The Sea’s Lure of the Soul

Kelly Salasin, 2007

Sound of sails in the wind, rigging clanging, lures me down a funnel to summers at the sea–even if the sound is only a flag pole outside the American Legion on the oceanless High Street of Brattleboro, Vermont.

Calls of blue jays and crows become seagulls, and I smell fries cooking in the galley and the seaweed in the bay.  The sun kisses my skin as I slip back into the easiness of childhood—-tossing coins in the boat shed– heads or tails– but they were all his: this curly-haired adolescent boy who somehow enjoyed or tolerated the daily company of my seven-year old preposterous self, and always let me have the nickels I won even though I never  anted  up.   At lunch we’d have burgers– with or without reconsitituted onions– and that’s all there was…

So, why won’t that sound of the sails leave me then? Why does it feel less of an invitation and more of a lure down an alley way of memory?   There’s some place that I need to go, but I don’t want to go, like to the doctors to get an immunization. What is this vaccine I need?  What am I immunizing against?

I peek behind the sails flapping in the wind, but I don’t see anything more.  There’s just the shed and the burgers and the boats.  Tentatively, I head inside, ducking under the dip of the velour rope to access the hidden rooms upstairs.  No youth gatherings happen here in these thickly carpeted spaces with lush budoir bathrooms –gilded mirrors and fancy chairs–in stark contrast to the day to day activity on the docks.

There among the paintings of Commandeers that circle the entire great room in grand fashion, I see my grandfather’s face and those of his friends. It’s my own “Poppop” who taught me to play chopsticks on the piano downstairs. Who knew he could play?  Who knew there were two parts to that favorite song?

I recall the stories of his dancing– the way he twirled and flipped the women under his arms, over his shoulders and between his legs.

I feel my Nana’s drunken affection lavished upon me in front of everyone, holding me hostage on her lap—-the same affection bestowed by my own drunken mother.

At 13, I help out as a “waitress” at the annual meeting of the Ladies Auxiliary Club.  While the ladies enjoy their pie, I enjoy a whipped cream fight in the kitchen–and the beginnings of male/female cellular exchange.

During coffee, the teen staff huddles in the galley, waiting for the “meeting” to be finished so that we can buss the dessert dishes and cocktail glasses– and go home.  Hearing my grandmother’s voice above the rest,  I shyly ask,  “What are they fighting about?”

About our wages,” the tall boy beside me whispers and then uncomfortably explains that my grandmother is raging against the raise.

For  years I mourned the loss of her that following summer; but upon being lured into the past, I thank God that I didn’t have to grow up under her shadow. Her strong male energy and mine would surely combust. Would I have preferred our love affair end that way rather than under the weight of a Mack’s truck’s tires on the Burlington/Bristol Bridge?

In this relief of my lifetime longing for Lila, I am flooded with images: the beauty salon hair dryer in her room… the early uncooked dinners… the screaming… the baths with cousins… the accompanying photos… the powdering of our bodies on her bed…the swan seat on the toilet and the  counter swan that held the cu-tips. What was the swan doing there under our butts and in our ears?

If my husband gets this job, I want to go back to writing.  I want to pull my voice up from anchor (chills.) I want to set out to sea (goosebumps.) I want to unloosen the rigging and leave the dock– the past, the weight of all that family– all the ways their world defined me.  I’ll head off into the sea with “me”… to the sound of my own metal clanging and the flap of my dreams in the wind.

THIS is what the luring is, a luring back into ME!

The strange dream I had last night suddenly makes sense.  That pimpish looking guy, the one standing across from me up atop a runway ramp at a cocktail  party, asks me to sing.   And I do–just like I danced a few bars for that other mother at the beach, or endured Lila’s drunken grasping, or played a song on the piano each time my parents asked or did everything that was ever expected of me because I was the oldest cousin, the oldest sister, the manager, the teacher, the mother. I was the one who had to set an example.

When I open my mouth to my voice, that pimpish guy slips something to the back of tongue, like the tiny yellow valium my Aunt Jean once gave me for a migraine.  I kept it in my jewelry box for years– in case I ever needed it.  I run from this drug pusher, pulling the pill  from my mouth, and then turn back toward him in a fury, only to find that he had a purpose in administering it.

He tells me that my voice, though beautiful, is stuck at the bottom of my self, achored in my gutt– and that this pill will help me pull it up, and release it into its fullness…   and release me from the hold of the past.

