Sorry, I have not been back for a few days. I have been lolling at the Jersey Shore with all five (count ’em! five!) nephews. No nieces for me in this family. It was mayhem. Joyful, peanut-butter-mixed-with-sand mayhem. Emily sent this message:
#928, c. 1864
The Heart has narrow Banks
It measures like the Sea
In mighty — unremitting Bass
And Blue Monotony
Till Hurricane bisect
And as itself discerns
Its insufficient Area
The Heart convulsive learns
The Calm is but a Wall
Of unattempted Gauze
An instant’s Push demolishes
A Questioning dissolves
I love spending time with my old childhood friend, the Atlantic Ocean. The water is warm and rough. As I battle the chop out to deeper water, I dive under the oncoming wave. Sightless, I go head-first into churning, green chaos. The water pushes and pulls me in all directions at once, tosses me around like a piece of seaweed. Beneath the wave, I can’t tell up from down or where the sun lies. I feel the tug on my body, dragging me away from land, as the wave rears back on itself gathering strength for the next rush. My head emerges on the other side. I shake out my hair and spit. Ocean streams down my face into my mouth. I exhale deeply, emptying my lungs, spitting an arc of water into the air again. The next pile of white froth rolls toward me. I must do something or it will crash in my face and throw me over. Don’t think. Act fast. I dive again.
During this visit, I found a old photo of me at age 15 or 16. I am wearing my grandmother’s wedding dress and dancing in our garden with the pine trees as a backdrop. The back story to this photo is that my sister and her friend Pam had come home from their first year of college where they were both studio art majors. They cooked up an arty photo project and chose me as their model. We had discovered my grandmother’s wedding dress, already starting to unravel from age, in a cardboard box at the back of a closet. Somehow, they convinced my mother to let them use it for their project. So the two studio art majors put me in my grandmother’s wedding dress, took me to the garden and told me to act like Ophelia.
(For the second half of the photo shoot, the artists took me out to the dock behind our house, stripped me down to my underpants and draped me in yards and yards of filmy white fabric—the curtains from my bedroom—that wafted on the wind with the Intercoastal Waterway in the background. I looked like a combination of Mrs. Havisham and Ariel. This was how we girls spent our summer vacation.)
I am a beanstalk compared to my tiny Italian grandmother, so her dress was tea-length on me, and the tight sleeves stopped three-quarters of the way down my arms. On my grandmother’s wedding day, the dress had dragged behind her in long train. Her sisters, expert lace-makers, had crocheted the entire dress, which consisted of a slim bodice that spread out to a lawn of leafy discs held together with small loops of thread.
In this photo, my face is tanned, and my sun-bleached hair falls, like the roof of a thatched hut, almost to my waist. I am bare-footed, brown and unruly, all elbows and teeth. Nothing like the petite, elegant woman who had worn this dress fifty years earlier.
Since the artists had instructed me to act like Ophelia, I swanned about the yard with a tragical air. To accentuate this effect, my sister knotted my hair in the branches of the pine trees. Then I rebelled. I wanted to dance. Using my grandmother’s long veil as a prop, I twirled and swirled. My grandmother’s dress fanned out in a white trumpet around my legs. I carried her veil like a banner over my head. Someone, either my sister or Pam, clicked the shutter at the precise moment that I looked up over my raised arms to see the energy of my dance, unfurling the lacy veil in the air. The hem of my skirt reaches outward in counterpoint to the flight above. My lips are pursed, as though I am whistling. Or about to kiss someone. The dance, the girl, the dress, all caught in one movement. Frozen in time.
More often than not, boys never get to have this experience. They don’t know what they’re missing. There is a distinct pleasure in being at the center of a long full skirt and twirling yourself so the skirt floats up and away in a buoyant circle around you. To be at the center of all that energy and see it manifest in the ballooning fabric is more fun than anything . . . especially if it’s a pretty skirt. Put a girl in a long full dress and she knows immediately what to do with it. She twirls and whirls and makes it fly all around herself. No one has to teach her. The knowledge is encoded in her DNA.
When I look at this image of myself from so long ago, the narrow banks of my heart are flooded over. This ragged, wild creature. This girl in flight. The ocean rolls in, and I am overcome by the green chaos. The past comes roaring at me in a churning wave. I can try to go over it or under it, but I must dive in and swim because the wave is coming for me, and I can’t stop the ocean.