Twenty-six years later (I've posted this before but always nostalgic on this day):
By Deborah June Goemans
St James Beach on the Cape Peninsula in South Africa is a tiny tidal alcove beach hidden by the Cape Town/Simonstown train line and warmed by the Agulhas current. Protected from the notorious Cape winds by the grey-blue Kalk Bay Mountains, the beach presents a picturesque scene where tiny bathing box houses painted in bright primary colours stand in contrast to pillow white sands and shiny polished leather-like rocks. Two hundred years ago or so, a tidal pool was constructed in a natural breakpoint between the ocean and the beach. At low tide, the water softly licks the salt-crusted rocks behind the pool, but at high tide, the waves crash over the break wall, creating a natural water park. The entrance to the beach is a subway tunnel under the railway line, which forms a birth canal effect transporting one from the ordinary world into a magical playground.
On hot summer days, my mother would pile us four children into our beaten up Peugeot and take us to the beach. She drove slowly, a cigarette firmly wedged between scissor fingers, paying no attention to the long line of road rage behind us urging her to go faster; she had her precious cargo piled up high on laps and without safety belts and she was in no rush.
When we got to the beach, she would search for a parking place that didn’t require her to parallel park. If she couldn’t find one, she would simply stop the car in the middle of the road and ask a handy passer-by if he would mind parking the car for her. She wasn’t ashamed of being a terrible driver, indeed, she bragged about it and her exceptional ability to flirt her way into passing the driver’s test.
Once the car was parked, we walked blister-footed upon burning pavement towards the subway, sand already crunching between our toes. As we ran under the subway towards the beach, we shouted AAAAAAHHHHHHH—an exuberant cheer that echoed through the tunnel. We hit the beach running, throwing down towels and clothes and rushing to the shore while my mother—fully dressed with pantyhose and high heels, her black leather handbag firmly grasped under her arm—found a place to sit and watch us like a hawk to make sure we didn’t drown. She couldn’t swim, but like her parking, her lifesaving skills were top notch. If someone needed rescuing, she would farm out the job to the biggest, strongest swimmer around.
Even now, forty-five plus years later, this is my safe place; the place I go to in my meditative times when I am seeking peace of mind and childish joy. In my memories, there is my mother watching, red lips and fingernails, and smoke bellowing from her like Puff, the Magic Dragon. My older brother and sisters are standing on the dangerous back-wall while I dance upon the hot rocks next to the tidal pool, waiting for the gentle waves to break goose bumps upon me. And as much as my mother is watching me, I am watching her. We wave at each other every so often, just to make sure everything is fine.
My husband, Scott, a physiology professor, tells me there are electromagnetic radiation waves, elastic waves, seismic waves; slower waves that transmit heat, faster waves that transmit ultraviolet radiation … or something like that. I try to pay attention, for I did ask him the question, but there are really only two kinds of waves that interest me: those childhood waves in which I danced on St. James Beach, and more importantly, the wave goodbye.
In 1992 I left Cape Town on my mother’s sixty-seventh birthday to immigrate to the US with Jackie, my then two-year-old daughter. The flight was scheduled to leave at around seven that evening, and by two p.m. when my Aunty Audrey arrived to say goodbye, I had still not begun to pack. Even though we were allowed to take four suitcases, I only had three. My father dashed off to a thrift shop and came back proudly with an old-fashioned box-type case he’d bought for fifty cents. “A bargain,” he declared! So now we had four suitcases in which to pack the piles of crap that filled two large bedrooms. Still, we stared at the piles and did nothing. Even though none of us said it, putting those things into those cases was too final; it meant I was really leaving my home, my family, my mountain, my beach, my mother city and going to Syracuse, NY, eight thousand miles away; a place of snow and ice and fear and foreign. DressAfford online sale maternity evening party wears
My mother was no help at all with the packing. But she was brave and strong. She insisted I follow my heart; she said that moving to America to marry Jackie’s father, Scott, and form a family was the right thing for me to do. She said this many times and each time after saying it, she disappeared into the bathroom. She said she had a bit of a sore tummy.
