Pandemic Musings: Tumbling in the Womb of Mother Ocean

By Elaine DeLott Baker,          

The street sign at the corner of our street on the day of my birth, August 2nd, 1942, read “Ocean Avenue.” Ocean Avenue was a short street, about ten houses, some single family, some multi-apartment homes.  The upstairs apartment where we lived was one of a four apartment complex, three houses down from “The Crest”, the street that separated dry land from the Atlantic Ocean. The formal name of the street was “Shore Drive”, but to the residents of the town it was “The Crest.”

The town of Winthrop was approximately one square mile of land, cradled on three sides by the Atlantic Ocean. The Belle Isle Bridge, probably an eighth of a mile of concrete road, connected the town of about 25,000 to East Boston, a low-income enclave, first stop for Italian immigrants. Winthrop was officially labeled a “bedroom community”, not to be mistaken for a suburb.  It was one step up from the tenements where many of our first-generation parents spent their childhood.  Today, much of the low-income housing that populated the streets adjacent to the ocean has been replaced by condos, but in 1942, streets with names like Ocean Avenue, Trident Avenue, Wave Way Avenue, Neptune Avenue and Coral Avenue were primarily dominated by the working poor.

In the wake of Pearl Harbor, when the country’s young men were responding to draft notices, my father, who had worked previously as a plumber’s apprentice, was assigned to the Boston Naval Yard as a pipe fitter, a designation that ended the family’s five-year sojourn in central Georgia, returning them to the Boston area where my father was born.  In August of 1942, the newly relocated family – mother, father, two sisters, and paternal grandmother- welcomed me into the family home at 39 Ocean Avenue, Winthrop, Massachusetts.

The ocean was a powerful presence in my young life.  From July 4th to Labor Day, life centered around the beach. In mid-morning, mother would pack peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in brown bags, fill the thermos with water and load up with towels, suntan lotion and a “beach blanket” to wrap around her children’s shivering bodies as they came running out of the icy water.  With beach paraphernalia in hand, she would pick up her plastic-weave beach chair and begin the short walk to the beach, closely followed by her three young girls, pails and shovels in hand. Once there, mother would place her beach chair in the circle of chairs where other mothers sat, laughing and chattering, running their toes in the sand as the sun made its curve in the sky.  Family dogs ran free on the beach, every once and while spraying us with sand as they chased each other back and forth, in and out of the water. On afternoons when a Red Sox game was being played in Fenway Park, the chatter would subside as the voice of the announcer took center stage, broadcast from a small transistor radio in the center of the circle.

We children inhabited a parallel world: the world of water and sand, tide coming in, tide going out.  Low tide brought sand crabs, bubbling out of the rippled mud, uncovered by the water’s retreat. In the stillness of low tide I would walk along the quiet shore, head down, my eyes scouring the small rocks and mud for hidden treasures:  pieces of glass, remnants of blue and brown beer bottles tossed into the ocean by careless youth, smoothed and shaped by surf and sand, the sandpaper of the sea, until they resembled precious jewels.  We called them “glassies.” Seeing their gleam, I would bend down to retrieve them from the mud and lovingly placed them in my brightly painted beach pail, the first leg of their journey into a tall glass jar that awaited them on the window sill of our back porch.

When the tide had turned, we children would stake a position several yards from the ocean and furiously begin building our sandcastles, protecting them with walls and moats and bolstering them with hot, dry sand that we carried in our pails from the upper beach, all the time keeping an eye on the incoming tide, gaining strength with each successive wave until the ocean finally breached our carefully constructed walls of sand and mud, flooding our defenses, leveling our lovingly constructed sandcastles, millions of grains of sand quivering in the wet onslaught of the relentless waves, and in the end, bowing to the call of mother ocean reclaiming her children.

High tide brought increasingly powerful waves, crashing, successive waves tumbling one after the other, lifting our bodies, carrying us to the shore.  High tide was the epiphany, an exultation, a moment of awe in deference to the power of the tides, showcasing the magical synergy of the moon, ocean and earth. At high tide the ocean paused, its movement to the shore halted, its retreat back to the high seas on hold for minutes upon minutes, “slack tide”, the fullness of its power held at bay as we bobbled gently on the crest of the swollen sea.  And then, slowly, the ocean sighed and yielded once again to the pull of the moon.

