My husband, the dogs, and I spent last week at his family’s beach cabin. It’s a modest structure with a flat roof and a lot of history—his family’s history; I married in relatively recently.
The cabin sits on top of a cliff above a long narrow beach. The beach’s upper terrace is a strip of rounded boulders. They groan and rattle when the waves grind them against one another. Depending on the season and the tides, a sandy beach may stretch from the base of the rocks to the water line.
The cabin is furnished with cast-offs and frugal acquisitions from the past seven decades. There are relics everywhere: mismatched spoons, maps on the walls with yellowed scotch tape along the edges, old magazines and older books, crayon drawings by kids now grown, and flotsam that came up from the beach and never left. But all of the furnishings’ charms are topped by the fridge, a squat appliance with a topknot of cooling parts. It hunkers on sturdy legs above the linoleum floor. Lettuce freezes near the freezer, ice cream is soft, and egg cartons fall apart on the bottom where water pools, but it has a satisfying mechanical door latch, and it makes me smile just to get near it.
The cabin was built by my husband’s relatives many tens of feet back from the cliff edge. But the edge has edged closer. The deck is a replacement for one that was lost years ago, and this second deck has been pulled back toward the cabin at least once. A third deck has already joined the second one. We are ready for when nature takes the second deck away.
Sometimes the deck draws me onto it, and there I stay. The expanse in front of me acts on me rather than the reverse. Waves lap or curl or crash on the shore in new patterns and rhythms with every surge. The sky’s light glimmers off the ocean in an array of golden crescents. The horizon may be a fine line, drawing me beyond where I can see, or it may be lost in a haze of sea and sky, causing me to think more dampened thoughts. Down below, I may witness a display of birds—the substantial ones like cormorants, pelicans, and murres; or the gulls and plovers that appear in loose assemblages and then disappear a few white- or sand-colored birds at a time. There is a large named rock a thousand feet offshore. In almost every light I make out silhouettes of resting birds there. The bald eagles settle on the spindly branches of the spruce overhead. After a time they fly off.
I escape from the deck, too. At one point there were pools in the sand left behind when the tide receded. I played in them, like a kid. At another point I was alone, my husband on a rare errand out. He was buying provisions for our tenth-anniversary dinner. I walked along the beach, and on the way back I searched in the boulder fields for small matched rocks—flat enough for my new idea, and thin enough, and with angles so I could fit them together, just so. I carried them up the bank and arranged them on a sea-battered board, and then inked a letter on each one, to spell out Happy Tenth Anniversary. The ink was blackberry juice, and the pen was a quill. And at another point, I wetted my fingertips and gave the boulders eyes–liberating their smiles.
Waves washed up, interacted, erased, pulled away. Tides came and went. The Earth rolled backward and so the sun set. The moon rose. It got larger every night. Tides went and came. And it was time to clean. Like family members for decades before, we unplugged the fridge, thawed it, wiped down its enamel lining. We shook the sand off blankets where the dogs had settled, carried ashes away from the woodstove, and brought firewood back into the woodbox. We dabbed at cobwebs, we swept and mopped.
And then I saw, in the corner, my commemoration still. I carried the sea-battered board with its contents to the deck, and this time, I acted. I warmed up my arm with the first rock, and then the next and next, throwing each one in succession a little farther. I flung them to the cliff edge, to the boulders, and then to the sandy beach below. On my final throws, they hit the sand and rolled into the surf. Once the water clutched them, my trace was as gone as an old wave. No relics remained.
But relics aren’t needed to lay claim to history. Relics may show possession or trespass, but possession and trespass are temporary. Eventually, it is the expanse that lays claim to everything. And so, I figured, I belonged at the family beach cabin as much as anyone.