It’s a long drive, but I can make it all six hours, driving alone without the music on, just watching the land and the buildings and the sky change from suburban to interstate to rural to beach. The ground gets a little marshier, the trees a little smaller and knobbier; the sky gets a little wider. The Outer Banks of North Carolina are small islands connected by a series of long bridges, and as I speed over the first, I roll my windows down and drink in the warm, wet, salty air. It fills me up, seeps between all the cracks. I drive the rest of the way, about an hour from that first bridge, with the windows down, the only time I ever drive with my windows down, wind blowing the long strings of my hair in different directions.
Once I pass through Nags Head and turn right onto NC 12, I know I’m really there. As I drive through the tiny towns of Hatteras Island, I mentally tick off the names of each one, seeing if I can remember which one comes next. Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, all the way to Hatteras Village, the very tip that curves up slightly at the island’s end, like a high-arched foot. Between each town, with their weathered beach shops and restaurants, all owned by locals, the land on either side of the road narrows, so that all I can see on my left and my right are dunes feathered with sea-oats, and I picture what lies just beyond them: the churning, dark Atlantic Ocean to the east, and the glasslike Pamlico Sound to the west. I know it can’t be true because the car’s engine noise would prevent it, but I swear I can hear the relentless crashing of the waves on the shore, a sound that’s stayed in my head since the first time I heard it, like it stays inside the conch shell my niece found two summers ago. I come back to this same place every summer, see these same dunes, breathe in the same air, and hear the same eternal waves, crashing.
I want to stop the car on the side of the narrow road, climb over the dunes, and lie on my stomach on the sun-warmed sand, hug it to me, feel it under all of me, but I keep making my way down 12. My family usually spends a week each year in Hatteras Village, but earlier this summer, when we all would have been here at the beach, my mother and two of my three sisters went to Italy instead. Also this summer, my oldest nephew, who was still a wiggling, grinning baby with golden arched eyebrows in my mind, had turned eighteen, I had noticed my first wrinkles, and, although my husband and I thought we had all the time in the world, the phrase “running out of time for childbearing” had been uttered at my annual gynecological exam. This particular August, I was desperately aware of the passage of time, and I yearned for something that didn’t change, didn’t feel like it was slipping away. I missed the beach, and, not entirely incidentally, I missed my mother, so the day they left for Italy I planned this brief weekend for the two of us, a small getaway at a tiny motel on the beach in Buxton. I was still on summer break from my job as a high school teacher, and my mother wanted to scope out a new rental house for next summer, so, although the two of us were unlikely travel companions, the beach was ours for a few days. She was already waiting for me at the motel, so there was no time to stop and greet the sand.
As soon as I arrive, my mother hugs me, comments on the cleanliness of the room, shows me the peaches she bought at the roadside stand in Frisco, and we walk down to the shore.
“I got so excited when I got to Kitty Hawk and turned onto 12,” she smiles, as we wander along the sand, watching the foamy waves of low tide break on the shore and listening to the repetitive, clear calls of the seagulls. I ask my mother if the distance from the room to the ocean is okay with her, and she says yes. Mom’s in good health, but still, she’s 63. I watch a bird prick its long, needlelike beak into the sand, still wet from a receding wave, looking for clams or sand crabs. “Everyone at work asked me why I agreed to drive so far to come out here when there are other beaches much closer,” my mom is saying, “and I tell them that there’s just something about this place.”
Out of all of her four daughters, I am the most different from my mother. My side of the motel room we would share for the weekend would be painstakingly tidy; not a single item of clothing would be out of place even on vacation, while she would drape blouses and pants over the backs of chairs and leave her toiletries out on the bathroom counter. She said I was too uptight, worried too much, overreacted, spoiled happy times with anxiety. We’ve disagreed most bitterly over money: how much I would allow her to spend on my wedding, how much she is saving for her retirement, whether I would let her pay for lunch. I love my mother, but I’ve always felt that I have to be the parent, that my mother has to be “managed.” She’s told me that she is a “grown-ass woman” and I need to stop being so pushy, and I know she’s right. But I’m right about her, too. We had never taken a trip together, just the two of us, and I wondered whether there would be any tension this weekend over who would buy dinner or the size of the beach house we were renting the next year, most of which she planned to pay for.
