My mind drifts across Scarborough Marsh. No to do list. No schedule to keep. No children chattering. I’m alone. Sunshine on my face. Wind in my hair. Nothing between me and the sea but a bright red plastic shell. Nothing to focus on but this paddle in my hands.
Paddle left. Paddle right. Paddle left. Pull the water with your waist. Suck in your tummy. Paddle right. Keep your back straight. Push your feet into the foot wells. Paddle left. Paddle right. Oh we’re moving now. Into the wind. Over the chop. Paddle right. Cross the current. Paddle left. Use your back, not just your arms. Paddle right. Paddle left. Pull. Pull. Pull. Pull.
The tide is coming up. There’s more wind today than usual. The bow of the boat bounces over the choppy waves. My hat blows off. The laminated map on a lanyard around my neck whips my cheeks. Why do they give me this map anyway? It’s not like there’s much more than some twisting branches of water between marsh grass, a bridge, the sea. I can’t see beyond the next bend anyway. But I suppose we never really can.
Is that an egret or a heron? Long curved neck over the marsh grass, gracefully stalking her lunch. I float closer. I won’t reach for my camera. Don’t want to startle her. Silence. Air. Ripples. She checks me, dives her yellow-speer beak into the water, comes up with a fish and flies off. All in one motion. But she doesn’t go far. She’s just as aware of me as I am of her. We’re both curious.
My right hand dips into the water. Cool and smooth. What’s on the bottom? Smile thinking of my mom jumping off a dock into thigh-high seaweed to pull me to shore on my first solo sailing venture. She loved me so much she'd walk through even that muck to pull me in!
I flash back to Great South Bay. I’m 7 years old, stowed in the hold of Grampa’s 22-foot sailboat with Nate; we’re nervously slurping salt from our life jacket straps while the adults scamper and yell on deck. We have to stay out of their way until we’re away from the dock. Once under way, I crawl out the hatch onto the bow, lie on my stomach with my arms overboard. My fingers rip through the water. Cool and smooth. Sun-kissed and mesmerized. Loved and protected. No worries on the bay.
Now I’m on the Sunfish with my Mom, about 12 years old. Just before I started to dislike her so fiercely, just before we fought like cats daily. She’s teaching me to sail the little 2-person boat; I’m once again nervously sucking the salt-water life jacket straps, hanging on every instruction. The rest of the family -- Dad, Nate, baby Robyn -- is on Grampa’s boat nearby, keeping watch on us as we tack across to the beach.
Mom never looked so young as she did that afternoon, so happy with me. I glimpse the girl she once was -- sun-tanned and squinting, cut-off denim shorts revealing those gorgeous long legs, confidence in her abilities to read the wind and waves. She’s beautiful. I’m awed. She shifts her position in the cockpit, hands me the rudder and sail line. She smiles and says, “You know what to do. Feel the wind.” And like that, I’m sailing.
She wants to teach me to handle a capsize -- an important and early lesson to learn on a small boat -- plus it’s hot. We want to cool off. So we flip the Sunfish on its side. We’re laughing as we right it, totally in control floating on the gentle wake of a passing speedboat. Suddenly, a splash from nearby. Dad has jumped off Grampa’s boat! He’s swimming toward us. He’s not a strong swimmer, anxious about open water. But he thinks we’re in trouble and doesn’t even consider his water worry.
Dad would be anxious about me now, too, out here alone on a kayak with no one around but a snowy egret and some sleek black cormorants. I wish I could convince him to try this with me when he visits next week. I know, though, it would not be relaxing for him. He’d do it. He’d do anything for me, for any of us. Yet he’d be worried the whole time. “Once your kids are adults,” he once told me, “You worry exponentially more.”
Not today, though. It’s just me and this marsh today. These crystal bay memories. These birds. Paddle left. Paddle right. Paddle left. The wind is at my back now, but my hat is long gone. Surely the spots on my face will darken now, the creases around my eyes will deepen as I squint into the sun. Ha! That doesn't matter now. Paddle right. Cross the current. Paddle left. Relax your grip. Keep your center. Paddle right. Paddle left. Pull. Pull. Pull. Pull.