This past Saturday I was standing on the beach at Sapelo Island off the coast of Georgia. It was an absolutely perfect summer day. We had taken the ferry over from the mainland early in the morning, before the rolling, sun-shot mists had fully cleared from the marshes and spits of land we passed. Indeed, even Sapelo itself brooded under that same, luminous vapor, the dark line of its trees an indistinct blur beneath an alchemy of warmth and humidity and something not quite canny. Only the spire of the lighthouse stood out against all that witchery, solid and undaunted, a thing very firmly of this earth. The sight of it made me feel that we were, indeed, traveling to a real place, and not just a vanishing figment of Brigadoon-like fancy. I stood at the helm by my husband’s side, cherishing the sunlight, and the wind that was wreaking havoc with my hair, and the purple martins wheeling overhead, dropping bits of song as they dipped and swung through the air in the most graceful bird ballet imaginable.
The landing was a vibrant melee of greetings and arrivals, the mountainous suitcases and crates of returning residents and the shouldered packs and bags of day-trippers like us. I was taken with the island’s energy the moment we set foot on its shore—it was a palpable thing, generations in the making, and though Sapelo only boasts a population of around 50 in the most generous of calculations, it’s been so thoroughly inhabited by those who have lived there that one is rather awed by the tenacity of such fierce love and pride. It’s almost as if the hard lines of distinction between the people and the place have grown so thin that it’s difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. I felt a strange, wordless sympathy with these jostling fellow passengers of mine—I, too, have known the love of an island, though my residence can only be measured in weeks, not years. But it doesn’t take long to be taken by a place in a way that will never let you go. In my case—with my island—it had been a matter of moments.
Sapelo was truly beautiful, in a wild, unnamable, unmanageable way. Plenty of moss-hung oaks to suit my fancy, and stands of lovely, olive-colored slash pines with their twisting branches and exquisite little cones. But it wasn’t until we came to the beach that I really began to feel the place open its heart to me: a sweeping curve of silver-white sand, flanked by snowy dunes crowned with the nodding plumes of feathery sea oats. The sky arched blue and cloudless over all that white and green, and only the faintest hints and shreds of mist on the horizon gave evidence of the morning’s light-filled shrouding. It looked like the place had never been troubled by the least human intrusion—indeed, were it not for the quiet clutches we met on the boardwalk and along the sand, one might be tempted to think that civilization had never so much as set eyes on the place.
Arriving with the turn of the tide, we had come upon the jovial, milling aftermath of a Gullah ocean baptism service. The children, freed from such late solemnities, were flinging themselves into the waves with a wildness of joy that literally made my heart ache. Their shrieks filled the stately silence of the place like music; their dark limbs flashing in and out of the water were as graceful and un-self-conscious as the rhythmic movements of deer passing between the shades of a wood. They made me think of the silvery whiting glimpsed off-shore in summer, springing out of the ocean in an apparent ecstasy of flight, only to vanish before you are quite sure you’ve seen them. I watched the mad antics for a while until their mothers began calling them out of the waves—and, doubtless, home to meals the rest of the world can only dream about—and then I turned away with a yearning that bordered on envy.
I envied them more than their delectable midday dinner; I wanted their wildness and freedom, their absolute unconcern for the responsibilities and respectabilities of grown-up life.
I coveted their uncontested, eternal possession, which is summertime itself.
Summer and I haven’t been on very friendly terms in recent years. Slowly, imperceptibly, I’ve let my early love for it become choked by the weeds of discomfort and discontent. I’ve gotten grouchy over the weather (too much rain or not enough of it), the humidity (which can really be a Southern girl’s friend, if she will only cooperate with it), the sad reality of overly-ambitious, unmet goals. (And that’s not even touching on the bugs. I am a walking mosquito-feast.) For several years running, I’ve gotten mired in the dog days and gone gasping into the blessed relief of September like an exhausted runner tumbling over the finish line.
In short, I’ve lost the magic, the charm that children know, that makes summer one long, endless idyll.
But this summer was different, shiningly, strikingly so. It had nothing to do with circumstances or lack of difficulties—in many ways it was one of the hardest summers of my life. Perhaps that is why God in his grace saw fit to give so lavishly of what my soul was so parched for. He gave me the sea: the coast of Georgia and my own beloved island, in an unprecedented abundance. The timeliness of it all overwhelmed me with a gratitude I could scarcely name: the novel I am working on is set in this part of the world, and while I know it like the back of my hand, the gift of so many weeks spent in the vicinity is a favor I am determined to acknowledge with a long winter of hard work.
I’ve been salt-kissed and windblown and I’ve grown so brown I hardly know myself. I’ve eaten freshly boiled shrimp with my fingers on the beach and more oysters on the half shell than I care to confess. I’ve romped in the ocean with my dog, and I’ve sailed around the dance floor of an exquisitely-appointed room in my husband’s arms to the music of a jazz quartet. I’ve lived for weeks at a time in bathing suits and sundresses and I’ve actually watched the sunset, not merely noticed it in passing. I’ve read fluffy novels and I’ve journaled like mad and I’ve given myself the permission to merely sit on the beach and think. Of nothing.
The cure for anything is salt water—sweat, tears, or the sea. I wish I had said that, but Isak Dinesen beat me to it. Oh, but it’s true. I have been cured of many things during these weeks by the sea, healed in ways I can only begin to suspect at this point. Old barnacled accumulations, old insecurities and insincerities have fallen away, shed like the hermit crab’s shell, and I’ve been filled, replenished and reoriented in a way I have never known. I’m so grateful, so eager to pour these gifts of grace into my life and work at home. I know what the Psalmist meant when he said he was literally weighted down with blessings.
