Yesterday afternoon I was sitting on a lawn chair on the beach at Grand Bend on the sandy shore of Lake Huron about a thirty minute drive away from where I live. I was between two very good friends that I have had for over 20 years, Carol and Linda. We all see one another on a weekly basis. We attend the same church in the village of Poplar Hill, on the low hill right opposite the one where I live. We usually see one another all dressed up, in our fancier clothes and shoes, with our hair styled and our makeup on, not in bathing suits and flip-flops, with wet hair and makeup washed away, or mascara running down our cheeks.
After changing into our suits in the change rooms, we meandered through the maze of blanket-claimed real estate nearby. We staked a claim of our own on the busy beach by unfolding our lawn chairs. Then Linda threw down a pretty quilted blanket that she said her Mom had made when she was a kid. It had been the family beach blanket since her childhood days, when her family came here, or to one of the other nearby beaches,almost every summer weekend. I imagined Linda as a little girl, sharing a picnic with her family on it, or lying down on it to rest next to her mother, and I thought what a blessing it was to her that she had kept it for all these years.
We talked for a while together about our childhoods, and some of the insecurities we had felt about ourselves as we transitioned into adulthood. These more personal revelations seem to come out a lot more readily when people are stripped down to their swimsuits, and are feeling again the same sort of anxieties about how they may look to others as they did “way back then”. For most women, our
teenage years were when we were trying to come to terms with what the Lord had or had not given us, in terms of physical appearance. It was also a time when we did our best to camouflage the deficits we believed were there. For someone I knew and loved, it meant the falsies popping to the surface of the swimming pool before she did, after a particularly daring dive off a high board at a town pool. It sent all girls in her vicinity into a frenzy, fleeing in panic, just like in the scene with the floating chocolate bar in the movie Caddie Shack. No one else would assist in the rescue mission to retrieve them, and relieve her of a mortification they feared for themselves, risking guilt by association —except for me. Why? As Wilford Brimley (the Quaker Oats guy) would say “It’s the right thing to do.”
It has sometimes surprised me, when I think about it very much, how different I feel as an adult woman than the young one I once was. You may have noticed in that last sentence that I did not say “old” but rather “adult” woman. I’m not ready for labelling yet! These days labels often include the “Best Before” date, and I’m sure the best is yet to come. I suppose that’s either confidence or insanity. We’ll see.
Finally, after our philosophical treatises were expounded upon, (Read “Gab Fest” here!) we began our hesitant migration to uncertain waters from the relative safety of our chairs. Mine was cutting into the back of my legs anyway, and the frame was sinking at the back into the soft sand as if it was quicksand. “A weight distribution problem?” it seemed to ask. Linda was the first one to wade in, and when I joined her and began to resume our earlier discussion I got a great big slap in the face! A giant wave had rolled up high behind me. When I turned buoyantly in that direction it nearly knocked off the glasses I was still wearing, as I had originally planned to just wade! I choked on the faceful of lake water and sputtered like an overheated teapot! I had been nearly “tipped over” alright, and the “short and stout” part of that little childhood ditty was probably the appearance I projected upon emerging from the water. The cobalt blue, “Slimming Fit” bathing suit, with its short little attached “Camouflage Skirt” that I had put all my confidence in, had failed me! It had gone from a sassy-for my-age six inches below the butt model, to a Catholic school girl’s nun-approved version of a skirt, as soon as the water hit it! My suit seemed to be experiencing that same “5 pounds of water retention” problem that I had often claimed was the reason I earned so few silver stars at Weight Watcher meetings!
Its extended length had not given me that “long tall drink of water “appearance that lengthier skirts are supposed to project. I looked more like a Damson Plum just fallen off the tree, blue, blushing, and drupaceous. Well maybe not “drupaceous”— just droopy perhaps. Drupaceous is what peaches, plums, cherries and fruits that are fleshy, with a stony heart are called, and everyone who knows me would say that I definitely do not have a stoney heart. In reality these two good friends of mine have seen mascara running down my cheeks plenty of times, when there were no waves for miles. With a big grey towel around my shoulders, to cut the chill of the wind on my bare back, I sat down on my lawn chair. I probably gave the impression of someone at an outdoor Amish wedding reception, except for the skirt’s bright colour and the cleavage. There was barely any exposed leg at all; only after it dried in the breeze did it return to its previous length,
On Sunday mornings we ladies each have our preferred positions in the pews we always sit in, next to our husbands. We are generally fairly rigid in our habits and routines. Whether it is cooking, canning, part-time jobs or volunteering, babysitting or shopping for groceries we have places to be and things to do which have never included lounging together on the beach on a week day afternoon.
For us to just throw caution to the wind, and abandon hearth and home for waves and wandering is practically unheard of, but Carol’s urge to fly was contagious and could not be denied. Tomato salsa-making and zucchini loaf-baking was put on hold for another day even as the vines that gave the main ingredients became even more heavily laden by the hour. Like three teenaged girls headed off to a Beatles’ concert (yes, I’m that old!) we rushed out of our houses. Rolly was away shopping for canning jar lids and fence posts, and I left a note telling him I was going to the Bend with the girls to cruise for guys. Humour in our relationship is why we’re still happily married after 43 years.
Here we all were, in the midst of a crowd of people— tanned svelte bodies of teenage girls prancing around, older guys in their white socks and black shoes and Bermuda shorts attempting to hold in the consequences of forty years of “fries with that”, little kids pitching sand into the breeze and their mothers’ eyes, around their moat and castle building sites… and us.
We talked about days gone by, when varicose veins, or choice of hair colour to cover the grey were not an issue. We talked about how old we were when we finally had a sense of who we were and where we fit in the world, and the wonder of finally feeling Ok about ourselves. And we talked about why we had never done this before—come to the beach on a summer afternoon just to have fun, just us— for no other reason than the sheer pleasure of it.
As we relaxed in the perfect balance of sun and cloud, breeze and stillness, that can only happen when you feel that same kind of balance within yourself, we opened up to one another about some of those self-deprecating things we were starting to believe about ourselves once again. In those long ago days, when we had the kind of bodies that many of the sun tanned girls strolling up and down the beach between the male life guards’ stands have, we each of us admitted to that being a time of deep insecurities about our body image. We once looked very much like they did, but didn’t believe we were good enough in the bodies we had, we sometimes even felt that we were ugly. The sad thing is that if the beach girls were given an anonymous survey, many of them would express those very same feelings. It seems to accompany those seasons in a woman’s life when her body changes most , the late adolescent to teen years, and the years when we are, as I think of myself now— “almost old”.
The one thing that can save us all is love, laughter, good friends and plenty of screaming. Not shrieking hysteria over our favourite band members anymore, though no one my age ever owns up to having ever done that. Rather, it is just a whole afternoon of life guard-annoying screaming over every approaching wave that does the trick.
At times the big rollers threatened to upend one or another of us, and that was when we grabbed onto one another’s hands.