I first saw the phrase “Roll Tide” in January of 2023. It was spray painted on the roof of a building that had been demolished by the 8-to-12-foot storm surge of hurricane Ian. According to Google, the urban dictionary defines Roll Tide as a call to action, or a rally call. Indeed, it seems that recently I’ve been conscripted into battles where cherished facets of my world are being attacked by the brutal force of nature.
Eric and I had gone to Sanibel Island after the new year to begin rebuilding our little cottage that had been drowned by Ian. We decided to take a break from our work and drove out along San-Cap Road to see how the rest of the island fared after the hurricane. We inched along in silence, eyes fixed on the unfathomable destruction. Storm waves had ripped The Mad Hatter off its foundation, and its waterlogged remains were in a pile on the opposite side of the street. The Sunset Grill was nothing but an upended metal roof surrounded by piles of cinderblocks, beach sand, wood and twisted metal. On both sides of the road, the previously lush, glossy green foliage was now just a mess of shredded stalks, beheaded palms, tangled and matted vines. Most every plant had been burned and choked by the salt water and coated in a grey film of polluted, sulfur-smelling clay. Ian had dredged mud from the sea floor, mixed it with the foul irony of ‘civilization’, and left it as a reminder of that dark day on the sanctuary island, where nature revealed its sinister side.
As much as this destruction on Sanibel and Captiva saddened me, it does not compare to the monumental struggle of caring for my aging parents. That in turn is dwarfed by Mom’s daily battle to try to make sense of a world whose pace of living, values and sense of responsibility is out of sync with her own. A world that she sometimes has a tenuous grip on -- at the whim of a dark and sinister aspect of the mind.
Like hurricane Ian, this battle is a capsizing, heart-wrenching reality that arrived quickly, and changed everything. Just treading water right now seems nearly impossible. It’s as if we’re stranded in the middle of the North Atlantic, struggling, shivering, hypervigilant for the next rogue wave.
It's times like these that test the fabric of a family. On Sanibel, support within the island community has proven strong, as folks don the muck boots, dig out, and help each other rebuild their homes and heal their hearts. I wonder if this will be the case in my family. Who and how many among us will answer the Roll Tide when it comes to Mom? Not with words, not just when it’s convenient. Who will really sacrifice and go out of their way? Who will burden themselves for the sake of those who brought their very existence into being. That’s what family is all about, right? Not just to celebrate the good times, but more importantly to help make the bad times easier to bear.
In a perfect and just world, the weight of care would rest on many shoulders. As members of a family network, we would all contribute to our collective buoyancy. No one would be left flailing in the fray of the storm. From my desk here near Long Island Sound, I stare out at the sharp crests that glare back at me from the angry surface of the steel blue ocean. I remind myself of the quote by Ralph Waldo Emmerson: “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived, this is to have succeeded.” In my datebook, I set aside time for Mom -- doctor visits, shopping, cooking, and cleaning.
High tide. Low tide. Roll Tide.
This post is a reflective piece inspired by a Susan Sarandon quote and written by a participant in my winter 2022 Writing Without Fear workshop. She and the other participants gave permission for this to be posted. Thank you, Denise, for the wisdom you shared with the group and for this kind offering.
THE WRITING GROUP
a guest blog post by Denise Esslinger
“When you start to develop your powers of empathy and imagination, the whole world opens up to you.” Susan Sarandon
We were all there because we knew suffering.
We met in an old building that looked like it had known some suffering too. It was nestled between two other buildings which had the effect when you turned in from the street that you were snuggling up to it. In the wintertime darkness, a welcoming light illumined the side door, which was dark brown. The door was detailed with black wrought iron that made it feel like you were entering a castle.
A sign with a horse and carriage hung from the front, which left one wondering if it might have once been a bar. A castle, then a bar, then we were told a hair salon. Now a place of meeting, which had been carefully remade into a space, with its softly painted walls, dim lighting and fireplace, that felt warm and safe. Maybe there had been other incarnations along the way too. We entered a building with a history with our histories. We came with our hopes to be transformed too.
