Last night the winds snatched and scraped at the windows, tossing, rearranging, and scrubbing my thoughts clean of preoccupations I can’t seem to shake in the city. When I awoke, the sun was shining.
I bent all the way down to smell beach roses with dark pink blooms near my path. A few buds were yet to pop open and some of the buds looked as though they never would.
Chatham, my mother, summer, my father coming out on weekends, wet bathing suits hanging on a line.
The first house was a simple, gray one with shingles that you find on the Cape, with beach roses spilling over a fence. The house we rented the following year was even simpler, with rough wood walls and splinters everywhere; but there was a playground, and my grandmother came to be with us. My grandmother, who moved to a new country past the age of 70, who didn’t speak English, and who had to leave one buried son and one living son behind.
My grandmother sat in a chair and listened to music while my mother and I went down the path to the small crescent of sand. The beach roses lined the path everywhere we walked. The ice cream truck would arrive, and I would always get a drumstick cone and my mother always something chocolate which she ate with gusto as the ice cream dripped onto our suits as we laughed at the mess.
These are the things I throw into the water when I fish for the things I have forgotten. I wonder if, when you wrest the hook from the mouth of a caught fish, you pull up memories that live below what floats on the surface.
Now, I pull up the sharp shards of shells mixed with the sweet smells of the shop that sold fudge in the town. I pull out the library book with the torn pages that the librarian let me keep and I remember how much the book scared me with its tale of children who wandered into a wood and were imprisoned by a cloaked figure and a cloud of smoke.
Pulling on the line I bring up the way my grandmother looked at me and how I looked at her and how we were both known and unknowable to one another and how her frailty was unmistakable, even to a child.
I remember some of what it felt like to be four years old, but most of that is submerged as far down as the rocks below waves and requires a stronger line, a stronger stomach perhaps, going below the surface of the water to a place where I am not sure I can surface.
Even if you throw the fish back into the water, you have seen what terror looks like and feels like in your hands and it is something that will cling to you, if you let it, and you should hold on lest you risk forgetting altogether the way cruelty and kindness looked to a child, the child that you once were, that I once was.
Anita Kestin, M.D., M.P.H., is a medical doctor with a varied career. She has primarily worked in traditional academic settings but for the past 10 years she has worked as the medical director of a nursing facility, as a hospice physician, in the locked ward of a psychiatric facility, and in public health settings. She is also the daughter of Holocaust survivors; wife of an environmental lawyer; mother of wonderful grown children; grandmother; and a progressive activist. She calmed her nerves during the pandemic by writing and submitting her first piece when she was in her 60s.