Mama Nellie & me at Long Beach, 1960.
Decades after my uncle took this picture, time and storm-borne tides would try to pull my grandparents’ beach cottage into the sea. In 1960, however, when my grandmother was a spry sexagenarian and my grandfather, just off camera, was creating a cottage in the shifting sands of Long Beach, this was a place of magic and practical craftsmanship. I was two years old when this photo was taken, and family lore relates how I helped build a ladder under my grandfather’s tutelage, pounding in the general direction of nails while he attended to the task of building this modest seaside manse.
My family hails from Eastern North Carolina (“Down East”), and has called that part of the world home for generations. My parents left there in 1946, simultaneously eloping and escaping their childhood homes to embark on Dad’s career in the Air Force. My mother had a difficult relationship with her mother (partially due to the fact that Mom eloped with Dad, something my grandmother never really got over), and I realized later in life that this made trips back home difficult for my mother. My father, on the other hand, was a recently returned World War II combat veteran, and never really adjusted to the fact that he would always be considered the baby brother by his four older sisters. My Down East roots, then, were cast somewhat adrift as my parents had defined their Down East “homes” as a place you visited but would never return to.
Green paths at Long Beach for newly hatched turtles to make it to the sea, twisted after a storm and heavy surf.
My grandparents’ beach cottage was “neutral” in a way. There were no household chores or familial obligations to attend to at the beach, in contrast to visits to my parents’ respective home towns. Free from my parents’ hometown baggage, the cottage became an anchor of sorts for me, providing a touchstone with the Eastern part of my home state, a place I would visit and revisit for decades until I finally found a part of the state – the mountains – to call home.
As places go, the seaside has a unique appeal. No rhythms surpass the ebb and flow of the tides. During the countless times I would venture to the cottage, I witnessed turtles emerge from the surf during the May full moon, lay their eggs, and lumber back to the sea. Pelicans flew in linear formation just above the waves, terns scurried among the tidal pools, and crabs peeked at you from their holes. When I went there I would put my watch in a drawer and set my schedule by the tides. I shunned the paper and news from the wider world, opting to listen to the surf. The beachfront cottage was where I first began to really pay attention to natural time, where I became aware of that nebulous metaphysical place that T.S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world.”
Smelling of salt water with an ongoing wind coming off the Atlantic, the cottage was a frequent place of solace during my college years and after. Alone and with friends, visits entailed long hours on the beach, cooking seafood in the somewhat rundown kitchen, listening to specially curated mix tapes on portable cassette players (sporting titles like “Sea Songs and Silly Shanties”), reading book after book, writing bad poetry, and, quite often, drinking a bit too much. Through it all, the surf crashed, winter storms lashed the siding, the dunes eroded, and the high tide line crept closer each year.
Stormy weather, looking South from Long Beach
For a while, after my grandparents died, my mother and her brothers continued to rent the cottage. My wife and I would join my parents for a week of cottage maintenance before the rental season. The sound of crashing surf mixed with hammers and power tools, the bouquet of briny air mingled with fresh paint. Collectively, the family gathered in an ongoing effort to keep the ocean at bay and to keep my grandmother’s dream of renting the cottage alive for yet another summer season.
But generational change brings different ideas, new ways of viewing the world. The cottage became a burden to my aging uncles and mother and they sold it in the 1980s. However, the deep seed of this particular beach – now called Oak Island, NC – was firmly planted. My wife and I continued to go back and rent different cottages on the same stretch of beach – places sporting silly names like Toki Doki, Nap Monster, Sea N’ Stars, and Time in a Bottle. We’d drive by my grandparents’ old cottage (once simply named John F. Lewis, Parkton, NC, later renamed the Mason Oaks by the new owners) and watch it slowly decline as the thick ocean air witnessed its steady, slow demise.
Hurricanes hastened this process, and over the course of several years in the 1990s Hurricanes Floyd, Bertha, and Fran ravaged the cottage. For a while, after these hurricanes, the cottage was rendered little more than a box on stilts with no stairs, no plumbing, no wiring, no deck, and no boardwalk to the beach, an eerie container of memories suspended in the air, waiting for a final, fatal punch from the ocean. It has regained a second life after the hurricane battering, as efforts at beach rebuilding and stubborn persistence by the current owners managed to keep it alive, even if it seems a bit run down and ready to tumble into the ocean.
Even as I write this the tides and winds of Hurricane Matthew are battering Oak Island. A film clip posted on social media showed the Oak Island Pier collapsing in the storm surge, and this may be the time that the cottage meets its fated tumble into the sea. After all, it was built on sand and its outcome was sealed from its inception. Yet its legacy is deeply embedded in me, regardless of when it meets its end. It was often a place of solace, one where I was first exposed to the fine craft of swinging a hammer, building a ladder, and stopping to listen.
Sunset, Long Beach