Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it.
As we sing,
the day turns,
the trees move.

- Wendell Berry

The panic came in about ten seconds. Because thatís what panic does. I could hear a buzz start in my ears as my jellyfish legs moved up the crowded beach, my eyes taking in every wet head in the water. Mingled with the rushing in my brain and hanging desperately on my lips were the words "SamÖSamÖSamÖ" With each anxious search into the hungry waves I gave a glance back to Isabel sitting on her bottom, building in the sand behind me. "Donít move, Isabel," I said over and over. I felt tears gather in my eyes. The seconds ticked by. I had roaring, crushing thoughts of loss. If heís gone under, there will be no finding him. None.

Sam had been in the water right in front of me, joyfully entangled with the waves and his new boogie board for the past hour. I asked him to fight the powerful Gulf of Mexico drift by getting out of the water and walking back south a few yards every time he finished a ride. It was an exhausting exercise for his floppy, six-year-old body and ego, but he did it every time. I kept a vigilant eye on him, and yet, somehow he disappeared. People were staring at me now, I suppose because I was screaming for him at this point, and Isabel began to head for the waves herself. I saw a man stand up to follow, glancing at me, not sure if I had seen her.

These were formidable waves. A strong wind had been blowing in from the Gulf all week, uprooting beach umbrellas and lifting hats, exposing cautious gringos to the sunís rays. The wind also lifted some giant waves that caused riptides in front of our hotel. On the first day of our vacation, an Indian man walked up to us and told us not to drift too far north to the spot where there were no swimmers. "It is a terribly strong place that will probably pull your bodies under not ever to be found again." The flags on the beach waved yellow "caution" everyday after that and I was beginning to turn yellow myself, becoming a flag, waving in front of my children "beware!" For six exhausting days I had been trying to play lightheartedly in the maw of this ocean.

I was swinging Isabel up into my arms, feeling her diaper squish with gallons of ocean water, when I heard the joyous, life-giving words, "Mom!" I turned to see my lean, sun drenched, freckle-faced, beautiful, first-born marching toward us.

I estimate all of this happened in about two minutes. Do you know how long two minutes is? Sit and count to one hundred twenty. Itís fucking long when you think your son has been sucked away forever. Actually it is forever because time stops. I donít exactly know how we missed each other, but while I was helping Isabel place a stick or a shell or an old piece of gum on her castle, Sam got out from the water, didnít see us and started walking south, searching. I naturally thought he had drifted north with the current and so thatís where I was looking. You know, up to the place where bodies get pulled under, never to be found again.

When I was Isabelís age, I got lost at Disneyland. For twenty minutes. Thatís one thousand, two hundred seconds. I still need to commiserate with my mom on this one. Sit and hug and cry and say, "Good God, girl". As the story goes, my dad said that I wasn't lost, they were lost. I never really understood that until now.

Most everyone stopped staring at us after a few minutes and except for one old Mexican woman with a grim look on her face, I think everyone believed I could handle it from here on out. It was probably more that they were too exhausted to worry anymore about the crazy woman who would bring two small children to this ill-tempered beach alone. I envisioned myself turning to everyone around me and in my very calmest voice saying into a megaphone, "Look, Iím separated from their dad, who wouldnít have helped me much even if he were here and our home has been sold out from under us and weíre drifting in and out of any house that will shelter us and feed us for a few weeks. And, well, I just wanted to give them a taste of something normal, plus a little surf. Maybe not this much, but nobodyís perfect."

At any other time a dirty martini with three olives from the Holiday Innís Cantina would have tasted like the dregs of an olive jar: little bits of gooey pimientos adrift in cloudy salt water. But on each of these nerve-stretched evenings, with my kids safely tucked into a crackly Naugahyde booth right in front of me, it was lifeís elixir. On this night, our last one, deep draws of air and liquid made me stalwart enough to steer the kids around the pool area ("But you just swam for eight hours!") and back to our room.

I felt the tiredness all the way to my calloused, unpedicured toes as I woke up the next morning. I glanced over the sheets into the day ahead that would contain our long drive home. I felt regret at promising one last swim before breakfasting and packing. I wavered out of bed, over to the miniature java maker and brewed a cup. The kids were up as the last drip landed and we were out the door feeling 2/3 enthused. I balanced my hot coffee along with tired, musty beach gear as we hit the boardwalk that ran down to that oh-too-familiar churlish water. I dropped everything at the end of the wooden planks and dug around in my droopy beach bag for the camera as I asked the kids to pose. I looked into the lens just as Sam draped his arm around his little sister and cast a long, buoyant smile.


For a moment, all the ugliness on the strip behind faded out: the plastic hotel curtains, the crush of kitschy beach shops, the sad, misplaced palm trees, the horizon of mammoth condominiums. The wind stopped blowing, the waves stood still. As we turned into the rising sun and tiptoed toward the sea, we realized that we were the first ones out for the morning. Our feet stamped perfectly formed prints in the warm sand and the waves lapped apologetically. A new perspective swelled above the drift of fatigue.

I left the Gulf of Mexico behind that day and drove my children home, headlong into the Gulf of Single Motherhood. I look back now from the safety of a year later, and cringe that I was fool enough to allow this thought: that the worst of this transition was now behind us, the anxiety of separation was finished, our new lives could commence (ah, what illusion I allow myself in my unending quest to be lost, once again, at Disneyland). For the next year I felt eyes on me like those on the beach. They watched critically, or so I believed, wondering how I could bring my children alone to such a tempestuous place. But Sam and Isabel were calm and unfettered as my storms raged, deeply engrossed in their childhood. Cars broke, money ran out, a divorce petition was filed and yet they, like snapshots, continued to flash before me: Sam stretching through his seventh year, toothless grins, green eyes catching the world, Isabel twirling, twirling, twirling in a sequined tutu, sun-cast sparkles dancing on my bedroom walls, lifting me up into my new life as sentinel of this reorganized, happy, thriving, small family.
Michelle Peterson moved to Austin from the Rocky Mountains in 1995. She is presently busy embracing her full days with Sam, Isabel and Chris. Itís taken work, but sheís made elbow room for a thriving resale clothing business (www.groovymoonclothing.com), a VW Westy, a mountain bike and nineteen brilliant French students. Her dream is to uproot herself and Austin (the whole damn town), move closer to her beloved mountains and cool her wandering, overheated self.