By: Elizabeth Muller
Miss Porter’s School, CT, USA
The first time I saw the ocean, I was very little. For the first few weeks after I was born, my mother brought me to the beach to sway me to sleep. I immediately dozed off listening to the words of the waves and the whispers of the wind. My mother always told me salt water heals all wounds, even happy ones. Whether I just got up from being pushed to the dirt, or I was so happy that my heart opened, the ocean was always there to wrap me in sandy hugs and salty kisses.
I returned to the beach every summer with my family. We spent time on the shore, went to camp, and enjoyed each other’s company. Early in the morning, my mother would wake me up so we could bike to the beach. Around 5:00AM, she would sit me in the seat behind her and bike. We would arrive 30 minutes before sunrise. She always told me to listen to the waves while it was still dark outside. She reminded me that, sometimes, even though we can’t see each other, we must trust that the other is still there. Although I couldn’t see the ocean, I learned to trust that it was still there. We then waited for the sun to rise in order to assure ourselves that, no, the ocean had not run away from us. It was our little promise.
When I turned 9, my grandfather passed away. I never quite understood the concept, I just knew that it was weird being at the beach club and eating lunch without him at our table. When my parents cried, I always reminded them, “You can’t see him, but he is still there.” Though it was a nice phrase, I still didn’t fully understand the idea of it. I was never taught the meaning of death. I didn’t understand why I no longer got calls from my grandfather about what food he got from the store, or the latest golf tournament that he won. I worried and wondered why he never showed up at my dance recitals. But I was satisfied knowing that, although I couldn’t see him, he was somehow still there.
When I was 11, I returned to the ocean. Things were a bit different. Each night, when I asked my mother to take me to the beach before sunrise, she would tell me that I could do it on my own. That was the summer when I learned how to bike by myself and climb the roof of the beach club to listen to the ocean waves in silence, trusting that it hadn’t run away after the sun had set. Every day when I returned from the beach, my mother asked me how it was since she was sad that she had missed it. When I got into deep descriptions of my day, she laughed. Though I didn’t know she was there, she had been sitting right on the top deck in a chair, watching over the waves and secretly watching over me.
I was 12 years old during the summer when I learned how to surf. I remember my mother giving me my first surfboard. She had grown up in California and knew a thing or two about catching a wave. One morning, I woke up to a huge foam board standing upright in my bedroom with a letter on it. It read, “Just go with the flow.” I quickly slipped on my bikini and wetsuit and drove to the beach. I spent days and days trying to catch the perfect wave, but every time I stood up, I fell right over. Finally, I gave up. The thought of going with the flow seemed nearly impossible, and I decided it was time to move on.
On the first day of August, I was laying on the beach watching my friends catch waves. After some time, I decided it was time to pull my board out once more. I ran to my locker, slipped on my wetsuit, picked up my surfboard, and headed back for the beach. There was something different about it this time. With the letter from my mother that stated, “Just go with the flow” still at the back of my mind, I headed for the water with a positive outlook. After just a couple of tries, I was able to get up and ride the wave. It was amazing. Something about it got me thinking. I thought about being far out in the ocean and trying to catch a wave. How, after every wave I caught, I was always taken back to land. I thought of my mother: how, every time I felt lost and alone, she was always there to bring me home. No matter how far out I was, I was always able to catch a wave that brought me home.
When I was 13, I saw the ocean once more. It was my thirteenth summer returning, yet somehow each time felt different. This was the year that I lost my best friend. This was the year when I began to hate the phrase, “Just ‘cause you can’t see her doesn’t mean she isn’t there.” I knew she wasn’t there. Each morning, my mother would check on me. Every now and then, she would wake me up and insist that I bike to the beach with her before sunrise to listen to the waves. After a couple mornings of stubbornly pulling my covers over my head, I finally gave in. At this point, I understood the science around the idea that the ocean can’t actually run away after sunset, so I listened for other messages.
The next summer led up to my new beginning. After a full year of trying so hard to get along with the students around me, I decided that enough was enough and applied to Miss Porter’s School. Going into the summer, I was a bit nervous. I had never gone to an entirely new school with people from, not only across the country, but around the world. When I was accepted to Porter’s, my mother told me one thing: “Widen your horizons.” Each evening, we stayed at the beach until sunset. With the sun setting partly along the ocean, but also across the houses of the neighboring town, my mother would remind me of this quote. I often spent all day staring at the ocean right in front of me, but I never took the time to understand the things around it. I never took much time looking far down the shore to my right or left, or even look at the number of houses lining the dunes. With every sunset came another reminder to widen my horizons and appreciate what I have around me.
In my 16th summer, I realized that there wasn’t much of a way to make sense of it all. Each year led up to a new little phrase that I ended up living by. This was the summer when I began to sleep in and get to the beach around midday. This was also the summer when I learned how to catch about every wave. I no longer reminded myself to “go with the flow” when I couldn’t catch one. I no longer had to assure myself with the little phrases that I carried through my everyday during previous summers. When I woke up, I woke up. When I surfed, I surfed. On the days when I remembered the phrases that my mother and I shared, I was lucky enough to look up to the top deck of the beach club and see my mother sitting right there with her glass of iced tea looking out at the ocean, though I knew–now–that she was secretly watching over me.