BACK TO THE BEACH

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Seven a.m.: sunshine, lightly hazed. My husband wakes to let our two dogs out. He pads back to the bedroom, looking puzzled.

"The dogs aren't here."

Neither, for that matter, is our house.

"It's OK," I mumble. "We're at the beach, remember?"

More specifically, we're at a very small ocean-side cottage, without the dogs and, for the first time in many years, without two offspring and two or three friends-of-offspring.

We are alone at last.

Without getting up, we imagine fresh coffee -- and remember that we forgot to bring any. (Somehow, as a result of not having to think about packing food and amenities for 4.5 young people, I'd managed not to think at all.) We wonder what the dogs and kids are doing back in Baltimore.

Sleeping, undoubtedly. It's Sunday, for heaven's sake. At the beach we always relished the fact that no one but us ventured out of the beach cottage till noon. Now . . .

"I'd love to see what Ginger and Boss Mama would think of the ocean," my husband murmurs.

"Andy took Ginger to Assateague one day last summer, remember?"

Ginger is a red Doberman so oversize a vet recently mistook her for a young Great Dane. Ginger had greeted the ocean with doggy delight: at last, a playmate her own size! First she'd hunkered into the bottom-up, front paws down and outstretched "play with me" position. Then she picked a fight, growling at the growling surf and smacking it with her paws. When a wave knocked her down she'd bite its retreating foam ferociously as soon as she regained her legs. And gallop back for more.

Introducing a healthy young animal to the Atlantic may be one of the high points of a person's life, especially if the animal happens to be one of the person's children. Now Ginger the Doberman romps out of the picture in my mind's eye. I'm suddenly swept up in wave after wave of memories, memories of first swims.

I recall the dubious look on my daughter Lisa's face when the surf first sucked at her 18-month-old toes; how she frowned, then giggled, then sat right down -- plop! -- in the soapy bubbles. I recall the slippery feel of her various plump roundnesses as I carried her out past the breakers, and how she wriggled out of my grip into a sort of pollywog paddle. How she ducked her head underwater -- on purpose -- and came up spluttering with laughter.

"That kid'll be swimming before you know it," observed the lifeguard watching us that day. And before I knew it (or so it seems) Lisa herself was a lifeguard . . .

Of course, long before her plump baby-body grew into that sleek, black, on-duty tank suit, Lisa shared with me the pleasure of introducing her baby brother to the ocean. Bustling around him on sturdy, brown, 4-year-old legs, full of advice about underflow, Lisa held her breath as Andy experienced his first full-frontal knockdown. The rest is history: a history of boogie boards, wet suits and California Dreamin'. We are truly a family of amphibians.

On the other hand, being a natural-born worrywart even in retrospect, I can't help also recalling a moment of briny terror when all I could locate of a very tiny Lisa was one wee plaid " tennis shoe, with the incoming tide nibbling at its toe. (Turned out that she, ever a seeker after order, was walking up and down the beach looking for it. She was safe and sound, with the other shoe firmly tied onto her foot.)

And then I recall the moment of delayed-action horror when, after shouting for Andy to get out of the water Now! Right this Minute! I'm Telling You for the Last Time!, I suddenly realized that the fabled undertow really had got hold of his wiry 10-year-old body and he was helpless in its pummeling fists. He managed to stagger to a foothold just as a lifeguard caught up one of those red torpedo-shaped life preservers and started sprinting to his aid.

But then Andy-at-the-ocean has always been one to rescue himself at the last second. He "learned" to swim at a very early age by toddling into a huge after-storm tide pool that turned out to be 4 feet deep. "He can't swim!" I shrieked to a beachful of onlooking strangers.

"I can so," he stated firmly over his first successful dog-paddle.

There have been summers when the onlooking strangers must have wondered what kind of beachcombing clan had washed up onto their tame Atlantic shore anyway. Summers when I beach-mothered a dozen teen-agers with quasi-dreadlocks and tribal markings, all marching to the different drummers of the Clash or the Sex Pistols or much-envied local rockers like Grey March and Reptile House, played at top volume on somebody's ancient boom box. These were summers at the beach when my most recreational moments of the day were (1) grabbing a shower in a wooden outdoor stall before frying up yet another vast batch of chicken, and (2) the kids' apres-chicken, apres-sunset foray in search of Night Life. The little beach town was the perfect place, I found, to allow them -- for the very first time -- to investigate Life in the Fast (Pedestrian) Lane for two or three unsupervised hours.

There was one summer, not long after both my children took their terrifying high dives into puberty, when everybody's hot summer romance turned cold and stormy, shrouding the whole cottage in a black, whispering gloom. There was another beach time when a real rainstorm poured dark and chilly water over our entire week, every single day of it; amazingly, under these endless "showers," romance bloomed. Then there was the summer week when the calm old mid-Atlantic went wild and turned on us. Unable to convince my by-then hulking and half-grown clan not to venture into those gnashing waves, I opted to join 'em in lieu of beating 'em, and, perforce, learned (sort of) to bodysurf. I still have a tank suit with a tattered front to show for my maiden venture into this prehistoric and beautiful sport.

And now it's beach-week 1991. The tiny cottage seems empty. Is empty. At home, our home is rapidly emptying, too. Lisa and her husband, Dave, have already gone to their own home-- downtown, where I, too, took my first plunge into marriage long ago. They say they'll be able to take a day or two off from their city jobs and drop in on us at the beach -- maybe. Andy is at the family home in Towson just long enough to pack all his belongings and begin a trek that'll take him four large Southern states away, quite possibly for good, as he lobbies to gain entrance to the vet school of his dreams. He, too, claims that he (and half a dozen of his closest friends, now using our back yard for an ongoing farewell-to-Andy festivity) may drop in on us at the beach. It would be just my beach-luck to have all of them -- Lisa, Dave, Ginger, Boss Mama, Andy and his Dirty Halfdozen -- arrive at the same time.

I can hardly wait.

You see, Boss Mama, our foundling pit bull, has never met the ocean. She's the sweetest, dumbest and most timid dog in the world. And if she gets here this week for her maiden swim, we'll all have to work hard and patiently to assure her a happy first encounter with the ocean.

"I think it'll scare her to death," my husband says.

1% "I bet she'll love it," I answer.

M?

Clarinda Harriss Raymond writes regularly for the magazine.

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