Hiding at the beach

Hiding at the beach

With a glance in the mirror and the recognition of a father’s visage, an old rage bubbled to the surface. But then a foreign emotion came to the fore.

WESTMINSTER — Sometimes in the mirror - especially first thing in the morning, clear-eyed - I see my father's face. It can be a flash of an expression, the look around the eyes, the shape of the mouth or cheek, a twisting of the lips. There he is.

It's not a pleasant experience, looking in the mirror. The punch-in-the-gut feeling starts low and deep and ends up almost strangling me in its violence. At one point, the mixture of disgust and despair would make me so angry, I just stopped looking in the mirror. How dare he, invading every little corner of my life, trying to take charge, to take over my body?

My mother and I were combative, competitive in the most horrible way. My father would pit us against each other. He'd compliment me,“What pretty blue eyes you have, Debbie,” while telling my mother she needed to get in shape. For her turn, my mother would call me homely, saying I had a big nose. I remember how she would nitpick at every aspect of my anatomy: my unruly blonde hair, my small breasts, my stick-like body.

I remember the summer of '69 - a hot and humid awakening. The air was like molten lead and off in the distance you could hear the roar of the morning commuters on Route 93.

Downstairs, my mother was vacuuming and hollering up the stairs, “Debbie! Get down here, I need you to do something!”

I jolted up like I was struck by lightning at the sound of her voice. It was 5:30 a.m.

My sister Linda rolled over in her twin bed and mumbled something. I noticed she had drooled slightly on her pillow. I sighed and shoved my legs into my shorts, struggled into my worn, full-of-holes favorite T-shirt that said “Ripple” across the chest and sullenly went downstairs into the kitchen to start my chores.

I was 8 years old.

* * *

“We're going to the beach today, so we gotta make the sandwiches and pack the coolers.”

My mother was in full swing.

Going to the beach! My eyes widened like saucers; my sullenness dropped away as visions of seagulls and the smell of red tide beckoned.

“Your father better make sure that shitbox Rambler doesn't crap the bed again,” muttered my mother under her breath. “And you're not going anywhere until you finish all your chores.”

My father cursed as he packed the car; I darted in and around him, checking to make sure he didn't forget my yellow beach pail and blue shovel.

We finally got on the road, chugging down Route 60, windows rolled down, sniffing the air from the Monsanto smokestacks as we made our way to Revere Beach.

* * *

The beach was packed when we got there with all the usual local beachgoers and day-trippers from Boston, with scrawny, deeply tanned, and wrinkled women who have been laying on the beach, it seems, ever since I could remember. The scent of Johnson's Baby Oil prevailed as my dad carved ourselves a spot on the sand, making sure he saved room for our relatives who were meeting us there.

“Keep a watch on Linda, Debbie! Make sure she doesn't wander off,” barked my mother, organizing the sitting area under the umbrella, a Virginia Slims hanging out of the side of her mouth.

I turned, tripped over Linda, who was standing close behind me, saying, “Come on, let's go make mud pies,” and off we went, down to the water to sit and dribble sand into mountains.

I knew that would mesmerize her and allow me space to catch little minnows in my yellow plastic pail. The sunshine and the sound of the surf lulled us into a companionable silence, and all seemed right in our world.

Watching the minnows, I hardly noticed that my dad was calling me from the edge of the water, beckoning to me.

“Come for a swim, Debbie,” he was saying.

I kept my head down, watching the minnows swim in my yellow pail, with the sunlight making the yellow plastic glow brightly. I pretended not to hear him.

His voice came closer, and it became more persistent.


“Stay here,” I said to Linda.

“Ok, Debbie,” she said.

I dragged my feet to where my father stood. He reached out for my hand and said again, “Let's go for a swim.”

With my head down, not meeting his eyes, I whispered, “I don't like the deep water, Daddy. Please, can I just play with Linda?”

“No,” he barked, glaring at me, impatiently. “Come here right now.”

He snatched my hand into a vice-like grip and dragged me out into the waves. When the surf started knocking me this way and that, he grabbed me and held me against his chest.

“Don't move, or I'll let you go and you'll drown,” he growled, swimming into deeper water.

My whole body went rigid. The water rose steadily and slowly up to my neck, and I felt paralyzed from the neck down as he kept whispering, “Don't move.”

He was holding me so tightly that I thought I would stop breathing, but somehow my breath was cold and harsh within my chest. Facing away from him, my eyes were trained on the shoreline, silently begging for someone - anyone - to come save me.

I drifted off in my mind, watching the people on the shore walking down the beach. No one even noticed us or whatever my father was doing down there.

Finally, my father finished his little game and started swimming toward the shore. He let me go just when my feet could touch the sand.

“Go,” he said, “Go play.”

* * *

My legs floated helplessly just for a minute, but then I found some traction, my toes gripping the sand. I started running as fast as I could toward the place where I left my pail and shovel. I remember feeling like I just got released from some dark cave of unresolved misery. My breath was harsh and shallow in my chest.

I found my overturned pail and shovel floating in the surf. I looked around and saw that Linda was nowhere to be seen. My eyes darted frantically up and down the shore, but I couldn't see her red bathing suit anywhere.

So I ran to the blanket and chairs where our family was congregated and confessed to my mother.

“Linda is gone. I can't find her.”

I knew I had to just take it when all hell broke loose as she started screaming, “I told you to watch Linda, and now she's disappeared again.”

I couldn't stop the tears from rolling over my face. I wanted to tell her that it was Daddy's fault, that he wanted to play his beach game. But I knew that she would hit me.

So I just took it as my cousins slunk away in embarrassment. We scrambled up and down the beach in a frenzy for what seemed hours, but Linda was nowhere to be found.

One of my uncles suggested going to the police station down the street and, sure enough, that's where she was. Someone had found her, wandering around quiet and wide-eyed and confused.

She was sitting on a splintered wooden bench in the police station, swinging her bare feet back and forth. She had a horrible sunburn on her back.

My parents yelled at her all the way home.

“Why do you always wander off?”

“What is wrong with you?”

“Why can't you just do as you're told?”

“You are such an idiot.”

She couldn't sit back on the seat in the car because her back was burned so badly. She sat straight up the whole way home; her eyes had a distracted look, like she was somewhere far away.

I understood that faraway look, the wish to just leave this life and not be.

* * *

Recently, on a random day after a long bout of avoiding looking in the mirror, I forgot and for a moment glanced at the full-length mirror in my bedroom.

I stopped short.

There I saw, vividly and most unpleasantly, my father's face mirrored with my own, melting in and out. At first, the old rage bubbled to the surface, threatening with despair, flooding my body, making me want to fall down.

But then ... I paused for a long breathless moment and, lo and behold ... I felt something else wash over me ... a foreign emotion that I don't often feel when I think of them....


Forgiveness for myself, for having such a difficult time coming to terms with the fact that the people who gave me life were destructive, deviant, and narcissistic.

So I found this forgiveness, for them, for their weaknesses.

Imagine my surprise when I finally came to gratitude - gratitude to them for giving me this one precious life.

So I turn to face the mirror. These blue eyes, this unruly hair, the timbre of my voice - all of what I am, even this reticent breath - they gave this to me.

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