She is right about this place, though. There is something about it that no one else, not even, I thought, my own sisters, really understood. It isn’t just that it is the quintessential beach town, void of big-box retailers, fancy resorts, and spring-breakers thirsting for nightclubs. It isn’t the families flying kites on the beaches on cloudy days or the fishing boats, lined up in rows on the sound side of the island, bumping each other’s sides as they bobbed in the water. This beach is just a part of me, and, despite every other way in which we are different, it is a part of my mother, too.
When my family goes to the beach, my sisters usually spend a few hours by the ocean in the mornings, but then they get hot and restless as the afternoon sets in, so they usually spend the rest of the day at the pool with their children or shopping for salt-water taffy and bathing suit cover-ups. Only my mom and I can sit in the sand all day, and that’s what we did on this weekend. I told her stories about my high school students, and she proudly told me about how she had helped two of her female coworkers find men. We talked about when I would finally get around to having children and why my husband will be different with kids than my father had been with us. We gossiped about each of my sisters and all of their children. Mostly, we talked about how much we loved this beach. We went out for a few meals, taking turns picking up the tab, and closed our eyes together to savor the delicate, sweet flavor of the scallops at Pop’s Raw Bar, or commenting on the wonderfully obscene size of the shiny glazed Apple Uglies as we waited for our coffee at the Orange Blossom Café.
One afternoon, my mother told me that she wanted to buy some fresh fudge for Nan in her office from one of the gift shops on the island, and as we perused the “I’d Rather Be at the Beach” wooden wall signs and black and white OBX bumper stickers, she said something funny—I don’t remember what— and I laughed loudly and put my arm around her and immediately thought: I have never put my arm around my mother. Indeed, I had intentionally hugged her hello and goodbye, smiled softly when we rehashed a pleasant memory together, but I had never spontaneously, laughingly, thoughtlessly thrown my arm around her shoulders. That afternoon, I let her buy me a tiny silver lighthouse pendant, an “early birthday gift,” she said, and meandered with her through the sweet-smelling gift shop like two girlfriends, arm in arm.
On the last morning of the trip, I went down to the beach while my mom showered and packed her things. It was very early; only a few fishermen were casting their lines in the surf. I walked a ways down the shore, to a stretch that had neither buildings nor people, only gulls and dunes for as far as I could see in the thin morning light. I squinted at the early sun reflecting on the waves, turned my palms forward, stretched my fingers wide, as if I could gather up the warm breeze that pressed lightly against me. Just as I had done several days earlier as I crossed the first bridge onto the island, I inhaled, drinking it in, trying to memorize this moment, so I could come back to it in November or January when I was buried under term papers and test scores, tuck it away for when I felt a million miles away from my mother, or even for someday in what I hope will be the distant future, when she is gone.
My favorite part of a wave is after the crash, when its foam is still sliding up the slick shore, white and fluffy, like the lace train of a wedding dress skimming over a polished wood floor. I watched this several times before closing my eyes to listen to the crash-sizzle of the foam as it receded. These waves, I knew, will eventually wash away the narrow barrier islands that make up the Outer Banks. Someday, probably after I am dead, this place won’t be here, and just then that fact wasn’t altogether sad; I thought, a thing’s value is increased by its brevity, after all. I felt the power and enormity of this ocean, the ceaselessness of the tides, the endlessness of this world, so much bigger than me and my mother and these islands and my life and everything I knew, and I was grateful to it for letting me and my mother have some of it, in this tiny moment, this blink of an eye. Then I sat on the sand and wept.
As I drove away, heading north on 12, I concentrated on each landmark as I passed back through—all the places I had visited with my mother on this trip and others before it. Mentally, I bade goodbye to each one, like the characters wishing goodnight to the moon in the children’s book. Goodbye Hatteras Lighthouse…Goodbye Avon Pier…Goodbye Inn at Rodanthe…Goodbye dunes…Goodbye bridges…I’ll be back next summer. I rolled my windows down again and breathed it in, and on the exhale, thank you…thank you…thank you…
Stacey Hohman McClain is a writer and teacher. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband, son, and dog, Frodo.