The Good Daughter

The sky was almost as violent as the ocean it hung above, grey and violet blue tinged clouds rolling high above the wind whipped sea. As we trudged our way up the dunes, the three of us could hear nothing but the angry roaring of the waves slapping the shore. When we reached the top, the wind slammed us with a constant force as it came out of the north. Up and down the coast we looked and found that we were the only people determined enough to visit the ocean for a mission planned over three and a half years before. This was a nameless beach on Fenwick Island Delaware, near to the moldering Sands Motel, sacred ground for the Wife’s family. And in these gale force winds we came down to release the ashes of her parents.

Today for sale signs dot the lot where the Sands Motel sits along Route 1 on Fenwick Island. The outdoor pool is drained to near empty, exposing peeling paint along its walls. The outdoor carpeting is worn through in places and patched with duct tape. Inside the rooms are showing their age too, with scratches on the walls left where large painting had once hung, replaced by smaller prints that leave no impression or memory once you look away. The faucets are stained with rust and the slats of the vertical blinds are broken.

We had booked the room the day we arrived using the Wife’s name. At one time long ago the owner of the Sands had been a family friend, but this time the slightly bored receptionist watching college football was polite but made no comment about the name when I registered. Members of the Wife’s family had been going to this hotel for most of its existence, arriving there in the late 1950s when the motel was new and the solitude offered by Fenwick Island had not yet been discovered by the monied in Virginia and Washington DC. Instead Fenwick was a place that most people from the north sped through on their way to the boisterous and exciting boardwalk in Ocean City, and the Fenwick Island police padded the city’s coffers by catching them as they breezed through town above the 35 MPH speed limit.

Back then the In-Laws would load the Wife and her siblings into the car for the long drive through the Delaware countryside and the small towns of Middletown, Milford and Dagsboro along Route 113. The journey took twice as long as it does today after the completion of the Route 1 toll road between Dover and the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. At least once a year, usually after Labor Day, the In-Laws would pack up the kids, and later, their grandchildren, and stay a week or two at the Sands in what would eventually become a family tradition. Most of the photographs of her family on our walls were taken at Fenwick Island as a testament to the longevity and importance of these family outings.

We arrived in the late afternoon and spent the night at the Sands along with a handful of other guests. While walking the dogs around the neighborhood after arriving we noted that since our last visit several small single story beach homes had been replaced by multi-story palaces, many sporting for sale signs like the Sands motel itself. Most of the properties were empty but those that weren’t had cars in their driveways sporting out of state plates. Virginia. New Jersey… Those states have beaches, the Wife growled, why do they have to come here?

That night we stopped at a candy shop. When we arrived back at the motel the Kid noted that the candy tasted different; the following morning he made a similar observation about the breakfast at the local restaurant where his grandparents had taken him numerous times over the years.

The truth of the matter was that Fenwick Island was different for us. What had made it special was gone, lost to time and now known only in memory. If Fenwick itself was different, so was our family. The Sister-in-law’s divorce was no excuse for her children, one of whom only called his grandmother around the holidays. I pass the other in the aisles of Target where he works when he’s not in school. We smile and nod “Hi” to one another like acquantenances. He visited his grandmother four days before she died, then ignored our messages begging him to come to her death bed. I haven’t seen him since.

Fenwick was different; our family was different. There was nothing left to do but accept these truths.

I took the box containing the ashes and at the Wife’s request I opened them and removed the plastic bag that held them shut with a twist tie. Inside were the mixed remains of both the Father-in-law and the Mother-in-law. The Wife cradled them under her pullover as we climbed the dune and walked to the waterline of the beach. As the Kid took the dog upwind, she undid the twist tie and allowed the bag to billow open.

The Wife shook the bag, and with each shake a great cloud of dust took flight as the wind whisked them along the beach and near the surf line, exactly where they belonged, leaving a greyish-black smudge on the sand and the fine froth whipped up by the wind.

At such a poignant moment one would hope that one could transcend the mundane in order to feel some sort of cosmic connection or at least a touch of the sublime – what Buddhists term satori. Unfortunately that wasn’t possible for me. I was concerned about a sudden change of wind direction coating us in ashes, or worse, take them to the direction of the multi-million dollar homes on the leeward side of the dunes. I also had to fight back tears of my own that wouldn’t have done anyone any good. I was terrified that our Auxiliary Dog, who was bounding happily on the sand chasing sand pipers and sea gulls would step in the black and grey remains as they laid in the wet sand waiting for a wave to wash them away.

The heavier fragments fell closest to us, and most appeared the same size and shape as fingernail clippings. However the Wife bent down and picked up one, about the length of a matchstick and as thick as a pencil. At first I thought it was a piece of driftwood, and said as much. “It’s bone,” she said, looking at it calmly for a moment before lobbing it into the surf.

We wait for the sea to wash her parents’ remains away, to blend them with the sand and sea water that had lapped timelessly at this beach. The Wife stands braced against the wind at her back, her face devoid of emotion. A wave laps near the remains but breaks before reaching them, then soon another. Finally a few seconds later a larger wave comes in on top of a smaller one and washes over the remains, leaving little trace of the physical remains of a brilliant scientist and his headstrong yet devoted wife. Married fifty-eight years, with four children, and several grandchildren. Together in death as they had been in life, their remains blend together then disappear into the sand and surf on Fenwick Island.

Sometimes I imagine my life to have the same poignancy and drama as a movie, but Life – or at least my life – is not like that. It wasn’t until we were on the ride back home, the Wife and the Kid in their own separate iPod encased worlds, the Chihuahua splayed out on the Wife’s lap and the labrador laying between the seats that I was able to see the moment for what it was.

In my mind I imagined that Time became untangled from Space and all of the fifty year family history that had occurred on the beach took place at once. The Wife as a child exploring for sea shells with her older brother while her mother played with her little sister in the sand and her father relaxed behind sunglasses. Nearby the Wife plays in the sand with the Stepson as her parents stroll along the water’s edge. The Sister-in-law and her husband build sand castles with her nephews. The Kid, only a few months old, scrambling like a turtle along the sand as the Wife focuses her camera. The Kid hoisted high onto my shoulders as I walk at the water’s edge. The Kid and I splashing in the surf as the Wife and her parents lounge in folding beach chairs. The Kid running after the dog to keep him away while the Wife shakes the ashes into the wind.

All these moments blend together seamlessly into one crowded scene taking place on a small strip of beach at the Delaware shore.

“They were good parents. I was a good daughter,” the Wife said to no one in particular as we had returned to the car, our mission accomplished. I knew at that moment we would never again return this beach, never stay at this motel. Like so many other places I had been, I knew deep down that I would never see it again.

I am okay with that.

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