“Most of our childhood is stored not in photos, but in certain biscuits, lights of day, smells, textures of carpet.”
Alain de Botton
The boards creek under the smell of salt and sand and swamp mud, but oh, does that smells like home. The steady lap-lap of the water hits the rickety old floating dock, knocking the holey row boat into it and requiring that I swivel to stay up right. The Chesapeake looms before me, huge and blue and beautiful and I sit for a moment, letting myself rock on the current and take in the breeze. We come to places like these as if they are churches. Offering our problems to the skies and seas and trees and winds as all we really have, and getting whispers in return.
I sit there, my black lab drooling by my side and take in the view. My mind is congested like I-95 or my sinuses during allergy season. Thoughts passing by in the HOV lane of my brain like mini vans driven impatiently by the fathers of sticky young children, stuffed to the brim with floaties and beach chairs on their way to the seashore. Things either zoom by quickly or take forever these days. Sitting through a class where my professor cares not about the spider webs and scarves I want to weave every day with the words he so dishearteningly spits out as he pressures us to memorize all of his 40 slide presentations, then, time is molasses. Yet fleeting moments with the few that see the storm that I am surging through and know that though I may set off a few lightening bolts, it will clear and the sky will open like a jewelry box and sparkle, pass by like the noisy train rushing something to somewhere that wakes me up too early in the morning.
The aging wood my pew, the open sky my altar, I bow my head to look at my shoes in what could be considered a prayer. The steady sun tries to bite through the unsettling chilly air that wraps me. I feel its warmth as a glint on my face and wish that I could bathe in the luminescent snugness of it. It feels as though I have been carrying all of the troubles of the world in my chest. I take a deep breath, adding my own pollution into the world and hoping it feeds a tree instead of adding up into hot gas. It has been a long week, I think. Well it may have actually been what I like to call a Friends-style time period, meaning of course that it hasn’t been your day, your month, or even your year. The time and the stillness to be able to think it over has been an inaccessible luxury in the seizure that I often feel is modern-day life. A constant rush, where nothing is done easily and it seems merely being is exhausting. To be here remind me of the many different versions of me that have sat in this exact spot. I see the pile of sticks that to me and my cousins, were wizard’s staffs and fishing rods. The reeds that were thrown like Olympic javelins. I see the sand that was dug and made into castles and the colorful oyster shells I collected obsessively as a young girl.
I am learning that I am not a snapshot of the person I am now but rather a diorama of all the smells and things and places that have made me who I am. I am learning not to mourn the puffy haired little girl with bangs who loved horses and singing nor the scared, flat-ironed out teenager who hid behind someone else but to see them as stepping stones to the girl with messy curls, a propensity for being late to things, a fondness for mollusks and an endless stew of words in her brain that don’t know how to come out quite right yet.
I walk across the marshland, stepping on piles of reeds and rubbish that still wash up from litterers and hurricanes to walk to the beach at the house next door. It has been many years since I’ve been there but I remember clearly the image of the abandoned house. It had been destroyed by Hurricane Isabel, causing the family that lived there to flee. It was so destroyed that they never came back for it. That shell of a broken house became the perfect vessel for a little girl to create dreams dreams. When I first discovered it, it seemed it had been placed there especially for me. It was so wonderfully tragic that the house had been left in such a hurry and the family removed, yet there it sat with ink black shutters and aged white paint looking to my tiny eyes like the most perfect house in the world. The white bell-like lily of the valley still bloomed like perfect soft fairy skirts in the garden every year and a bright, fire-engine red charcoal grill sat perfectly as though a barbecue had just ended even though it was never to be used again. A tire swing hung from an ancient tree and bobbed gently in the breeze as though someone had just climbed off it. I knew it must be a magic house. I was obsessive about maintaining the place, clearing broken glass from its beaches and picking up bags of trash, so sure was I that the family would come back one day and claim it. They would be so grateful to me for keeping it tidy. They would tell me the secrets it held.
It was cloudy that day my dreamland was pillaged. My cousins were a rowdy group of boys, led mostly by whoever was biggest at the time and all following one another. I had kept them far away from my secret place, knowing they would ruin the secret magic, and letting it be known to only my brother, the youngest of us all, who had a quiet strength to him even as a child. On this cloudy day however, they had grown tired of the ball games they always excluded me from and were tearing through the shore like termites on damp wood. I sat on my swing alone when they came crashing through the reeds, carrying balls and sticks like battering rams and screaming. They saw the house, and without so much as a second glance, ran at its skeleton, yelling boyish battle cries. My bully older cousin Bobby told the army of boys (six of them, myself being the only girl) to swing their sticks at my castle and break out the windows. When the broken windows granted them a way in, a poked my head around and saw the house inside was gutted and bare with a dirt and grass floor. The broken glass they created added to the cornucopia of other broken things inside of it, splintered wood stood up like spikes and doorways drooped. I stomped up to my grandmother’s warm crooked house and walked right up her to tattle. I tried to explain to her that my kingdom was under attack and that she needed to help me. I was told something along the lines of “Boys break stuff, Jessie. Why don’t you come in here and sit with us for awhile?”
The house remained for many years though, broken as it was, and I often visited, still picking up the broken bottoms of bottles on the sand and sitting on the swing. As I grew older, I reminisced on my childhood fantasies of a magic house with fairies in the garden. I remarked at how silly the whole thing was now and how a child can see an abandoned house as a special place left there for only her. Yet still, I dreamed. Maybe I could one day buy the house and live in it, close to my grandparents and to the Bay. There was a serenity to its shores and an element of childhood magic that, though buried, had not faded from its waters.
As I walk the marshy path I had walked a thousand times, making smaller footprints then than I do now and no longer believing that I was on a secret path to a magical realm, an unfamiliar white peak appears in my view. I step onto the beach and see a perfect brand new house, with stickers on the windows and rip rap around my beloved cove. I crouch down on the beach and begin to sob. My swing, my grill and my fairy flowers are gone. My house is gone.
The air turns to night around me and my phone buzzes with a unique LED brightness in my pocket. Someone is calling.