Setting your babies free is not easy like a day at the beach. When they’re little, splashing joyfully on the shoreline, not daring to go out where it is deep without your hand to hold, you think this tiny, soulful, simple sweetness feels as endless as the tides though sometimes just as tumultuous with their crashing, constant boundless needs. But time flows on like the ocean, and at some point, that child’s footprints in the sand are as long and deep as yours, and you know those steps will take them away someday. Probably soon.
So you must prepare. Both yourself and them. You must slather your babies in wise words and anecdotes to protect them along with the sunscreen and umbrellas. You must teach them to swim, to take deep breaths and long strokes toward their destinations. You must show them how to build, sandcastles and goals for their futures, knowing that when the tide comes in, they may have to start over. Yet surely something was learned in that first building that can be used in the second, and the next.
When my daughter was 15, she wanted to attend a summer ballet intensive. Though I’d offered my children countless brochures blanketed in beautiful photos of joy-filled children at overnight and day camps through the years, they always turned my suggestions down in favor of “Camp Mom.” They even had a slogan: How do you spell mom? F-U-N!
I was blessed with the time and couldn’t deny the little faces chanting those words.
And so our summers were spent beach-going, museum-visiting, community-exploring, pool-splashing, popsicle-eating, and cloud-watching. But then my oldest dreamed of venturing out.
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The audition went well and soon we were driving to San Francisco so she could dance with the Joffrey. I could see she was anxious as we showed up on schedule at the dorm.
“Welcome! You’re the first dancer to arrive!” declared the diminutive instructor seated behind the check-in table to my deer-in-the-headlights daughter. We brought her things to her room and got her settled in.
“Do you need to go right away mom?” she asked. “Could we maybe explore some?”
And so we found ourselves at Funston Beach, looking out at the clouds hanging over the ocean, heavy as my heart. Of course I knew this was an important step for my girl though I could see her eyes were water-leaden like those clouds. As we walked along the shore, footprints dissolving in the soft, caramel-colored sand, I tried to think of what to say that might give her the confidence she needed at that moment to break away.
I went with distraction.
We talked about how, as a child on East Coast beaches, I always came home with buckets of seashells: cockles, scallops, and scotch bonnets. Occasionally, I’d find a conch for blowing and sometimes a perfectly round sand dollar with its center star petals flecked with sand-like moon-dust. Those were the prime finds, the sand dollars—fragile and carrying their ocean scent to their place on my bedroom shelves. It is a shame, we agreed, that we rarely find shells on the West Coast beaches of her childhood, save for the abundant tiny coquina that rarely hold their delicately connected butterfly shape.
In a wistful moment, I glimpsed a flash of white in the sand at my feet. I squatted as the water rushed up to my ankles and pulled back a cover of sand, revealing a pristine sand dollar. How is that possible? In 15 years of wandering California beaches together, we’d never found a sand dollar, yet just as we spoke of them, one appeared. I took it as a sign.
“You’re right where you should be,” I told my daughter.
Moments later, we found a second sand dollar. And I, her mother, need to head away, just as I should, I understood. We walked for an hour and never saw another one.
I drove home alone with my sand dollar on the dashboard, knowing my baby had hers on the desk in the room where I left her, laughing with her roommate. I felt a sense of connection in the flow of life and the natural need for separation.
Several years later, my daughter chose a college in close proximity to another California beach. Her move-in time was early, so we got a hotel room not far from campus. As we drove along the coast the next morning, the SUV packed to the roof with boxes and bins, hangers and a hamper, she looked longingly at the ocean.
“We’ve got a little time,” I said, “Do you want to stop?”
She smiled and nodded.
We pulled over and strolled along the sand, hand-in-hand.
“I’m not ready to leave you,” she said.
“Oh, yes you are sweet girl, you’ve got this.”
The ocean shimmered in the early blues of San Diego daylight, puffy pink and yellow clouds promised a beautiful day.
“No way!” she exclaimed, bending down and handing me a perfectly intact gray-white sand dollar. “What are the chances?”
We walked a little further, awed by this serendipitous little gift, and sure enough, there was a second one. Unbroken. Exquisitely round, albeit fragile. We both knew it was another sign. Time to let go and trust in the preparation.