I had one too. And a desperate fear of flying; the remains of an anxiety disorder that had tied me to my parents’ house for a year a few years previously. My Aunt Audrey saved the day. She shooed us all away and got to work. Two hours later, she came downstairs. “I packed it all,” she said with pride and then laughed and added, “except this …”—she held up a toothbrush.
“Well, that settles it then; they can’t leave without a toothbrush,” my mother said. We all laughed, but truthfully the laughter was a bit resentful; for Aunty Audrey’s kindness had taken away our last resort. My mother went back into the bathroom. “Maybe it’s something I ate,” Ma said when she returned, wiping her eyes with a tissue. We both knew it would be the opposite end she’d be wiping if she’d eaten something bad.
And so we loaded our four suitcases—the three good ones and the bargain—into the car. We kissed the house goodbye and drove to the airport. We stood in line stoically. Like hospital rooms, conversations at airports reduce down into the most banal and boring. “Do you have your passport?” “Tickets?” “Have you got your toothbrush?” “Ha ha, of course. In my hand-luggage.” Then the flight was called and it was time to go. In those days, non-passengers were allowed right up to the gate. Jackie and I kissed and hugged my family goodbye. As we said goodbye, Ma whispered to me, “Hide your fear of flying, you don’t want to pass it down to Jackie.” I nodded. Yes, that’s right. I will be brave. I will not show my fear. And I will not cry. I took Jackie’s hand, and together we walked towards the plane, climbed the steps, and never looked back.
Jackie and I arrived at JFK the next day after a long, terrifying flight. We collected our luggage—the three good suitcases were fine but the bargain had split open and had scattered our belongings Aunty Audrey had so carefully packed. A thoughtful baggage handler had thrown our stuff onto the conveyer belt along with the broken suitcase, and Jackie and I swooped it up—a book here, a bra there, some socks, a shoe or two. Then, still holding the spilled flotsam and jetsam from the wrecked luggage, we waited in the immigration lounge to be “processed” like Thanksgiving turkeys. The immigration officer took our photos and my fingerprints and gave us each a temporary green card. We still have Jackie’s; it’s a laminated card stamped with an official INS crest stating that the cute little two year old in the picture was “Eligible for Employment.”
I phoned my mother when we got to Scott’s apartment in Syracuse. “We made it,” I said. I heard pride and triumph in my voice, like the crash of a wave upon the rocks at high tide. I had faced the challenge and I had met it. My mother’s voice was soft, the ebbing tide. She didn’t want to blame, but I know she couldn’t help herself. “You didn’t wave,” she said. “We watched and waited for you to turn around and wave, and you didn’t.”
That was the first time she came close to telling me how difficult it had been for her to let us go. I didn’t know what to say. I should have told her I was sorry. I should have told her that my only thought was to get on that plane without breaking down into a pillar of salt tears, like Lot’s wife. Instead, I got defensive. “Well, tell Papa his fifty cents bargain suitcase wasn’t much of a bargain,” I said gruffly. “It broke and everything fell out.”
“Oh no,” she said. “Shame, he was so proud of that bargain; don’t tell him that.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t,” I said quickly.
“I shouldn’t have said anything about the wave,” she said.
“I should have waved,” I said.
Almost twenty years later, the tide turned again. After Jackie’s younger sister, Emma, went off to college, Jackie decided to move to Austin, TX, with her boyfriend, Randall. Now it was my turn to tell her that she had to live her own life; she had to follow her heart. It was my turn to look at the mess in her bedroom and wonder how it would fit into a few suitcases; and it was my turn to see the suitcases bulging strong—no more bargains in our family—and to disappear into the bathroom. “My tummy is a bit sore,” I told Jackie as I wiped my eyes. “I must have eaten something that disagreed with me.”
Scott helped Jackie load her suitcases into the back of Randall’s car. Then she kissed and hugged us and got into the front seat and closed the door firmly. As they pulled out the driveway, Scott and I stood together, the old folks waving goodbye. Jackie turned around as if to wave back, but instead she reached into the back of the car and grabbed a breakfast sandwich Randall had bought her. She smiled as she opened the sandwich. I saw her lips moving, “Thanks, I’m starving!” she said. She took a big bite and off they went.
High tide on her shore, low tide on mine. I may never understand the physiology of waves, but I do, finally, fully understand the emotion.