves, but she didn't trust her husband not to turn her weakness into a nasty practical joke. Our outings nearly always ended with someone crying.
I couldn't swim either, but I took hold of my father's hand, and he led me along the sand to where the wetness began, squeezing my knuckles together until the bones rolled against each other and hurt. I didn't say a word because complaints usually caused him to decide to play rougher, squeezing my pinkie finger into a little white swirl and rolling it into a knot until I began to cry and he began to laugh. Being good meant no whining, and that was not always easy to achieve with my parents.
So we dug our toes into the sand and waited as the waves approached. I stood in the little oval spot of my dad's shadow. The water tumbled over our feet and backed away again, seeming to suck the sand from under our feet. Each time a wave retreated, I felt as though I was flying backward toward the blanket and I laughed.
“Watch this,” my dad said. He picked me up and tossed me about three feet away into the water.
The whole world slowed almost to a stop. The water twirled me around and I saw shells and crabs and sticks and silt spinning around with me. I was jerked out to sea as the wave receded. I felt as if I traveled a hundred miles from the beach. I had not known that you could see under water. My ears echoed with a rhythmic sound that I didn’t recognize as my own heartbeat.
Finally, my dad grabbed me by the arm and lifted me up out of the water. I heard myself choking and gagging and spitting, before I lay still in the hot sand. This afternoon was the first time I felt that hot anger that drove me through my twenties, thirties, and forties before I gradually learned to loosen its hold. The first time I let myself feel anything but afraid.
"She's drowning," my mother said to my dad.
"She is not. It was only a foot of water." My dad poked at me with his foot as if I were driftwood that had washed up on the beach. "Hush up," he said, “or we'll just go home."
I lay on my belly in the hot sand, my father's bad toe with its thick yellow horn of a nail an inch away from my nose. I didn’t make a sound while I tried to calm my breath and stop sucking in great gulps of air.
"It's your own fault," my dad said. "The sea hates whiney sailors. Get up. I'm not going to tell you again.”
I lay there hiccupping and burping up sea water, feeling the skin on my back grow crinkled, as my fifteen minutes in the sun burned away.