I wake up to the sound of the ocean coming through the closed window. This house is so close to the water that it doesn’t matter whether the window is opened or closed. The soothing sounds permeate the entire house. My room is on the second floor, well what little second floor there is. There are windows on three of the four walls, and the stairwell is literally right outside the door. There is no clock to be found in the room, but I can tell it’s early. There is that early morning feel to everything, even the sound of the ocean is one of it waking from a night’s sleep. I pull on a t-shirt and decide to head downstairs into the still sleeping house.
It’s not my first time in this house, my family has been to this particular one for a few years now. I lost count, all that really mattered to me was that I was here at the ocean with family for the week. My memory doesn’t remind me how old I am, but I know it’s toward the end of high school, or maybe one of my first summers after I left for college. It’s probably the latter, since I’m feeling such a strong pull toward my family during this brief week long stay together. The house is an old rental, it has that shabby, yet wonderful feel of an ocean cottage. It’s sliced right down the middle, and I’m reminded of it as I slowly navigate the stairwell down the center of the house. My parents, sisters, and “aunt” are on this side of the duplex. I say “aunt” only because we aren’t related by blood, yet my mother’s best friend has become part of the family. On the other side of the duplex are my mother’s brother and his family, and my grandparents. It makes the house sound so big, but really it’s all bedroom with very little living space. It’s so quiet on this morning that I think no one else is awake yet.
It’s the first week of July. We always come here on the first week of July. It’s a family pilgrimage that has been happening since I can remember. My habits are set; I know exactly what I am going to do since no one else is awake. I unlock the beach-side door, and walk out onto the deck to enjoy the morning. I’ve always loved to sit and listen to the sound of the ocean waking up for the day. The sea is calm, and there are small yet incredibly long waves that roll into the beach making a dull roaring sound. The breeze is warm, and the sun just right to sit out and listen. As I walk past the porch’s divider, remember it’s a duplex, and head out to the boardwalk to sit on top of the dunes, I notice my grandfather sitting on one of the benches listening to the ocean and staring out to sea.
This isn’t part of the routine, my grandfather is never up this early and my grandmother is always up with him. I sit down on the bench next to him and we say our good mornings. Then a deep silence falls between us as we both sit and stare out to sea. Minutes go by, but it seems like hours. I didn’t know we were this similar, that we both receive so much joy from the perfection that is the ocean on the early morning. Finally, he talks, but not at me. He just starts talking out loud, almost as if he is narrating the view we are sharing. He tells me about what his life was like right after he married my grandmother, and how they had to make do with what his pay from the army provided them. He tells me of the hardships they went through raising his little brother as one of their own. I’ve heard these stories before, but something is different this time. I’m not sure if it’s because we are sitting alone, or if he’s trying to relay some message to me that he can’t put into words. Once the stories are done, he looks at me and tells me that he’s always been proud of me, and that he always will be proud of me. Again, I’ve heard this from him time and time before, but there’s something different about it this time. As it’s happening I don’t know what the difference is. I just accept what he’s saying to me, and we sit and enjoy the view together. Gradually more and more of the family wakes up and joins us. The moment we shared that morning comes to a close, but it’s stuck in my memory forever.
I’m writing this almost nine months after my grandfather passed away. In recent years he hadn’t been in good enough health to go with us to the beach house. And this year he actually passed away the day before we were set to leave for our summer pilgrimage. We all prepared for and attended his funeral, and in the spirit of the trip we left and drove through the night to make it to the house. It wasn’t the same house that he and I shared our moment together. But, the view of the same stretch of North Carolina sand brought this memory racing back to me. We arrived in the early hours of the morning when it was still dark. The family friends who were already at the house woke up to great us. In honor of the memory of my grandfather, who truly loved what the pilgrimage to the small stretch of sand meant to the family, we walked across the dunes and down onto the sand in the darkness before dawn. We walked all the way down and put our feet in the surf. In honor of the memory of my grandfather, we made a toast to him right there. We were in the water, in the dark before dawn celebrating the memory of him. Everything I had wanted to say to him came rushing back to me at that moment, and I knew we had done the right thing by returning so soon after his passing.
It wasn’t until now, nine months after the funeral and return to that stretch of sand that I realized what my grandfather was trying to tell me that morning we sat alone watching the waves together. He knew what I was ashamed to tell the family, and he was trying to tell me that he loved me regardless of who I was. It was one of the best memories I have of my grandfather. He and I, watching the waves, accepting each other without exception.