I’ve been racking my brain this morning in search of the earliest memory of my father and my gut tells me it was right here on the island where I sit. Block Island, RI. I’ll go with a broad stroke and say I was somewhere between the age of 5 and 8. Lasting memories tend to come with a recollection of all 5 senses and this one fits that criteria for sure. It was likely a day in mid July which is when we are typically out here and we were out for the day at our favorite spot on Mansion Beach. The sun hung high and hot and the surf was up that day. You knew the surf was good when you could hear it from up in the parking lot away from the beach. You open the door of the car and you hear that broken white noise and you get pumped. It was nothing crazy, maybe 4 – 5 feet but to a 5 – 8 yr old it was formidable and add a bit of an under toe to the mix and you’re thinking that just on the other side of that sand bar you’re totally gone-zo. In fact you might not be making it back for your lunch. Or your kite. Or any more lunches and kites. Ever. And you really want that ice cold capri sun juice box that’s sitting in the cooler. Because this post is about my dad I have to say those juice boxes were always so cold and refreshing thanks to him. As anyone who knows my Dad will tell you, guy keeps the coldest, cleanest cooler on the beach.
I remember clearly being there at the water line knee deep in white frothy water, most likely with my sister Marne sitting squatly in the sand behind me drizzling sand castles, and being lifted up out of the water by my dad and put on his back with my arms slung over his shoulders. Off we went in to the surf, water steadily rising around us until my dad finally leaned forward in to a breast stroke. “Put your arms around my neck and don’t let go”. This is where the memory becomes the most visceral. No need for filling in the blanks here. It was one of my first oh shit moments. Once we were out to the break line I could feel him sinking lower in the white water and all I could do was focus on this mole he had on his right shoulder. It was a coping thing for sure but I was also mildly curious about it because I had no moles on me and wondered what the hell it was. I had to hold my breath unexpectedly several times. I took a few mouthfuls of salt water feeling it sting the back of my throat a bit and for the first few seconds I was pissed. I thought, dad what the hell are we doing?? I’m not gonna get my juice box. We’re gonna go down out here. Then my gut kicked in and told me to tighten my grip on his neck as hard as I could. Just listen to him. Trust him. You’ll pull thru. We slipped through the white water riding a bit of a rip current and came up against our first unbroken wave. It was like a giant bent green wall collapsing on you, my heart started slamming against my chest again. He heard me go totally silent and said “here we go! hold on!”. I felt his back stiffen a bit and his legs put out two or three powerful kicks- my dad’s a high torque swimmer, he was a lifeguard growing up and he has a solid stroke. We rode up and up over the crest of that wave- my head pressed to his shoulders- just before it collapsed and came gliding down it’s back side in to blue calm water. At that point I clearly remember thinking holy shit this is awesome. We paddled around for a bit talking about waves and water and summer and how much we loved it being out on Block Island and I remember wanting to stay out there forever with him. It was the best. His shoulders were tan and warm and smelled of salt and sunblock. We rode up and down sets of waves as they rolled in looking back at the shoreline speckled with tiny kids and their castles and bright colored beach chairs and umbrellas.
I think at that point I felt the first real, almost adult like feeling of gratitude for my father. He was more than just the guy that drove me places and packed juice boxes for me in the cooler. Maybe that’s why this is burnt in my memory. He faced my fear with me, pushed me through it, protected me and was there on the other side to hang out. He was my best friend and my protector. At the same time. What a guy.
Thankfully my life has brought me many more of those moments. Where a stand up dad proved himself over and over. When my parents divorced and my sister and I moved with our mom from our house in CT to a house in VT he rented a house up there and drove up I91 every week to spend time with us. He taught Marne and I how to ski and never missed a ski race no matter how bad the snow storm was that he had to drive up thru from Connecticut. I remember him walking through the door laden with bags telling us how many mini vans from Massachusetts were in the ditch. Again, what a guy. He worked his ass off and put us both through college. He taught me how to shuck an oyster. The right way.
He continues to swim out past the white water with me. Every summer. I am damn proud to say he is my father. I respect him. And I love him. Every day. Happy Father’s Day Jeffery.