Living Backwards

Early this morning I drove with my kids, gazing out my window at the soft green fields flanking us and then up at the sky, knitted thick with white clouds. As we crested a hill, I saw the sky brighten as the sun pulsed through.

“Look,” I said to them, “it’s turning into a sunny day.”

My daughter peered out her window. “Yeah, it started out all cloudy like last week and now the sun’s coming out.”

I nodded. “Greedles (our word for my dad) used to say the sun is burning off the clouds. It happens a lot at the beach.”

Then, just like that, I was on the beach behind my father’s house, the one he sold last summer. I felt an ache so deep, and unexpected, it almost knocked me over like a wave.

beach view

Last summer, around the same time we sold our Brooklyn apartment, my father sold his house. I mourned both losses, feeling them acutely, as I tend to do with any kind of change, big or small. The beach house wasn’t my childhood home, but it was the place where my mother died and partly where Emma grew up.

The summer after she turned one, we moved in with my dad for nine months while we decided on the fate of our Brooklyn geography.

Me, my dad, and my girl, shortly before we moved in 2009.

Me, my dad, and my girl, shortly before we moved in 2009.

It was a hard gestation, despite the absolutely stunning backyard beach access and three floors to explore. Emma was a challenging baby, nursed around the clock, and slept terribly. My husband, who was having health issues, slept in the basement level with the cats while I night parented her on my own.

In some respects, I’ve never felt lonelier. But I had the beach to turn to, and the tide soothed me, as did the sunrises I witnessed almost every morning when my daughter woke in the dark.

Despite the long lonely winter, I felt grateful to be living with my dad in his big beautiful house, decorated on every level with my mom’s pottery, and on every level a gorgeous view of the beach. We filled up his house with toys, laughter, and tears, until we returned to Brooklyn the following February.

My girl grew up a lot in those nine months.

My girl grew up a lot in those nine months.

When he sold it last summer, I boxed up my sadness and sealed it shut. I didn’t have much room for beach nostalgia since I was overwhelmed by our upcoming life-altering shift from city to country.

I did quietly weep when I walked through the house for the last time. My husband found me on my knees in my father’s room in the spot where my mother had died on her hospital bed. That sacred spot where I witnessed the depth of her strength, and felt glimmers of my own.

After she died, I couldn’t walk through that room without dissolving into tears, but as the years passed the intensity lessened. I had one child, and then another, both who loved to run into my father’s bedroom after their baths. They rolled around on his thick white duvet, giggling and squealing as I diapered them up and slid on pajamas.

Molecules of sadness shifted to make room for joy.

I still visited the spot. Sometimes during a hectic moment, I’d go and just sit right where her bed had been. Where we once held a vigil for her death had become a place of peace for me, but now it’s only a memory, tangled up with so many more.

As I witnessed the sun burning off the clouds on our drive this morning, I longed to be on my father’s beach. My absolute favorite times of day was during transition – dawn or dusk, but I preferred early morning, when the wide expanse of sand was filled with only a handful of seagulls and nothing else.

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We’d come down early, sometimes with our coffee mugs in hand, forgoing sunscreen for the kids, just grabbing a bucket or two for shell collection. I loved foraging through the piles of smooth wet rocks on the shore, picking out shards of shell that made me think of sunsets, faded purple and gray smudges on pearly white.

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When the sun had risen higher, and one or both of the kids started to whine about being hungry or needing to pee, we’d trudge upstairs as the first beach goers would be coming down. The best time of the day had been ours to savor.

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Enjoying the view on one of our last visits.

I will miss those mornings, and also the memories of mornings before my children were born, the summer after my mom died. My father and I each had our preferred “rocks,” big gray slabs that made up the old jetty that is now buried in sand.

His looked like a chair with a straight back. Just like a shiva chair, I realize now, and that’s what he used it as. He sat shiva for my mother there, mourning her loss and the end of their life together. My rock was higher up, flat and smooth, where I stretched out with my sadness and journal.

That house belongs to another family now, and that particular beach is no longer ours to enjoy, but I’m so grateful for my memories. The sweet and the bitter, all swirled together like the soft serve we loved to get at the day’s end.

beach view 2

As we continued on our drive, my eyes damp, my daughter asked me to remind her of Grandma Susan’s favorite flower. I was so taken aback by her question I could barely get out the words.

“She loved orange tiger lilies,” I finally answered.

“I knew that,” my daughter said, and I could hear the smile of pleasure in her voice.

Then off I went, the thread of memory unraveling further, back to my childhood home where I am fairly certain the tiger lilies she planted still bloom.

My childhood home in Middletown, NJ

The bulbs she planted are coming up, still.

Memories live on in our bodies and minds, and often it only takes a phrase, a lightening of the sky, an innocent question to unravel the whole messy ball, or open an abandoned box.