Julie wasn’t the first in the group to suffer, but she may have been the first to understand the power of writing. She lost two sisters when they were young, and her parents coped by hiding their grief. Grief, however, is something that cannot be ignored. It will have its way with you. Julie found her way by writing a book in which she not only processed her grief but rediscovered a passion for writing. Now she finds she has so many ideas being born in her head. She tries to nurture them on paper, note cards and sticky notes, but she sometimes wonders if they will ever grow up. Even though she has more energy than most, there’s never enough time to give each one the attention it deserves.
Anne could sense Julie’s pain and somewhere deep inside it resonated with her own. Suffering can be complex and uncomfortable, so it took a while, but she knew she had to get at it. Hers, like everyone’s, came from relationships. The most important men in her life—her father, her brother, her husband—all had heart issues. She had them too, but hers weren’t physical. They were emotional. She loved them deeply and needed to feel their love too, which she did, but not always.
Mike had known Julie for a long time and her passion for life connected with his own. Although he exuded vibrancy and confidence in his appearance on the screen, it was the fuzziness that surrounded him where you could glimpse the weight of all he carried. The loss of a father who had been his mentor and ideal of what a man could be. The loss of a business due to the betrayal of someone he had called his partner. It felt as raw and painful as a divorce. It was as messy as one too. And then there was the unexpected death of a college friend. In retrospect, Mike felt he should have seen it coming and been there as his friend had always been for him. Mike started writing about a man involved with sketchy money drops. It was intriguing and fun, but then he began writing about the fuzz. He needed to. We all needed to.
Donna met Julie at a lecture on her book. She connected with her open-heartedness and came to the meetings looking casual for her, but there was nothing casual about her. Her hair, carefully applied make up, glittery nails, rings and earrings, turtlenecks and sparkly clothes; even her casual was stunning. Her notebooks, pen and Dunkin Donuts coffee cup were all carefully presented too. Inside, Donna was tuned to a different channel than most. The frequency allows her to sense when tragedy—usually a death—will strike. It was something in her DNA that she shared with the maternal women in her life. She struggled with what to do with it and feared being judged and labeled crazy. It felt like a gift and a curse. Writing, she thought, might be the way.
Lisa joined the group with physical pain. She had calcifications on her right shoulder. A doctor told her not to use it for six months, which was impossible. Lisa lived life at 100 miles an hour with so many commitments and responsibilities. She’s a caretaker- at home and as her livelihood. Her body, however, wanted her attention and care. Lisa came to writing to process what she knew deep inside, but needed to remember. It’s what they tell you on airplanes. You must put on your own mask and breathe before you can help others.
Robin appeared self-contained. It was probably her training as a state police officer that allowed her to appear that way, but it was her writing that revealed her pain. The loss of her father as an infant, her mother at sixteen, her grandfather and uncle too. It was too much loss, too young and all too soon. How would her life have turned out differently if her father and mother had lived? Would she have gone into nursing? Would she have married a man who turned out to be wrong? Would she have become a state police officer? A career she loved even with the challenges of rising to a position of authority in a field dominated by men. Her book would be about her career, but she knew it also needed to include her pain.
As for me, I’m curious about suffering and the healing power of writing. I slept better than I have in a long time after the class we talked about “The Body Bag.” That bag has haunted me for years. It was a healing release to write and share it with you. Why, I wonder, do we suffer? Is it so we’ll learn, or remember, what is most important in life? Does it teach us to value the good times, because we know there is more suffering to come? Or is it what binds us together and helps us to understand and have compassion for one another? As Mike ended his “Outsourcing” piece, I choose the latter. I choose compassion and am grateful for each of you—for all that has brought you, brought us, to this transformational place.
It seeps deep into the bones and may become easier to hide, but unprocessed grief doesn’t ever go away. It fills the pores in our bones until they are solid and heavy. If we could define its molecular structure, we might find it’s composed of Iridium, the second densest, naturally occurring metal. Iridium is rare at the Earth’s surface, but common in asteroids. As the Earth was bombarded by meteorites in its violent early history, the iridium sank to the center. There it remains, a part of the deepest layer, the core. In humans, perhaps when we are bombarded with loss, the heaviness of grief does the same.