But on this particular day, standing on Nanny Goat Beach at Sapelo Island, I felt a sudden loss. A cold sadness clutched me, there in the midst of all that warmth and beauty. Watching the children play, feeling the water cool against my bare feet and turning my face to the kindness of the sun, something desperate rose up inside of me. I looked to the south, towards an island I couldn’t see but knew was there, an emerald set upon a golden band of salt marsh. Then I turned to Philip, my big white sunglasses dropped down over my burning eyes.
“I’m not ready to be done—with this,” sweeping my arm towards the sea. “With summer.”
He understood. The day before we had left Jekyll Island behind us and come to a charming little port town we often visit, beloved in its own right. But it wasn’t Jekyll. When we checked into our little inn overlooking the Altamaha, I smiled bravely, laughing at my own sentiment. But inside I felt bereft, bereaved. Homesick. I had promised Philip that I wouldn’t disgrace myself when we were leaving the island—he teases me that the people at the hotel must think he’s awfully mean to me, the way my happiness in that place seems to overflow in such a watery way at the least prompting. As we had come over the causeway, however, in the opposite direction my heart wanted to be going, the silent tears had run down my cheeks one after another. It’s never easy to leave, but it’s excruciating when I don’t know when I’ll return. At other times I can blow a kiss over my shoulder with relative composure, steel myself for the long drive home with plans and schemes for maximizing the time between this visit and our next. But on this August day, with the late afternoon sun turning the water to silver and the marshes to gold, I just didn’t know. And I wasn’t sure I could bear it.
We thoroughly enjoyed the rest of our stay on Sapelo and took the ferry back, tired and happy and dewy with a glazing of sunscreen and bug spray. We had lunch at a sidewalk café, and as elegant dinner plans were in the offing (it was our last evening before heading home the next day) we both agreed that naps were in order. But first we wandered into a couple of shops on the miniscule main street. Browsing the aisles of a book stall, I innocently picked up a tome on the area and flipped it open—right to the chapter on Jekyll Island. I turned a page and stared down at an image of my favorite beach in the whole world. I felt the tears rising, sensed that ominous burning in the back of my throat, and I knew that in another moment I’d be utterly undone. I closed the book and hastily returned it to its place. It hurt too much to think of Jekyll being so near—not thirty miles away and—
And in that instant I had an idea, one of those inspirations that simply will not be gainsaid. I hurried out of the shop and found Philip, who was already wandering through an antique store across the street. The moment he saw me he knew something was up.
“Uh-oh,” he grinned. “She’s got that Jekyll look in her eye.”
That man knows me better than I know myself.
I spilled my plan in a tumble of excitement while he grinned and shook his head.
“Well, I wasn’t up for a big dinner, anyway,” he laughed. “But I’d better get that nap in!”
So while he went back to the room, I set my lovely scheme in motion. First I ducked into the little wine shop on the main street and picked out a nice bottle of red and a round of local brie. When the woman behind the counter learned that it was for a picnic—and such an impromptu one, at that—her eyes kindled in a sympathetic smile. With the air of a sudden ally, she tucked two paper plates into the bag, a stack of napkins, two plastic cups and a knife for our cheese.
Across the street at the olive gourmet, I explained my plan all over again, and met with the same kindness and enthusiasm. The proprietress entered into the spirit of things, turning out a freshly-baked loaf of artisan bread, a collection of Greek olives, a jar of homemade tomato bisque (“delicious at room temperature”) and a couple of ice-cold Izzy sodas. Into the bag went two plastic spoons and two York Peppermint Pattys for dessert. (I pinched a couple of paper bowls from the breakfast area of our inn for the soup, lest you imagine we ate it out of the jar.)
Moments later we were dressed for dinner in bathing suits and cover-ups, our little roadster speeding towards Jekyll like a martin to its gourd. When we arrived on the island again my heart leapt with as much joy as if it had been an exile of months—years—and not a mere 24 hours. I felt I had been given something very precious to hold and that I must not drop the least moment. And just as in all of our most timeless times, I knew there was a dash of eternity in it. We drove around to the north end of the island, took the long and well-loved path to the beach, and spread our little blanket under a familiar arch of driftwood. We swam and laughed and walked and remembered—and ate! My goodness, we ate. The feast we had forgone at a nice restaurant was nothing to this banquet of pure beauty spread out before us. That same cerulean sky that had smiled over us all day; the waves rolling gently into the tidal pools and the whiting flinging themselves out of the sea for joy. The sun setting over our shoulders behind the line of trees, washing that boneyard of writhing driftwood with a stain of saffron and rose. We slathered our crusty bread with brie and sipped our wine out of plastic cups, and felt like the heir and heiress of the whole world.
It was a microcosm of the summer’s gifts; a strong, golden-hued cordial distilled from a harvest of sunlit days. And with that one, final grace, my cup overflowed in wordless prayer. Thank You, thank You, thank You…
When the light and the tide told us it was time to go, I took one, last, long look around. Then I smiled up at Philip, not bravely this time, but easily, happily, like a sun-sated child. We walked back along the shore in a contented silence, and as we turned into the sandy path I blew a kiss to the beach over my shoulder. I didn’t know when I would be back. I only knew I would. And that was enough.
It still hurt to leave. But as we went over the bridge, I looked back and saw the lights from the hotel shimmering out like fairy lamps among the live oaks. And in the sky above, a heavy, red moon hanging low over my island, spilling its amber wealth over the water like a bridge of light.
Summer must really be over when you see a moon like that, I thought with a sigh.
But I’ll never be done with this summer. The tan and the bug bites will fade; my hair will lose some of the highlights the sun gives out for free. But this summer has left its permanent mark on me. I’m more myself than I have been in years. And I will never be the same again.