My nickname as a child was “fish.”  The ocean that surrounded Winthrop was bitterly cold. I loved the water, where I swam and played until my lips were blue. A common cry from mothers, standing at the edge of the water, was “Get out of the water, your lips are blue,” and blue they were. We would obey reluctantly, running out of the water, our teeth chattering, the calves of our legs pink from the cold, dashing at breakneck speed to the circle of beach chairs and the comfort of the beach towels that our mothers wrapped around our shaking bodies.

Lifeguards didn’t patrol our beaches; it was the job of parents to keep their children safe. One day a sign-up note for swimming lessons appeared, offered by a certified, Red Cross lifeguard. A tall man with a Red Cross badge sewed into the hem of his bathing suit led a small group of us into the shallow water for our first lesson.  When we were knee deep, he instructed us to bend down, place our heads under the water and open up our eyes. The salty water smarted my eyes, but moments later, the undersea opened up around me – the rippled ocean floor, sand crabs running across the grey bottom, strands of purple/grey seaweed with curled edges dipping and waving in the current.  Eyes wide open, I found myself staring into a living world filled with mystery and wonder.

When we entered seventh grade, beach life changed.  I began each summer day by peering up into what I hoped would be a sunny, cloudless sky. If my wish had been granted, I would head toward the Pearl Avenue beach to join my group of friends. Instead of days playing in sand and water, our days were a mix of sunbathing and playing Whist, a simplified form of bridge.  We girls sat on blankets in the sand in groups of four, legs folded by our side, carefully rotating our positions every hour or so to ensure that our bodies would be evenly tanned.  There were groups of boys, as well, scattered among the groups of girls, more boisterous, throwing balls back and forth, running and splashing in the water.  We watched bemused, feigning disinterest, too timid to join in.  From time to time, in between card games, we would spread out our towels on the cement blocks that were built to stop the high tides of the winter storms, lying first on our backs and then on our stomachs, in pursuit of the perfect tan.

I swam often in those days, mostly by myself, back and forth, swimming parallel to the shore in a smooth sidestroke, at peace with the world, moving slowly, safely, in the arms of mother ocean. At times, I would climb up on one of the series of huge boulders that formed the jetty’s – lodged perpendicular to the shore by cranes in decades past, – the town fathers’ attempt to slow the tempest tides.   Often, in my haste, I would scrape my legs on the sharp, white, cone- shaped barnacles, small dots of blood dotting my calves as I jumped from rock to rock until finally reaching the point where the rocks appeared to slide into the ocean before disappearing beneath it.  There I would sit, watching the ocean’s gentle currents slapping softly against the sides of the descending boulders. I spent every possible day at the beach, from July till Labor Day, when our teachers would reclaim our days and our bathing suits would be laid to rest in the bottom drawers of our dressers.

It was the summer of my eighth grade when I lowered my foot into a lake for the first time. The lake seemed dead to me, placid, without spirit.  Swimming lessons were held in a pool, another new experience. I didn’t like the taste or the smell of the chlorine.  I longed for the smell of low tide. What’s more, I was unnerved by the creeping suspicion that my fellow campers would be peeing in the pool.  We all peed in the ocean, it was an automatic biological reflex, but this was different. The ocean was vast and forgiving, while the lake was dark and still, deep and opaque, confined, tamed.  Despite my discomfort in the pool, I became a skilled swimmer, mastering the cross-chest carry designed to save the life of a struggling swimmer.

Winthrop’s location, a shoot of land, jutting out into the Atlantic, made the town an easy target for the ferocious hurricanes of the North Atlantic. In the boxes of memorabilia from my childhood that now rest in a 10×15 storage unit, there’s a cover photo from Life Magazine, taken during Hurricane Carol: a fifty- foot spray shoots up into the air, the aftermath of a powerful wave breaking against the cement walls of the crest, built to protect the houses that lined the streets below.

Hurricanes were a disaster for adults; for us kids, hurricanes were a magic window into the mysteries of the sea. vWhen the ferocious winds had sped far from our little town, we would head to the crest, scavengers hunting the captured cargo of the turbulent sea: shells, shells, and shells, each one different from the next; the bleached and gnarled limbs of trees, and on occasion, a barnacle-covered bottle hidden among the washed-up jellyfish, the starfish and the beached sand sharks.

The catastrophic winds of Hurricane Carol upended the huge elm tree that stood firmly rooted in the grass behind our back yard, hurling its trunk toward the side of the house until it finally crashed and lodged against the rear wall of the third floor. There it stopped, shattering the windows of our back porch, its limbs protruding into the kitchen of the River Road house where we now lived. The sound of the felled tree, groaning and crashing into the house was terrifying; the aftermath was magical. The next morning, we ventured into the back yard. What we found there was a fairyland.  The trunk of the huge elm, lodged against the house at a 45-degree angle, had created a jungle of twisted limbs and branches laced between the wall of the house and the grass below.  We played there each day, Tarzan’s children, swinging from limbs, climbing and sheltering among the wreckage of mother earth’s rage until the city workers came with their power tools and trucks to remove what was in their eyes, debris; in our eyes, our private jungle.