The ache of loss radiates from that deep place and is felt most acutely during the holidays. Societal pressures to celebrate and be happy can feel impossibly demanding. Yet we can’t simply hide out for the last two months of the year. If we can recognize and stay with the opposing emotions that arise, grief can eventually transform our experience with loss.
People who have read my memoir know that after my sister Louise died, my older sister Mary was a life raft. She drew the family close and buoyed our spirits. We shared many holiday traditions – baking cookies, making decorations, and coloring pictures were some of my favorites.
I tried to continue those traditions after Mary’s death. As my four younger sisters got older, we crafted and decorated, and I even began throwing a Christmas eve party in my bedroom because I knew the holidays often made Mom sad. When my sisters had children, I invited them for sleepovers, where we baked and decorated, and the holidays were joyful again.
But as time has passed, and my nieces and nephews have grown, the traditions have once again fallen away and I’m left in solitude, to cut, glue, paint, hang, and sit quietly by the Christmas tree in the evening. I admire the way the lights sparkle and reflect off the glitter and tinfoil of handmade ornaments. It both tears at my heart and warms it. Indeed, grief has no statute of limitation. More than four decades later, feelings of loss and love attempt their dance together among the twinkling lights.
The biggest difference since writing the memoir is that now I understand the need to allow, and indeed honor, this dance of grief. To trace the foot patterns and feel the twirls and dips. Knowing that each move, each feeling, is temporary -- whether it’s love or deep sadness.
Respecting the dance, I have continued some traditions, let go of others, and made space for new ones. Each year I still make decorations and hold a family party, but when I bake, I invite friends to join me. I’ve started a new tradition of cooking dinner with Mom and Dad several times in November and December, and we all sit down to watch a holiday classic after the meal. I also visit Louise and Mary at the cemetery and leave a Christmas decoration for each of them.
Yet the persistent sense of loss hangs on the tree beside the ornaments, and it is still painful. For those suffering a more recent loss, that juxtaposition can seem unbearable. This holiday season, along with joy, and song and celebration, be sure to consider those who are suffering. In this world where the pandemic took so much from us -- people, routine, our sense of safety – be deliberate in taking the time and space to recognize your own suffering. For grief cannot be cured, but it can be held. It’s a weight that’s best carried with the support of others, while tending to a graceful balance of honoring the past and celebrating the present.
Five decades have passed since 1972; the year time stood still -- twice. It is the longest year in recorded history, having two leap seconds added along with the additional 24-hour day of a leap year. Additions are made to maintain alignment between the Earth’s rotation and our human construct of time. It could be thought of as a type of deception, a way to make natural events fit our perception of them. 1972 was in fact a year of deception, including the Watergate break-in, the fake biography of Howard Hughes, and the year the Hostess cake company advertised Ring Dings as “freshly baked.”
It was the same year Mom and Dad stood before a justice of the peace and exchanged their wedding vows.
They never had a wedding reception, and never celebrated a single anniversary. In fact, my siblings and I never knew the date of our own parent’s wedding. When asked, Mom and Dad would respond coyly, “oh, it was in the spring” or “we were married around April fools’ day”. It wasn’t until I began researching family history for the memoir that I found the actual date. My clicking and scrolling through ancestry.com ended abruptly as I stared at the computer screen in disbelief. I was a love child; nearly three years old before Mom and Dad were married. Was I the reason they kept the date a secret?
It was Maya Angelou who said "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
Why, after so many years together, hadn’t they ever celebrated their wedding anniversary? I couldn’t say for sure. But I knew after all this time, if there was going to be a party, they would not be the ones to plan it.
In this respect, 2022 became the year I wised up. In the spirit of Maya Angelou, I knew better. And I decided to do better.
First, the clandestine invitations went out, then the legwork began. I gave them both fresh haircuts and bought Mom a new outfit and new shoes. To cover my tracks, I used the ruse of early Mother’s/Father’s Day gifts. Everyone contributed in some way, and everything came together seamlessly – the food, cake, decorations, music, video, and the on-time delivery of the guests of honor – everyone had a part. All arranged without compromising the secret plan.