Right away I understand; I feel his meaning and know it to be true– I HAD held back.  I DID need untethering, but not here, not with a cocktail in my hand, not where others could watch and observe my undoing. I’ll save that passage for some place private.   I thank him and leave.

I wake then, get dressed and go to work.  Heading down High Street toward the wifi cafe where I search for strategic planning proposals, I am stopped by the sound of sails-and I search for them instead–without even finding a flag.

Peeking around the corner of my memory, I ask, “What? What? What are you trying to tell me?” and I let this sourceless sound echo inside my body, and follow it there– where I find more of me– and retrieve her– the true lure of my days.

Midnight Mile-Marker 63

I want to capture what it is to leave an elevation of seventeen hundred feet– thickly forested, steep, snow bound… and arrive at the ocean’s floor.  It’s mile marker 63 when it hits me.  Suddenly the world is flat.  I feel it on the inside first.  There is a shift in my internal wake, a settling– like sediment to the bottom of a glass; and even if I’ve been snoozing with the kids,  I know we’ve arrived–not quite to our destination– but to sea level.

With a great exhale, I release my preoccupation with the unending Parkway, and begin to take in my surroundings.   Names like Tuckerton, Beesley’s Point, Great Egg Harbor appear and I wonder how it is that I never noticed these characters before– settings for some great work of fiction, tickling my tongue and imagination.

By mile marker 30, the smell of the marsh has found its way to me through the cold air and through the tight seal of the car windows.  As we pass the exit for Sea Isle City, my own tides steady to balancing point– like the bubble inside a level.   Does the body know?  Do the cells swell with recognition at the place of one’s birth?

A hundred and sixty-nine monotonous miles of the Garden State, suddenly warp speed.  Dropping into the teens, a surge inside me rises to meet the sea.  “Hello, again old friend.  It’s me, Kelly.  Kelly Brown from out of town.”  That’s how my grandparent’s neighbors greeted me each summer of my return.

This tide recedes as we move into the single digits.   Racing through Cape May Court House, I struggle to remain afloat in the onslaught of memory…  the light at Stone Harbor Boulevard, the Repici’s roadside motel, the chapel where James and Lynn were married, the road toward my dear friend’s house.

Pulling back like a wave from the shore, I am almost swept up into a sea of grief, just as my youngest rustles beside me in the slumber party of our back seat.   Buoyed on each side by a son, my husband at the helm of this homecoming ship, I steady myself amidst life’s debris.

The boys have their own internal compass for the journey. At exit 6 when we turn off the Parkway and  head east onto the strip of land that carries us to the island, they begin to stir like the tiny clams in the sand after a hundred miles of sound sleep.

I can’t drive this stretch of road, past the sewage plant,  without the smell of fresh lipstick and cigarettes– my mother’s, as she takes a brush to our sleep-tangled hair and rubs her spit roughly against our cheeks– early lessons in the importance of appearance as we’d approach my father’s childhood home.

Once over the draw bridge, Past and Present collide, lifting me into the lap of my soul, tossing me like a conch to the shore.   Shells fly from under the tires as we bounce over the salt-weary roads of “home.” The grocery store where I pawned pennies for bubble gum has finally had a face lift– six years too late for my mother who shopped there even when the rest of us called it the “Beirut Acme,” and took our business off shore.

We cruise into the island town of Wildwood Crest, deep in winter hibernation.   Pulling up to an abandoned curb, the man I love slips out from behind the wheel and opens the gate to his childhood home.   On my right, is the bay; and on my left, the sea.  Straight ahead, just two blocks, is the house where my own mother would be waiting at her late night perch over a bottomless cup of black coffee.   Like some sailor’s wife, her voice floods with an undercurrent of longing as she looks up and greets my return.  “Hi, Kel,” she’d say.

Only now, she speaks in whispers that the ocean brings to me.

You can move away, but you can’t get the sand out of your shoes,” a dockside barkeep used to tease whenever I talked of leaving.   I laughed at his warnings, like the one about pizza and my hips.   Jim’s gone now too, but was once very pleased to know that I couldn’t get pizza delivered to my mountain home.

He appears to me now, an apparition, leaning too far across the bar to pour my drink, a jester-like grin lifting thick Caselle frames from his sun-creased face.

The grains of his words rub between my toes, as the salt and the sea rise up… in me.

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