Last summer, I stood at the edge of a gleaming ocean to watch my 12-year-old son practice his butterfly stroke between the waves. Legs pressed together in fluid motion, arms pulling against the current, he was confident, steady. As the tide stroked my toes, I remembered how he feared the ocean the first time we went down the shore when he was 4 years old. Our annual ritual of beach, boardwalk and board games helped me reflect on who he is becoming.
This is a well-oiled routine for our family. It began because I wanted to bestow my own childhood magic upon my children. As a kid, I spent sandy Saturdays with my parents and brothers in the sunshine of that same shore town. Exhausted from the waves, sufficiently sunburnt, we’d put on clean underpants in the back of the minivan and spend evenings on the boardwalk before driving home stuffed with pizza, our yellow Igloo full of my mother’s uneaten peanut butter sandwiches.
The first time I brought my son to that beach his cautious nature was clear. He was afraid of the animatronic alligators on the boardwalk. He posed question after question about sand and where it came from. He needed to understand why and how the water moved, but wanted nothing to do with the ladders of foam and force. Together, we approached the ocean and our toes met shadow and shimmery wetness. He gripped my hand. Tight. I did not let him go. That first summer, even his ankles remained untouched by the Atlantic.
Rituals are grounding. By changing up the day-to-day with the repetition of ritual, the mind forms distinctive memories anchored around ceremonial actions. This is true for the Jewish holidays outlined in the Torah portion Emor my son recited on the bimah for his bar mitzvah. He instructed us how Shabbat, Passover and Yom Kippur tie us to our families and our communities through the ceremonies they each entail. It is also true for the occasion of a bar mitzvah. The service, the study, the chanting. All rituals unto themselves.
And it is true for our familial ritual at the beach, which we repeat every August. In hindsight, I can recall how he matured year after year. Tickle feet, jelly sand, we used to say as we stood side by side the second summer and let the water roll over our feet, graze our ankles and loosen the sand on which we stood. Mostly, he held my hand. But, little by little, he let go to dabble in sheets of current curling and bubbling into ripples.
There was never a steady ascent to his actions; he merely surrendered to the water’s whims. Age 6, he was waist deep. Age 7 meant floating between the glittering crests. By the time he was 8, I stood beside him as he climbed and crashed and squealed and thrashed in the foamy peaks. His every motion, every stroke, a folly landing him back on solid ground. But it brought him great delight. By age 9, he learned, with the help of a boogie board, to float atop the layers of brine.
Last summer, after he’d returned from a month at sleepover camp, his first time away from home, I realized how much our annual ritual helped me reflect on who he was and who he is becoming. My understanding of my child shifted as I watched him from afar. To see him, age 12, not only navigate the ocean and the lifeguard safety flags, but to do so while executing a perfect butterfly stroke was to realize how much he learned to take on without holding my hand.
Parenting can feel like an ocean. Each swell distracts the eye but can never be held or captured. Parental progress is a type of current that can only be assessed in actions and outcomes, the way the power harnessed in waves is measured in cliffs eroded into mountain sides or corals cleaved into sand.
Sometimes, there is nothing more to do than join my children, to float by their sides. And when I do, if I look down at my own body beneath the water, nature’s deceit is never more apparent. The clear, salty droplets teem with unseen life. The magic of living, of parenting, always around. Even when I cannot see it. These rituals of family trips and holidays and bar mitzvahs helped me focus on this magic.
I stood beside my son as he became a bar mitzvah this May, keenly aware of his metamorphosis into a young adult. Now I stand along the shore of his future as he deftly navigates the currents of growing up. One practiced stroke at a time.