On the day of the party, family and friends gathered in anticipation. When the happy couple walked through the door, we all cheered and shouted “surprise!” It took them a few moments to figure out they were the guests of honor, and we were celebrating their golden anniversary.
The room radiated the significance of the occasion. We had draped buffet tables with regal gold cloth and guests brought gold-themed gifts and decorations. The tradition of honoring the 50th wedding anniversary with the precious metal dates back to the 1500s, when women in Germanic countries received a gold wreath. Gold symbolizes prosperity, strength, wisdom, and commitment. It has some phenomenal physical characteristics – no metal is more malleable and ductile. Metallurgists can stretch a single ounce of gold into a wire that is 50 miles long. Like the impressive work of spouses stretching countless moments of patience to sustain 50 years of marriage.
I glanced around the room that evening and thought about the many ways that Mom and Dad’s marriage mirrored the character and symbolism of gold. They enjoy prosperity, although not in the traditional monetary or possession sense. They are two people who don’t want much for themselves yet are richly connected to family and are grounded in a strong sense of home. Their lives are marked by the wisdom of simplicity – lives that are not necessarily easy – but aren’t overly complicated by longing or regret.
Mom and Dad exemplify the strength of gold as they have been submerged in the unfathomable loss of children and returned from the depths of crushing grief to raise five resilient daughters. Their path has not been without unanticipated detours, massive construction, and repairs, but their commitment to family and to each other is unwavering – no matter what you need, no matter what time of day, no matter what else they were planning to do – you move right to the front of the line.
Everything about the party fit perfectly with their attributes – lively, spontaneous, and authentic. The energy of the room moved me to give a short toast. “To the bride and groom, despite the fact that you fleeced me for 50 years about the date of your wedding – I was nearly three when you were married – I’m willing to overlook that. Here is a toast to two incredibly strong, intelligent, and resilient people, who taught us the greatest lesson there is to learn – we have the strength to rise above anything. No matter what adversity comes your way, never, never give up. Happy 50th anniversary – and many more! We love you!”
After the toast, Mom and Dad each said a few words. Dad remarked about how surprised they were that everyone kept the party a secret, especially Robyn. He spoke about blending the families they already had, and then starting one together. Mom spoke candidly about some wrong turns before she met Dad, and with ease and zest about her path in life. And then spontaneously, one by one, each person in the room spoke about how Mom and Dad had touched their lives. It was a priceless opportunity to hear the gratitude that is most often felt, but not said, until funerals.
With the soft launch of the memoir last year, and so much emphasis on honoring the past – here was an opportunity to truly celebrate the roots of our family strength. I’ve never seen Mom and Dad enjoy a party so much. We all sang “The bride cuts the cake” and cheered them on as they took turns, just like newlyweds, cutting their wedding cake and feeding each other.
My husband Eric turned up the music, cleared some floor space, and encouraged Mom and Dad to dance. We watched them hold each other as they swayed and turned slowly on the dance floor, in sync with the Willie Nelson song, “You are always on my mind.” I looked on as they chatted and laughed, finally able to enjoy their “first dance” as husband and wife after 50 years of marriage. I felt tears of joy creep down my cheeks. My sister Renee noticed, leaned close and placed a hand on my shoulder. “Come on,” she whispered. “Let’s join them.”
I thought about love and about gold; about all they’ve overcome as a couple, and led us through as a family. Amidst the most difficult hardships to endure, they always return to each other. It could be their love the 13th century poet, Rumi, foresaw when he wrote --
“This turning toward what you deeply love, saves you.”
Soon everyone at the party gathered around the Golden Anniversary couple. Finally, after 50 years, it was their moment to shine – and they gleamed in pure, 24-karat style.
The day after Christmas in 2020, Eric and I packed The Beast (our nickname for the camper) and headed to Florida to rest, rejuvenate, and escape the cold New England winter. Sanibel is very low key. Folks tend not to congregate in large groups, and it’s not a reckless party spot, so even with the virus still a concern, we were able to comfortably stroll the beaches and bike around the island in relative solitude.
