Elizabeth L photo

photo of my parents on their wedding day, 12/26/45


My parents would be one hundred this year. Thinking about numbers like that is always confusing to me. I think of them as perpetually the age they were when I was very young. The late 1950’s or maybe a little later. We lived in Florida, close to the coast. There are snapshots of us posing for my father, always squinting into the sun. I try to think of what my parents’ early years were like, what they did when they were kids, what was it that brought them joy. And I like to sometimes try to imagine not only the backdrop, but also the background music of their experience of youth. I always associate the early twentieth century years with silent movie music, piano music like Mendelssohn, or maybe Debussy. I was listening to Debussy’s “La Mer” one night and trying to visualize those times. Debussy wrote “La Mer” around 1904 or so. I wonder which ocean he meant, the Atlantic, which my parents would have known, and where they took us a few times, the Pacific, MY ocean, or maybe the Mediterranean, so blue you can’t keep away and so salty you can somehow keep afloat.

 

I know that my parents both loved the water. My mom grew up in New York, and she did tell me a couple of times about going to Coney Island and playing in the waves. Though it’s hard for me to imagine her in the ocean. By the time I came along she’d had lots of ear problems and had a horror of getting her head under water. (Too bad she never got to swim in the Mediterranean.) My dad’s childhood was spent in a small New York town. His family would vacation in their little cabin at Cuba Lake. I’ve looked it up, the old days. You can do that now. You can see what Coney Island looked like in the early twenties, what Cuba Lake was like for vacationing families back then. The pictures are grainy, black and white or slightly sepia, of folks having a grand old time at (and in) the water. (Can you hear the piano soundtrack in the background?)

 

When I was little I loved to swim. My dad would take us to the pool, or we’d vacation at some beach or lake and splash around for hours. Then I grew up and became incredibly cool. I was so cool I even had an apartment just a short walk from the beach in San Diego. I’d sit in the bathtub smoking a joint and then put on my crocheted bikini top with a long skirt (a cast-off square dance bit of tattered flounce from the Am-Vets thrift store). My buddy and I would get up the morning, have an avocado for breakfast and ride our bikes from Ocean Beach all the way to La Jolla sometimes. We ruled. We were so much cooler than my parents ever could have been. Or so we thought. I had no fear then. I could let the waves pound me into the sand and come up ready for more. I could let the sun bake my skin brown and then roll over to go grab a beer or a fresh falafel on the boardwalk. And naturally we had our soundtrack. The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Stones, and Joni of course. But now I listen to music they might have heard and I wonder what things felt like when they were young and incredibly cool.

 

One night my parents traveled from their inland home and were visiting me in my pink flamingo apartment with hydrangea bushes out front. I took them walking down to the cliffs after dinner. Looking out at the foam my father said, “I miss the ocean like a lover.” Holy crap, I thought. That has got to be the corniest thing I’ve ever heard, even from him. He usually didn’t take himself very seriously, but he did have a romantic side about certain things. Silly me, it wasn’t corny at all. I have a few pictures of my parents taken in Hawaii where they went on a cruise when my dad retired. She’s standing on the sand with pukka shells on and her curly hair cut short, he’s standing in the surf drinking something out of a coconut shell. But they were both so happy. They’d met in the Navy. When he was freezing in Kodiak she sent him photos of herself posing, squinting into the sun. She’s wearing the grass skirt he’d brought her from the south Pacific to warm the chill.

 

I had a dream about my parents once. They had both been gone a long time already. In the dream I was walking on the beach, probably back in San Diego, where the sand is soft and the water blue and gorgeous. She was standing on the sand waiting for him. She said she was getting tired of waiting. I looked out at the water and saw a tall man diving under wave after wave. Wow, I remember thinking, but couldn’t quite be sure it was my dad, couldn’t tell if he was drowning or just having a blast getting tossed around. But then I looked again and recognized his long legs and hairy chest, the full length of him stretched out and happily floating in the blue green. He looked back squinting into the sun He made a goofy face, then laid back in the surf and spit a long shot of water straight up. I had to laugh. I woke up so glad to know they’re having a good time. I should have known they would be. Cue soundtrack, the strings come up, the piano, and the horns, it’s the late 1950’s and Old Blue Eyes is singing, “Somewhere beyond the sea, somewhere waiting for me, my lover stands on golden sand…” Funny thing, that song was originally written in French. The title was simply, “La Mer.”

©Elizabeth Levett, 2019


Elizabeth Levett Fortier teaches little kids in San Francisco. She also writes and sings in the acoustic trio, Dreamchair Music with her husband David. More about Elizabeth can be found at elizabethlevett.home.blog or dreamchairmusic.com.

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