Every year, I long for it: the warm, salty smell of the ocean. I drive on a highway, over a bridge, and through a town to get there. I roll down my windows and inhale deeply as my lungs fill with sea-scented air. My children and I say the Shehechiyanu, a blessing that gives thanks for a new or special occasion.
I slather my daughters’ skin in sunscreen, and then I rub it on my body. The three of us wear sunglasses perched on our noses. We take off our flip flops and make our way towards the shoreline. I drop the enormous bag at my side and sink into a lounge chair. I close my eyes briefly. My daughters unload their snacks and toys. Our friends arrive, and the children resume their ongoing games. They dig holes and make castles. They pretend to bake cakes and ask me to “taste” their sandy creations. We all walk to the shoreline, and they run shrieking through the breaking waves. We collect shells. They make forts or write their names, only to watch it all get washed away. We laugh.
We have a picnic. My children devour their lunches; a day at the beach enhances their appetites. They play while the adults clean up. They beg to go to the neighboring pool. My 7-year-old wants to show off her skills on the diving board; my 5-year-old wants to practice floating. They do handstands. They pretend to be mermaids.
Sometimes we’ll get ice cream. It melts quickly in the sun, and my daughters are left with rivers of chocolate running down their chins. They hastily wipe their faces. We change out of our bathing suits and into dry clothes. I brush and braid their wet hair. We walk to the parking lot, hop into my car, and head home in time for dinner.
This is the script for our summers. I love it, and my children love it, too. For three years, I bought a membership to a beach club instead of sending my children to camp.
Our lives during the school year are crazy. My husband and I are both educators, and from September through June we’re awake and out the door early every the morning. I drop my children off at school before battling rush-hour traffic. The hours after school are filled with homework and Hebrew school and Daisy group meetings and music lessons and softball games. There’s dinner prep and cleanup and baths and never-ending piles of laundry. Every second is scheduled and accounted for. Summer is, thankfully, different. I’m not a slave to the clock. Our pace is slower and more flexible. We’re on beach time.
The time we spend at the beach is relaxed but not mindless. I know teachers dread summer because they don’t want children to lose the skills they spent ten months instilling in them. But even in summer, there is so much we can learn.
Watching the ocean is a humbling experience. Waves have crashed against the shore for millennia before us, and will continue to do so long after we’re gone. It changes the landscape, a little at a time. The beach is resistant, but eventually, the water always wins. I hope my children are as tenacious as the ocean.
We jump waves. “Keep your eyes open,” I tell them. “Know who and what is around you.” A big wave looms. They smile, I prepare them before it breaks. “You might get knocked over. Don’t stay down; get up as soon as you can.” My 5-year-old inches closer to me. “Hold my hand, Mama?” she asks. I pray that her question isn’t really a question, and that they both know I’ll be there whenever they need me.
We swim in the pool. Both girls have taken swim lessons for years, and while they struggled at first, it’s a blessing to watch swimming become a source of joy. My older daughter has boundless energy, and swimming gives her a place to spend it. My younger daughter is shy and more reluctant to take risks. Nothing matched the moment when she gathered her courage and marched up to the diving board. I held my breath when she jumped and gracefully swam to the ladder. We said the Shehechiyanu for that, too.
Someday, I hope my children will look back on our summers together and smile. I hope that they will always collect shells and make sand castles and have picnics by the shore. I hope they, too, will say the Shehechiyanu each time they smell the ocean in the air.