Happy Birthday, Jesse Vanderchuck!
It’s been forty years since I’ve seen the ocean. I mark that moment, the one when I first witnessed that infamous vastness, as one of rebirth. Standing on a wet beach, as near the break of day as makes no difference, I felt no larger than a mote. And hanging there, weightless, waiting for the sea to speak, I knew that one day I was going to die.
We were on a rare cross-country trip to visit my mother’s family. A three-hour drive down to Toronto, followed by a four-hour flight to B. C. From our little patch outside of Trout Creek to a commuter town east of Vancouver. My sister, Olivia, having just turned one, spent much of the journey letting us all know her displeasure, her volume turned to eleven.
I remember a lot of tension: my father constantly cracking his loud farmer’s knuckles. My mother’s company laugh — the she did reflexively when burdened with keeping the peace. It was less like fakery and more like camouflage.
There were unfamiliar foods I was expected to try and, more importantly, to like. Big Hungarian-style dishes like cabbage rolls and sour cream and sweet pierogies. I mean, who’d ever heard of a sweet pierogi? I heard a litany of cajoling that trip. There was the try it, you’ll like it; the just a bite, for Grandma; and the final concession, you don’t know what you’re missing. Perhaps I didn’t, but that was for me to decide, wasn’t it?
I did my best — less out of familial obligation and more out of my understanding of social rules. Not to mention the certainty that I’d bear the brunt of my dad’s frustrations should I be too resistant. My father was not a violent man. I don’t want to give that impression. He was a man easily irritated, and he was known to lack discretion when it came to venting his ire. I found it best to keep my head down and avoid catching friendly fire.
Anyway, the trip to the ocean. Dad had bundled us all into the car before sunrise, groggy and confused. Our soundtrack was the warm drone of CBC morning radio, the perfectly smooth diction of trained voices punctuated by interludes of indie rock or Inuit throat singing.
Dad was beaming with excitement, rare enough to begin with and historically fragile. As sleepy as I was, I had a tingle at the back of my mind that signalled caution. Not enthusiastic enough and he’d be disappointed. Too over the top and he’d suss I was faking. Whatever we were up for, I needed to craft an appropriate response, lest the ornament of his enthusiasm be carelessly crushed.
My mother, in many ways, was too honest for my kind of calculated behaviour. As much as she loathed conflict, she just as frequently waded into it as avoided it. Brave faces only took her so far. In any pantomime, she inevitably hit some kind of wall, beyond which there was no room for dishonesty. She was especially vulnerable at times when her guard was naturally low. Like then, as dawn broke wide against the horizon, at the very crack of creation.
When we left the main road to take a rutted dirt track between a pair of high grassy dunes, she muttered something like, “Where are we?”
Innocent enough. Reasonable, certainly. Perhaps her tone was slightly too sharp, or maybe the words hit some particular structural defect in Dad’s buoyant mood. An underlying pessimism kept him expecting negativity, so he might’ve reacted the same way regardless of what was said or by whom. The air in the car seemed to seize up like stricken oobleck. I knew that the calm was over. Time for the storm.
I was in the back seat on the driver’s side. In the rear-view mirror, I could see Dad’s mild smile wrench into a deep frown. From the top of his plaid-flannel collar, a line of sunrise-red crept up the nape of his neck. He bounced his palm off the top of the steering wheel before replying.
“I thought,” he said, voice drawn taut with careful control, “we would all enjoy going for a little drive to the ocean. ”
On the radio, DNTO signed off, thanking its producers and contributors. Mum squinted at the dashboard clock. “We’re on vacation. Why so early?”
Now the steering wheel was squeezed, thick fingers squeaking as they rotated over the leatherette. Dad’s habit of intermittently clicking from halfway down his throat intensified, a sure signal he was about to boil over.
“Well, we’re here now, but if you want, we can just turn around and go home. ”
Mum sighed, resigning herself to the familiar situation. We passed a sign that told us we were Now Entering Porteau Cove Provincial Park, and that swimming in the ocean was forbidden here. Barely glimpsed small print specified acidification, plastic pollution, and hordes of Humboldt squid as reasons to stay out of the water. As I breathed relief that I wasn’t the one who had set Dad off this time, I wondered if the squid mentioned were the ones that had developed venom sacs filled with liquefied PVC.
“Don’t be like that,” Mum said. “It’s a bad example for the children. ”
No, I begged silently. Don’t drag me into this!
I watched Dad’s eyes flash up in the rear-view, their distinct blue hue gone hard and icy, and felt a pang of sorrow. As much as I was in for self-preservation, I felt bad for him. It’s hard for a kid to see a parent unhappy, and my father was rarely happy. The only place that kept him pleased for any length of time was his woodshop. For him, the meticulous tuning of tools, the cleaning and maintaining of machines, were akin to raking a Zen garden. If only he could’ve found that meditative calm at times like this. Maybe I should have carried around a set of oily socket wrenches as a preventative measure, dosing them out as needed.
The car stopped. Outside the sky was a shade paler than the smoked salmon frequently splayed across a long white plate on Grandma’s breakfast table. Gulls wheeled like shreds of paper being juggled on competing breezes, their gurgling laughter bouncing between sea and sky.
Back home, beside the creek formerly laden with trout, early mornings were nearly silent. Silvered snakes of mist coiled out from between trees along the face of the distant forest. Ghosts of blue jay and chickadee calls drifted across hushed fields, and the whole world felt painted onto the inside of a blown-glass bulb: frail and ready to shatter at the first loud sound.
Here there was no shortage of noise. Instead the swelling roar of what turned out to be the ocean itself permeated the stillness of the car. There were the gulls calling down to the fleets of sandpipers, and the sandpipers chirping amongst themselves as they ran stifflegged, weaving in and out of the surf.
The instant the engine went still, I was out the door, so glad to be free of the stifling tension that I nearly leapt into the sky. The sand was wet and dense underfoot, more like semi-set concrete than the gravelly lake beaches I was used to. It slapped beneath my sneakers as I ran toward the great shifting roar, away from what was almost certainly now a full-blown argument between my parents. I imagined I could hear Olivia’s rising cry from her car seat, as much from being woken up as from any situational distress. Given her status as the beloved baby, her upset might well have quelled my parents’ ire, redirecting their energies to sooth her. I couldn’t know, because I was close enough to the waves that their noise was all-consuming.
And the winds — one blew out from across the land, the great bellowing breath of the rising sun, flattening the fields of sea grasses and thrusting fists of warm air into my lower back. Another gust crashed boisterously from the water itself, its clammy, saltcrusted arms wide and sweeping, forcing me to brace against being knocked over.
It really was too bad that Dad didn’t get to see my reaction when I first set eyes on the ocean. He’d have been so pleased to see my ten-year-old mouth gaped in utter wonder. My instinct was to head directly for the water’s edge, to place my feet along the shifting join where it met the land, the way I did at Wolf Lake. Thankfully, I had enough sense to hang back. Even so, about every fifth wave came in so hard I was misted by spray. The smell was overwhelming and alien — fishy and salty and ancient. It assaulted the senses until, just as suddenly, it disappeared. Deep in the oldest part of my brain, it was understood as familiar. Beyond familiar even, if such a thing exists. It was huge and terrifying and unmistakably vital.