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29 thoughts on “Living Backwards

    • Thank you so much Karen. I was wondering for a few days what my next blog post would be and then this just came rushing out.

      Sent from my iPhone

      >

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  1. I Love those days in which the sun burns off the clouds. Or the fog, as they say in San Francisco.
    I find myself wallowing in sadness, happiness and nostalgia on this gloomy morning, so this was just what I needed to read.

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    • Yes, the fog! I love how the sun just opens up the whole sky, like a hidden curtain slowly opening. I’m glad my piece of nostalgia came during your nostalgic moment 🙂 I am really loaded up with memories lately.

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  2. What a beautiful reflection. My parents still live in my childhood mom but my husband’s dad recently sold his house. The house that my husband grew up with, that we had brought our own children to. It was a very bittersweet time. You captured it beautifully.

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    • Thank you Kathy, and yes, it’s so bittersweet. I had a hard time also with my childhood home, but this felt weighty as well for different reasons. Also, I just love your writing! So glad to have discovered your stories.

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  3. I’m so glad I came by here today to read your powerful post. Your words and beautiful reflection touched me so deeply, Dana. I could picture it all, and feel every emotion you so vividly expressed. Thank you for sharing such a significant part of your heart. ❤

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  4. Oh, Dana. I get every word of this post. Our house sat abandoned for 2 years until my mom mustered the courage to sell the place where so many of our memories percolated. This piece brought tears to my eyes. Beautiful. Thank you.

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    • I can imagine how hard that was for your mom. My dad waited about the same amount of time to sell my childhood home. It’s so hard saying good-bye to those tangible memories. Thank you so much for reading, Rudri, and for your kind words.

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  5. I also love the beach and how it can amplify any emotion, from joy to grief. This reminds me of my own situation with my Mom caring for my Dad in late-stage Parkinson’s. Its amazing when we witness strength in our parents we never knew they had (nor they). This is a lovely bittersweet post.

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    • Thank you so much Laurie, it’s so true about the beach, and maybe about being close to nature in general. I’m sorry about your father. Parkinson’s is such a cruel illness. But I agree about how powerful it can be to witness such strength in our parents.

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  6. Your words speak straight to my heart. So lovely and evocative. I feel like I’m right there with you, both in the past and in your memories in the present.

    My dear friend passed away in her home on April 7th, and in the times that we, “her girls” have been back there since, we always slip away into her bedroom, the spot where we spent the last months by her side.

    The space still smells of her lotion. Where we sat at the foot of her bed is still covered by the same blanket, soft and gray and…her. She loved daffodils but the vases are empty now.

    When you wrote of your daughter asking again about your mother’s favorite flowers, my eyes teared up. Orange Tiger Lilies.

    I can only imagine your grief, slowly, giving way to pieces of joy.
    This tribute to that time and space is simply perfect, Dana.

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    • Julie, I read your post about your friend who passed away in April. I was moved to tears by your words and those photos. The scent of her lotion, oh, I can relate to that so well. Those little triggers are like gifts or daggers, depending on the moment.

      Thank you Julie, for reading my post and for your heartfelt comment, which made me feel so understood and then choked me up. But that is the gift of memories, they swell up like waves and then recede so you can go about your daily life.

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  7. You write in such a beautiful way and this is such a moving post with an edge of yearning for time gone by but also an understanding that that was then and this is now (does that make sense?). I also get attached to places. The parents of one of my oldest, dearest friends sold their house a few weeks ago and I felt really emotional about it because I’d spent so much of my childhood and adolescence in that house. I almost wanted to say ‘no! don’t sell it!’. But really, the memories are tucked up in my head where we need them to be. They may have sold the house but I still remember all those happy times I spent in it and I’m sure those memories will be triggered in little ways just as yours were. xxx.

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    • Oh, thank you so much Maddy! I do get what you are saying, very clearly. I like the way you say, “edge of yearning” that really captures the feeling so well.

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  8. Lovely piece, Dana. And this: “it only takes a phrase…an innocent question to unravel the whole messy ball…” So very true.
    I, too, love the transitional times of day — when magic happens and the possibilities seem endless. Beautiful post.

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  9. The old saying home is where the heart is rings true for me. I visited my family home recently and memories came back but I knew my mum had a better life by the sea. The sea has an amazing magic to freshen all memories. Just the sand in my feet and salt in the air remind me of all the days we have spent with Mum on the beach collecting shells. Mum finds it harder to walk these days and so she sits on a seat and watches us. Im sure she has her memories too.

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    • The sea is so magical, Kath, I agree. Just reading your comment makes me feel like I can dig my feet in the sand and smell the salt air. Thank you for reading, as always.

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