The Beach at the Bottom of the Hill

While we were living with my grandparents, the beach at the bottom of the hill became our summer ritual. It has a real name—Diamond Point Beach—but we never used it, despite it being less of a mouthful. The beach at the bottom of the hill was a small slice of sand, a public town beach wedged in between two large private lakeside houses. The town provided picnic tables, public bathrooms, and rusted barbecue grills that jutted out from the sand. Only a five-minute drive down the big hill, that beach was the place where we had summer barbecues and built sandcastles with our new neighbors, a brother and sister close in age to my sister and me. We used to bury my father and cover the big belly of his napping body with plastic shovel after plastic shovel of warm sand. In the earliest days, it was the place where I learned to swim with my father, while my mother watched from the dock with her pregnant belly full of my little sister. We went there almost every day for the first few summers of my childhood, but less often in my teens. Now, as an adult, I manage to visit once or twice per year.

There used to be an elderly couple who would be there every day, sitting on the dock in their low beach chairs. They called themselves Lee and Beep Beep, and they had dark, leathery skin from countless hours under the sun. Beep Beep, Lee’s husband, never told us his real name. He used to just ask us to touch his nose, responding with an instant “Beep Beep!” My sister and I would squeal and run away each time, regardless of how many times we did it. We knew what to expect and relished the opportunity for bellyaching laughter. His beach chair was so low that his nose rested directly at our eye level, waiting for the touch of our sticky toddler fingers at the beginning of each beach day. One day, when I was around eight years old, Lee and Beep Beep stopped coming to the beach. (I found out later that…add story here)

We would spend hours in the water. There was a large rock resting on the shoreline that I particularly loved. It was a flat slab of stone that jutted out from the water and met firmly with the sandy shore. It reminded me of something that Ariel, the Little Mermaid, would lounge on with her large and slippery mermaid tail. I used to pretend I was her and keep my legs glued together, lounging on the rock, halfway in and halfway out of the water, waiting for my prince to come.

The beach at the bottom of the hill was safe—a natural and quiet place that I associated with play and with family, with long days spent with cousins and grandparents. On most summer days, we would head down to the beach after breakfast and bring enough food for a lunchtime barbeque. Sometimes, when I was older, my parents would let us walk to the Pot Belly Deli down the street to buy cold drinks and ice cream. The long days often ended in tears: we were exhausted from the day but at the same time unwilling to leave our magical little corner of the world.

In recent years, on visits back to Lake George, I sometimes take a drive down to the beach at the bottom of the hill. I take a low beach chair similar to the one that Beep Beep used to use, a thermos of coffee, and a book. I sit and look around, memories flood back, and I long for those easy summer days. So much has happened in my short life since those innocent years when I seemed to permanently have sand in my bathing suit. Friends and lovers have come and gone. I have studied and worked and sometimes taken breaks to explore the world and figure out where and to whom I belong.

Once upon a time, I belonged to the beach at the bottom of the hill. I belonged to Lee and Beep Beep and to the sand in my bathing suit; to the flat mermaid rock and to the teenage lifeguards working their first summer jobs. I belonged to my parents, my sister, my neighbors, my cousins, and my grandparents. The feeling of support, the gravity beneath my feet, came from them. As an adult I have often asked myself: who and where do I belong to? Why do I want to belong? And then: can I belong to myself? Can places and people belong to me instead of me to them? Can the beach at the bottom of the hill belong to me, even after everything has changed? Even after Lee and Beep Beep have died and the dock has been replaced with new planks of wood and the lifeguards have changed? Can the support I am looking for in this life come not only from the people and places of my past and present, but also from within? My relationships with others are important, but what about my relationship to gravity and to my own body—my own bones, muscles, and blood? Shouldn’t that be just as important?

The last time I went down to the beach and sat in that low chair, I had returned after months of being away. I had found love and lost it again. I had lived in new places and learned new languages, only to come to know a fleeting sense of belonging with people and places that were never mine to begin with. I came back and felt emptied, lacking—a hole had formed where my sense of belonging used to be.

I have to find a way to belong to myself, otherwise I give that power away to those who love me and who do not, to material things that I can or cannot acquire, and to whatever country or city I find myself living in. Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “Wherever you go, there you are.” I am the only person who will be with me for the entirety of my life, every single moment. I often dig deep, cry out, scream; but then I find ways to rest, recover, and reemerge more beautiful than before, as an imperfect but whole human being.

So sometimes I find myself sitting on the beach at the bottom of the hill, smack-dab in the middle of my adult aloneness. Sometimes home calls to me and the waters that raised me have the unique ability to wash away months, even years, and beginning again becomes gentle and easy, like waves caressing and patiently shaping the sandy shore.

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