She is wearing a fluorescent green bathing suit. She is 10 maybe. I can see from her body language that the ocean is just not her thing.
The man she calls Uncle Nick is gently coaxing her into the surf, to her ankles, then her knees, where they let the waves break over them, and she begins to laugh. Before long, the girl has mastered the art of riding waves and coming to a sandy halt. Then, as if on repeat, she jumps up and she leads him back in so they catch the next one.
I’ve seen her go from “I don’t want to,” to “Watch me, Uncle Nick!” in the space of an hour. And I’m remembering my 10-year-old self. And thinking about my uncles.
I was accorded several real uncles, who appeared automatically in my life the day I was born. But like most of the kids in my Long Island neighborhood in the 1950s, I was also entitled to other “uncles,” not related to our family but connected in a way that was just as real. They were my parents’ oldest friends or neighbors who knew me my whole life, like Uncle Herb, who lived around the corner from us.
I was a cautious child who liked lots of practice in private before I did anything publicly. Riding waves with scores of people standing in the surf at Jones Beach carried too many risks for the child I was. Wading would have been forever fine with me, had Uncle Herb and I not stood together that day in the shallow surf, ankle deep. He was getting his toes wet, chatting with me about the school year that had just finished. His children, a slew of blond hearty kids who were never afraid of anything, had already taken their positions out past the breaking surf, and were yelling for their father to come out and join them.
I’m pretty sure I was an afterthought. “Come on, Linda,” he said, “Let’s ride some waves.”
He held out his hand. Hoping he wouldn’t make fun of me when he saw how inept I knew I’d be, I went, but just barely. He talked me through my nerves as the waves bounced me around.
“Put your arms like this,” he said. “Try to keep your head down,” and I remember how different he looked wet and without his eyeglasses. He held on to me when a big wave overpowered my skinny body and I was tossed under.
Uncle Herb stayed with me until I caught on, and I continued riding waves (with a certain panache, I’ve always thought) for a few more summers, before watching lifeguards eat their lunches became more worthy of my time at the beach.
Labor Day that year, it was barbeque time. In a houseful of company, most of whom were relatives, my mother decided to pass around some of my poetry. I was never sure about this. I was proud that she thought I had talent, but she seemed oblivious to public opinion. Most of the adults would glance at a page and then mumble a few kind, vague words, having not really read any of it. Then they’d go back to talking about more important issues, like maybe the sale on pork chops at Bohack’s.
“Herb,” my mother said, “Have you seen these poems?”
I would say “poems” was a kind way to put it. I would say that I was blessed with a mother who thought I was pretty when I wasn’t, had a flair for the artistic when I didn’t, and who believed that she had given birth to the next Emily Dickinson. Hence a continual thread of conversation in the living room that began, “Have you seen these?”
Now it was Uncle Herb’s turn, and frankly I thought he had already put in more than his share of time with the whole ocean thing. But he smiled and took the handful of notebook pages. Peeking in from the kitchen, I watched his eyes moving over every word. After he finished the last piece, he found me and pressed them into my hand. And as if he had unearthed a great secret between us, he said, “You’re a writer. A real writer.”
My “uncles” told us when it was time to go in on summer nights when we didn’t want to stop playing tag. They sat on our back patio and popped open a can of Budweiser as they discussed the Mets. They toasted my college graduation. They danced at my wedding. They held my babies in their arms and pronounced each of them beautiful whether they were or not. Even now when he answers the phone with a soft, barely audible “hello,” I wouldn’t think of starting any other way: “Hi Uncle Herb, it’s Linda.”
If we’re lucky, we have an adult in our lives who, even for one summer afternoon, teaches us how to negotiate the surf — when to jump, when to dive, and how to ride the waves all the way to shore.
“You did great,” Uncle Nick is telling the girl in the green bathing suit now, as they shake the water from their hair and jog toward their blanket on the beach. I watch her face.
Same ocean. Different uncle. I hope she remembers, too.