I’m from the North Atlantic. Raised from birth on its chill grey waters, steeped in my mother’s fear of storms, rocked by phosphorescent summer waves under the moon on teenage nights. As children, my little brother and I played in tide pools, toughening up our feet the whole long summer walking over the mussel beds and barnacles. Mussels grew in clumps around the rocky edges of the mudflats, sharp and unpleasant to walk over, but the barnacles that glued themselves to the mussels were worse, sharp as razors and the salt water made the blood curl out from our toes and filter away. In June our feet were tender; by August we ran carelessly over the shells.
Those mussels wore an intense blue exterior, belying a pearly iridescence inside if you stopped to look where a seagull had thrown one down to gobble for its lunch. A hermit crab was a treasured prize, sneaking surprise claws from a borrowed home. We always heard that if you hum to a periwinkle it will come out and visit you, and there we were, squatting in cotton shorts, cold wet shells held patiently to our lips, watching for the operculum to swing open through the glassy surface tension of the fat, salty droplet cradled in its doorway. If we were lucky, the snail’s golden head with its two funny feelers would emerge, wiggle this way and that as though checking us out, before retreating back to its calcium-shelled safety.
We swam races to the motorboats whose moorings teased ever-farther in the swift tidal current; Peter’s skinny arms an equal match for my own though I was two years older. That steel-gray water would suck the heat right out of us on the worst of the hot days and our lips would be blue with it for hours—our skin so cold the biting flies would leave us alone for a while—we could drink hot cocoa in sweatshirts in July.
The first thing we were allowed to do alone, together, was to walk around the point on the glacial boulders, below the summer houses and back up the river-side: two explorers of unknown territory, taking turns carrying a tiny rucksack with two apples and peanut-butter sandwiches wrapped in wax-paper. We made drip castles in the stinky low-tide mud of the far beach, grazing our fingers on shell fragments and rinsing off the fine black silt in the brackish river water. When we were older, on the way home if the tide was up we could jump from the dock; the river was guaranteed to be warmer than the bay.
As the family story told us, before we were born my dad sold the sailboat and bought a canoe—something about time and money. Dad would take the stern, Mum paddled at the bow. Peter and I sat between the thwarts on boat cushions, faded orange kapok vests snug around our chests with their smell of basement and salt. I never thought how strong those brown arms were (Dad’s tanned, Mum’s freckled) to match the currents around the point, but we’d be across and back in no time. I can’t remember what we ever did once we got to the other side, but I remember the slimy feel of salty water under my bare feet in the gritty aluminum hull, cold beneath the August sun; the smell of salt and seaweed and Coppertone, clanking of halyards on masts, the sound of water swirling to fill in behind their yellow-paddle strokes. If the tide was out sometimes we’d come back over the marsh grass, afloat in six inches of water, grasses bending to swish gracefully beneath us four. Always, going to sleep, the sound of waves in our ears.
In winter, northeasters howled and crashed at the big front windows. It seemed that the storms gathered intensity even during the short three decades of my own awareness. Waves would break over the roof and deposit wisps of salt hay on the cars in the driveway. On the coldest days in that first gray light before we’d leave for school sea-smoke would rise from the bay, solid ice floes creaking against one another as waves oscillated against the rocky beach. We could see seals through Dad’s telescope out there against the marker, their black heads like so many more rocks until they’d bob and slip beneath the swells. Boats long gone from the moorings. We never had much snow; those winds off the water drove the drifts further into town while our yard stayed bare except for icy fingers swept across brown grass.
Coming home from college in the Rockies, I’d step off the plane at Logan and beneath the stink of exhaust, the funky undertones of salt air would tickle my nose and make me breathe deep and sigh for Home. You can smell that in any weather if you’ve been away long enough. The Rockies, and later California, tantalized me with mountains to climb and good jobs, but that salt breeze kept dragging me home to watch the maple leaves turn red again and the moorings thin out after Labor Day. Beneath apartment windows there was only traffic noise late at night. In school we learned about global warming. My geology teachers projected maps of new coastlines onto the board. We talked of inches, feet and just a couple of degrees. There was that graph with its alarming spike.
Last February, after the fourth storm in as many weeks, my parents announced they’d decided to sell the house. Peter had come to visit from Vermont, where he’d moved years earlier and now lives with his wife; my husband and I had a new baby. In my living room where we sat with the new uncle and auntie, Peter told me he’d left Mum and Dad’s as the realtor was arriving. The news stung like opening your eyes in salt water—after a minute you blink and realize how clearly you can see again.
Edith Fouser makes her home on the North Shore of Massachusetts, where she and her husband are raising two young boys to enjoy and appreciate the blessings of life and the outdoors. She teaches writing, math, and science and coaches cross-country at an independent school.