We ate one meal out while we were in Sanibel. I chose a restaurant that had top reviews and that we’d not been to on previous trips--The Sunset Grill. We enjoyed a fabulous meal on the outdoor patio as the sunset cast hues of lavender and mango over the Gulf, and then it was time for dessert. I didn’t even need to look at the menu. We shared a slice of heaven. Florida Key Lime pie.
And so it began, the world took on a silky texture bathed in chartreuse and scented with citrus – The Sunset Grill became the jumping off point for the two-year-long Key Lime Pie obsession.
Before I launch into the results of my jaunt on what I’ve dubbed the “Key Lime Pie trail”, first a bit of background on the trip. My husband and I have been married for 25 years. A milestone achieved largely because we have two homes and live separately most of the time. That being said, on this particular trip, we had spent three solid weeks traveling together, sharing a 150-square-foot living space – The Beast.
While socially distanced from everyone else in the world, the lack of distance between us was magnified. I credit part of our survival to our shared sense of purpose – finding the best Key Lime pie.
Our path ultimately stretched from Captiva to Key West, over two trips, with the final sampling in February of 2022. During our time in the Key West campground, friends goaded us to join them for drinks, but we declined. I had three goals in Key West: 1) to sit at our waterfront campsite and read; 2) to visit the Hemmingway home; and 3) to sample Key Lime pie from Kermit’s.
In total, we sampled pies from three places in Key West, and as we made our way through the islands on the Overseas Highway, we stopped at Amara Cay to try the ‘deep fried’ key lime pie I had read about in a food review sent by a friend.
Back on Sanibel, we stopped at Jerry’s market – self-proclaimed “best key lime pie on the island”, and over the next couple of years, sampled pie at three other locations between Sanibel and Captiva. The trail ended this February at my friend KD’s kitchen in Cape Coral, where I had the hands-down best gluten-free key lime pie on the trail!
I had imagined extending my jaunt into this foodie adventure, but after seeing a disturbing article in the Miami Herald, I knew it was time to go public with the blog post. The future status of Key Lime Pie may depend upon it! The infamous dessert is threatened with none other than political overthrow by a scheme to “support” strawberry farming districts (i.e., to get their vote). Seriously? Dessert is now political too? Apparently, nothing is off-limits.
You can read about the ongoing controversy here -- Florida makes strawberry shortcake official dessert | Miami Herald.
Don’t let this happen! A survey in that same article showed overwhelming support (262 votes out of 296) for keeping Key Lime Pie as the poster dessert of Florida. Strawberry shortcake came in with a pathetic 12 votes, below even the slippery custard, flan, which had 25 votes.
Take a stand with the Conch Republic Key Lime Pie Council for this silly momentary diversion from the suffering in the world. Lift your fork in support of the crumbly, tart, graham-crackery goodness of Key Lime Pie. You can sign the petition against the overthrow at change.org, but if you need more convincing first – or a tastier means of support -- here are the rankings from the Key Lime Pie trail. Bon Appetit!
Note: I ranked the following pies #1 – 10; with #1 basking in the limelight as the best overall. The results are not statistically significant (there are many more pies to sample!), however, they will still provide a mouthful of gastronomic insight. Locations are given after the ranking, followed by a description of the pie and comparison to others sampled.
#1 Overall best: K.D.’s house, Cape Coral (private residence). Although geographically a bit off the trail, the final pie I sampled, took the number one spot for best gluten-free pie, and the number one spot overall. Aside from the lovely presentation, which was the only pie served with lime zest, the whipped cream was freshly made in front of me. The flavor of the pie was tart and refreshing, the thickness of both the filling and the crust was substantial, the crust was not overly sweet, and there was an opportunity for seconds without anyone raising an eyebrow!
#2: Sunset Grill, Sanibel-Captiva. A close second, their artful presentation made a great first impression. The pie was accompanied by a generous amount of fresh whipped cream. Hail to a thick pie and a thick crust! The subtle flavor of the crust included a hint of brown-sugar, that perfectly mingled with the subtle graham flavor. The substantial filling had a lively tang, balanced with just the right sweetness and held by a sturdy cheesecake texture. The one drawback -- the crust was only on the bottom of the pie.
