We moved to the small town of Long Beach, east of Michigan City, Indiana. Our house was on the sand dune side of Lake Shore Drive, but we had easy access to the beach thanks to the neighbors across the street. I started kindergarten there and would stay with the same group of classmates until the end of fifth grade. I am thankful to have lived in such an open place in such a time of childhood freedom. The number of kids in the neighborhood expanded with the summer residents arriving from Chicago, and we played in each other’s yards, rode our bikes, swam in the lake and generally ran wild until the whistle sounded, a different pitch or rhythm for each set of kids, that called us home for dinner or in from that last after dinner game of the evening. Dad would stand at the picture window in the kitchen every summer morning and look out over the lake. He knew our strengths for swimming, and would announce how far out my brother, sister and I were allowed to swim by counting the sandbars.
In the summers, the family would often sit on the front patio of our house to eat, talk, or just to watch the sunset. The patio was high above the street and the view opened out above the houses across the street and out to the expanse of the lake. The sun would sink slowly into the lake, casting a long reflection on the water, all the way from the horizon to the beach. My mother would refer to “Kate’s Golden Path” because I was so entranced by it. I knew that what she was seeing was beautiful, and I also knew that she could not understand what I was seeing. As the sun set, the colors in the light and the reflections on the water would swirl and change as the waves ebbed and flowed towards shore. The sun’s path wasn’t just golden, it was every color imaginable. Like northern lights in the water. I watched it until the lake became dark and the waters choppy from the evening breezes. How many times I wished I could explain it to her, but I knew her ears would not hear me. Dad heard me though, we sat out there together every night, and between the shifting colors of the water and sky, he taught me to recognize the make and model of the passing cars by the shape and size of their head and tail lights. I got to where I could do it in the dark. As the occasional car would drive by, we would take our attention away from naming the stars long enough for me to call out the car names.
Sometimes we’d all go sleep for a while and then Dad would wake us up for a midnight swim. He would have the bonfire going on the beach, and we would swim away the oppressive Midwestern heat and then go in and play Scrabble until the wee hours. One night he came to wake me so that I could see a comet in the sky; another time it was the Northern Lights. He took his time to share the magic with me.
When he saw me trying to figure out what happens to the light in the refrigerator when the door closes, he smiled and suggested that “maybe that’s where your fairies live, Katie, and they turn it out at night.” I immediately set about making a house for them on the bottom shelf, using some of my sister’s doll house furniture. I’d leave crushed crackers and bread pieces for them at night and they would be gone in the morning. Bless his heart, when I asked Dad if he thought the fairies liked what I was feeding them, there were M&M’s left for me the next morning.
I tried to~~no, there was no effort or “trying” as I allowed myself to bring this same love and excitement for a child’s wonderment to raising my son. The impishness that my dad allowed himself to share with me came forth and I loved to engage with Kyle on that very special, magical, level of inner child to inner child and substantiate the world as he saw and more importantly felt it.
I used the beach as my thoroughfare instead of the tar and gravel road that ran just above it. I liked to walk home from school along the beach in the early spring. With books and shoes in hand, I would let the water wash over my feet. The rhythm of the cold waves filled me with anticipation for the warm days ahead. The summer was filled with the shouts of playing children shrill against the crash of the waves. The hot sand that stuck to my tar-spotted feet was washed off in the cool water. Lake Michigan was clear and the water was clean in those days, and there were a variety of underwater games that kept me swimming from sand-bar to sand-bar. I would nap on the warm sand and return home when my appetite got the better of me. The summer evenings were spent sitting up on the patio watching the “golden path” glisten on the lake as the sun set.
The cold winds of autumn blew the sand in great gusts, stinging my face and burning my eyes. I would continue to spend a lot of time there, though. I’d bundle up against the cold and go for long walks along the deserted beach. With the majority of the population there for the summer only, the houses stood cold and silent like sentinels above the seawall with their window-eyes watching the shifting seasons reflected in the lake.
I was fearful of the beach during the winter. I loved the beauty of the crystalline ice waves that covered the lake, especially the way they glistened on a bright, sunny day. I admired the beauty from the seawall, afraid to go on to the ice. The shoreline was hard to find, and even the temptation of seeing others scale the mountains of ice was not enough to overcome my fear. Each year there was a story of someone who fell through the craters as they played where they shouldn’t have been. Some were saved from the icy water; some were not.
My favorite time on the beach was when the fog rolled in. The beach was then calm, private, secluded, and mine to wander along. In those early morning hours the waves came on shore in little ripples that touched the sand ever so gently. I took advantage of the calm water and looked for the little round, flat stones with holes in them that the Native Peoples had used for wampum. Often, I would see the ancient lakefront and the dunes in my mind: no houses, and quiet peaceful people fishing in the lake and living along its edge.