by Jill Schroder
Once I was asked to talk about a precious memory I had. It took me no time to choose among them.
When I was a little girl, about two or three, my daddy used to take me in his arms and carry me out past the breakers. It was thrilling. I felt completely held and safe, but it was clear that it was a big adventure. This happened on the sandy barrier reef called Fire Island, which protects Long Island and, to some degree New York City, from the open Atlantic Ocean.
The community where my family had a summer home is called Point O’ Woods , and it is the site for many important memories. My parents met each other there, and both their families went there for decades every summer. And even when my mom and dad moved the family far away from New Jersey out to Oklahoma, my heart longed for the smell of salt air, the sandy beaches, the sound, sight, and feel of the rolling waves, the dunes, the stunning sunsets, the star fish, the beachcombing and lucky shells of my childhood.
Another memory is standing on the edge of the beach, watching the waves, feeling the water ebb and flow around my feet as the waves rolled in and out, and having my feet sink deeper and deeper into the sand with each wave. My idea of heaven!
Learning to get out past the breakers by myself (and safely in again!) was one of the key signs of being a real swimmer and it was a major accomplishment. You have to be able to read the waves, know when to wait, when to dash, how to handle being boiled and not to panic, if by chance you misjudge and get caught by a crashing wave. We were always taught never to turn your back on the ocean, to have deep respect for its power and changeability. So for me, getting out past the breakers evoked an exciting blend of fear and courage.
I still love to stand on the edge of the ocean feeling the waves, and on some days make the dash out past the breakers. I will be going there with my grandchildren this summer, and we will do this together.
My grandmother, fondly known as Granny, had a summer home right on the ocean. In front of her house was quite a good stretch, maybe 30-40 feet, of sand before the dunes started. Spring storms and fall hurricanes have battered the coastline for millennia, and the dunes protect the Fire Island communities from the ocean when it rages. During my whole childhood the dunes protected the entire row of ocean-front houses, including my Granny’s, from destructive wave action.
We children were all admonished never to walk on the dunes, because each footstep breaks them down, if ever so slightly. In the early years there was a boardwalk structure built safely over the top of the dunes, not touching them, of course! There were stiles at intervals along the boardwalk where you walked over the dunes to get to the beach.
And what a beach it was! Fine, white sand. I love feeling the sand between my toes. Sometimes it was so hot you had to run fast to where the sand was damp from the waves, or quickly put down your beach towel or your feet would really burn. The beach was beautiful, and it was also extensive. The beach in front of the dunes, behind which were 40 feet of sand before the row of houses, was sometimes hundreds of feet wide.
No longer. In 2014 the whole row of ocean-front houses have washed away. First a few went, including my Granny’s, in a freak spring storm in 1962, then some more, and finally the few remaining were moved back to a safer location. Over the years the dunes have all but washed away numerous times, and have been rebuilt at great cost and effort to the communities. Today the dunes have no boardwalk on them, and there is hardly any space behind the dunes in front of the cottages. It’s all very compressed.
The width of the beach has always varied. You never knew exactly what you would find when you went out to see the beach after a storm. This is a natural feature of barrier islands. There are many factors affecting the flow of sand on such islands, including tide action, wave energy, and man-made controls. There are also many views about how to handle these and what to do. That’s another topic.
In terms of my memory, and my experience of nature then and now, my amazing beach once was vast, expansive, generous. And now it is skimpy, scarce, rarely more than 75 feet wide, and sometimes even less.
Every time I walk out on my precious beach, I sense the power of the natural world, the vagaries of winds and tides, the fragility of the barrier island system, and I am grateful that my grandchildren at least still have a beach to play on and enjoy with their cousins, and extended family. One day it might be gone altogether.