I feel their smiles press upon us as we pass, their sunglassed faces turning down to see my son lounge in his stroller, dangling his feet over the front bar as he babbles to the waves, a morning song to greet the dawn. We are all beach-roaming as the sun sneaks up, some strolling at a snail’s pace, others leaping by like nimble deer.
But everybody slows to smile at him.
I try to read their faces in the fleeting instant as we pass, white-haired women gripping their husband’s arms for steady footing in the sand, wrinkled men with the deep tans of seasoned snowbirds. They see my baby first – I am only his plodding handler at the helm – and he squints into the sun with sparkling grin for everyone that passes: bikers, joggers, walkers, wanderers.
I wonder what they see when they smile at him. Distant memories of their own once-mop-topped toddlers? Heartpangs for far-off grandbabies? A long-gone longing for children they never had? Amused annoyance at the awkward stroller that blocks their usual morning stroll?
I yawn as I shove the wheels through a stubborn stretch of sand, dreaming of the cup of tea left on the counter, still warm, still untouched as I whisked him out the door when morning sky began to lighten, to let the others sleep, the ones who did not stir before dawn like the youngest. Still, an early walk does good, awakens body with the mind and soul. Even if, like most of my mothering days, it was not the plan. Not what I expected.
I stop and stoop for shells as we comb the beach, the shiny blues and purples, pinks and greys that line the tide’s edge. Sometimes I’m so absorbed with staring at the sand below my feet, not wanting to miss a perfect one, that I nearly steer us into oncoming traffic. Other times I stare so far off to the horizon that I nearly wander us into the waves. Every time I find my way back by meeting the smiles of the elders we pass. The wise ones who walk with us.
I wonder what I will think and see when it’s my turn to walk the morning beach with wrinkled skin and whitened hair. Will I smile with fond remembrance at the parents that pass, offer a wry glance of sympathy or solidarity with their tired eyes? Or will I secretly delight that the dirty, needy, achy, sleepy days of early family life are gone, replaced by so many changing seasons that I barely remember back to the predawn cries, the whiny teething, the endless diapers?
I watch the women more closely, try to wonder myself into their eyes. Both, I think. I will be both. The nostalgic and the never-again. The wistful and the thankful.
Suddenly I find we’re near the point where we began. I stop, surprised, exclaim to the dark head of damp ringlets in the stroller seat below: Can you believe we’re already back? I thought we walked much so farther.
Still in disbelief, I turn back from where we came, scanning the line of trees dotting the beach to see how far we’d gone.
What did I miss when I was absorbed with everything flashing under my feet? Or when I lost myself in the distant horizon? What did I miss in the passing of the present?
It always seems shorter on the way back, doesn’t it?