#3: Moon Dog Café, Whitehead Street, near Hemingway home on Key West. An impressive presentation with lightly browned meringue topping. This pie had a generous, thick filling, with a crisp tang and creamy-silky texture. The flavors of butter and graham stood out in the crust, and the texture was sturdy yet crumbly. The filling had a better mouth feel than Sunset Grill and was the only sample of the group to include meringue, but together these strengths were not enough to boost it into the #2 spot.
#4: Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grill, Sanibel. Their presentation included an artful swirl of raspberry sauce, a ribbony dollop of whipped cream, and a fresh mint leaf standing on end, showcasing the slice of pie on a rectangular off-white plate. The whipped cream was non-dairy, a disappointment, but the merits of the pie somewhat atoned for that. The filling, although not as thick as others, was the perfect density, with a creamy-silky-smooth texture, and just the right tartness. The crust was more of a traditional graham cracker, could have been thicker, but did not have the brown sugar overload. It was rather subtle in flavor, but better than overwhelming sweetness of other crusts. Flavor of filling stood out as one of the best, but lack of thickness kept this one from ranking in the top 3.
#5: Sanibel Grill, Tarpon Bay Road, Sanibel. Simple, yet inviting presentation with raspberry puree, and slice of lime. This pie had a dense filling, with intense flavor, and a lively tang. Their filling was not as thick as The Sunset Grill, but the taste was comparable. The whipped cream was non-dairy, but good, light, and airy, and not overly sweet. The crust – although a decent thickness and density to complement the filling – had too much brown sugar. The excess sweetness of the crust was somewhat balanced by the lime tang of the filling.
#6: Mangoes Restaurant, Duval Street, Key West. Presented with small dollops of sweet, whipped cream on the crust end, and rested on a swirl of raspberry puree. Filling thickness was similar to Kermit’s, less than Moon dog and Sunset Grill. This pie incorporated lime zest, which was a nice touch. The texture was more cheesecake-like but had a crystalline-grainy texture on the tongue which added a little too much sweetness. I wasn’t a fan of the sugar crystals, but the raspberry puree added a nice complexity to the citrus and graham flavors. Their crust broke cleanly with the fork, and was not overly sweet, but the thickness could have been more substantial.
#7: Kermit’s Key Lime Pie Shop, Key West. After rave reviews from friends, I walked a significant distance to sample this pie. Was it worth it? For all the glory of the recommendation, Kermit’s had a disappointingly simple presentation with pre-packaged whipped cream (tasted non-dairy), that had an oddly sweet marshmallow taste, and dense texture. Their pie was not as thick as Sunset Grill or Moon Dog, and the texture of the filling was more cheesecake-like. It had a clean citrus flavor, but was missing the tang of Moon Dog, and the complexity of Sunset Grill. Graham flavor of the crust was good, not overly sweet, but the crust was thinner than others sampled, and had a rubbery texture.
#8: Amara Cay, Islamorada, Overseas Highway. When we arrived, I was disappointed to hear from the staff that they no longer serve deep fried Key Lime Pie. Nevertheless, we had stopped there, so we sat at their tiki bar looking out at the white sand, swaying palm trees, and aquamarine ocean, and ordered a slice of what they had to offer. They served their pie on a sheet of tropical parchment paper with a light dusting of confectioners’ sugar and fresh slices of strawberry on top. The absence of whipped cream was a disappointment. The filling had a creamier texture and a tang that danced on the tongue, similar to Sunset Grill. But the thickness was less than many of the top ranked pies, and a bit disappointing. The crust broke clean with my fork (not rubbery) but was thinner than Sunset Grill (similar to Moon Dog) and had too much brown sugar which gave it an odd aftertaste.