In the summer of our senior year, Sheryl, Dorothy, myself and a few others went to visit another of our classmates whose back yard looked out over the narrow channel of water separating Winthrop from Logan Airport.  One of us, I can’t remember who, suggested we swim across the to the airport runway.  Off we went, oblivious to the possibility of a “rip tide”, the phenomena created when a narrowing path of water flows between two bodies of land.  Midway across, I felt a powerful channel of water pulling me off course, away from either shore, toward the open ocean.  It was an unfamiliar sensation, so different from the steady pull of the ocean tides.  Sheryl was struggling.  She called out to me, saying she didn’t think she would be able to make it across. I swam to her and placed her in the cross- chest carry that I had learned at camp, turning and swimming, one side stroke at a time, back to the safety of Winthrop’s shore.  

I returned to Winthrop beach several times over the years. There’s an 8mm film of me and our dog, Festus, playing in the surf, taken by my husband before our children were born. There are other pictures of me and our young children playing in the sandy beach during visits to my parents, but I was no longer a child. My connection to the ocean had changed.  In the midst of a violent storm off the coast of Cape Cod in 1972, when my husband was crewing for a Portuguese scallop boat, I stared out into the sea once again, this time, not as a child reveling in the power of the ocean, but this time as a fisherman’s wife praying for the safe return of her husband.

Decades later, I was in the big island of Hawaii, working as a consultant to the Hawaii Community College System.  My days were spent with my colleagues; my husband’s days were spent exploring and scouting places for us to visit when my work ended.  On one of those days, driving along the ocean road, we passed a small cove.  A few cars were parked in a narrow, sandy parking lot in what was clearly a local beach. It was a windy day, marked by a quivering red flag tethered to a long pole that stood in the parking lot, a warning to all.  The surf was high. Teenage boys coasted on the crest of its waves, perched atop surfboards, wind at their backs, propelling them toward the shore. I felt the ocean calling.  I asked my husband to stop.

Shedding my outer garments, bathing suit underneath, I jumped out of the car and ran to where the waves were crashing onto the beach – foam rising from impact, waves colliding with the hard sand of the shore before being pulled back toward the sea, each wave colliding and rolling under the next wave; crashing, foam rising, rolling back only to be overtaken by the next wave; crashing, foam rising, rolling back, colliding with the oncoming force of the next wave, after wave, after wave. I could feel the approach of high tide, the power of the surf, the increasing strength of the waves: crashing, foaming, rolling back, colliding, each successive wave thrusting forward before being mercilessly pulled back.

I dived into an oncoming wave and emerged in lighthearted laughter.  Looking up toward the horizon, I saw a huge, swollen wave rolling straight toward me. I turned around excitedly to face the beach as I had done so many times as a child, anticipating the oncoming wave, a loud roar signaling its approach. I jumped up, inviting the wave to lift me on its back.  Its power thrust me forward as it peaked and rolled, then raced ahead, leaving me behind in its rush toward dry land.  It was pure joy for me; but not for my husband, Chip, who was standing on the beach with a look of terror on his face. 

I stood up after the wave had passed over me, exuberant, waving to Chip to signal that I was okay, but what Chip was seeing – what I hadn’t noticed as I rode on the crest of the first wave – was a second, even larger wave, moving fast behind the first, once again, in a direct line to overtake me.  I stood with my back toward the wave, unaware, waist deep in the ocean, smiling and waving as the unchained energy of the ocean struck me from behind, knocking me over, capturing me, sweeping me up into its belly, propelling me forward in its rush to the shore. 

Time slowed down, the visceral memories of my childhood folding and merging in slow motion, into the present, one moment at a time. No fear. Instinctively, my body went limp as I rolled, over and over inside the giant wave, eyes wide open, body relaxed, the sound of the surf roaring in my ears, the churning sand and bits of seaweed tumbling around me as I rolled and turned, over and over, how many times I cannot say, safely in the womb of Mother Ocean until at last, she deposited me unceremoniously, once more, onto the shore – this time, into the arms of my husband.

Elaine was a member of the Winthrop High School Class of 1960. She presently lives in Colorado and was looking forward to the class’ 60th reunion.

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