#9: Bubble Room, Captiva Island. Their cheerful presentation included lime, kiwi, and strawberry slices, and flowers of whipped cream. The pie, however, was disappointingly thin, an upsetting trend, similar to Kermit’s. The whipped cream tasted as though it was non–dairy, but had a subtle citrus tang to it, which was unique. The brown sugar in crust overpowered the tastebuds. The filling redeemed the crust a bit with its’ tart flavor, clean, refreshing lime tang, and creamy texture. This did help to balance the sweet crust, but the filling needed to have a more substantial thickness to effectively tone down the power of the brown sugar crust.
#10: Jerry’s Market, Sanibel. For a place that touts itself as having the best pie on the island, it was not an impressive presentation -- pie in a cup – with no option for a single slice. The ‘crust’ consisted of loose graham cracker crumbs in bottom. The pie filling was like a key lime pudding topped with whipped cream and dusted with more graham cracker crumbs. The filling taste was low on the tang and a bit too sweet. The texture was creamy like the Sunset Grill, but this alone was not enough to lift it in the rankings. Whipped cream was on the sweet side, but not overly so. As far as their claim to ‘best pie on Sanibel’, they might want to sample their competition. They would have scored higher had their “pie cup” had a crust. To be fair, I didn’t want to buy an entire pie in order to include them in the competition. They might consider mini-pie tins or serving single slices, rather than a plastic cup for presentation, and the ability to properly include a crust.
And now you know the Zest of the story! Long live Key Lime Pie!
Winter winds have ravaged the beach. Storm waves crashed, pounded, churned, and dragged several tons of sand into the powerful longshore current and banished it to the deep waters of the sound.
The landscape of the beach reflects this battering as steep scarps are left at the backshore and boulders litter the mud flats at low tide. Wind and waves, the great artists of nature, work within the shoreline studio, endlessly creating, destroying, transforming. A walk on the beach is a stroll through the most magnificent gallery in existence. One that changes over days, hours, and often step by step.
Today, the surf had draped broad swaths of ruby and graphite sands over the buff-colored beach along the length of the strand line. Meandering brushstrokes stippled with glittering flecks of mica. Sheets of mud and sand folded into geometric, repeating wrinkles that extend to the twin rocks offshore.
The fabric of the beach is adorned by a collection of objects strewn along the water’s edge, some smashed and jagged from the pounding surf, others smoothed and rounded, having endured the same forces over a longer time. My muse focused on a lone bleached, Channeled Whelk whose chalky abandoned home fit in my palm.
The whelk’s form can be described as a logarithmic spiral. It’s well-known to humanity as one of the most ancient and mysterious of symbols. It has been used to represent growth and rebirth, the path of the soul’s evolution, and to signify a link between humans and the divine. Some suggest that focusing on the image of a spiral leads to self-exploration, and the awareness that the entire universe resides in the present moment.
In addition to spiritual or philosophical meanings, the spiral also has been used extensively in art -- from the extraordinary spiral shapes of Newgrange in Ireland to ancient, decorated pottery of the Minoan civilization. In nature, the spiral is found in tornadoes and hurricanes, human fingerprints, and the flight paths of raptors.
Of the many types, the logarithmic spiral pattern is found within the Sunflower (Helianthus annuus), the national flower of Ukraine. Jacob Bernoulli, a renowned mathematician, called it the "miraculous spiral", because even as the size of the spiral increases, its shape is unaltered. This property is known as self-similarity. As with human evolution, the miraculous spiral has evolved in nature and appeared in a variety of forms from whelk shells to sunflower heads – different on the surface, but underneath, the pattern is the same.
Likewise, there is a smooth and invisible fabric that connects all of humanity in the unbroken spiral of compassion. It connects us to those who, as Desmond Tutu described, have “overcome the most horrendous circumstances and emerged on the other side, not broken.” My hope for today as I walked the beach in silent prayer, fingers tracing the curve of the whelk, is that the people of Ukraine and all those who suffer, may emerge unbroken.
May we all be, as the miraculous spiral within the sunflower, a symbol of resilience and support, as we pray for peace in this everchanging world.
(Sunflower photo credit: L. Shyamal - https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=895745)
Shane waited until we were out in the driveway before he brought up the memoir.
He lifted a hay bale from the bed of his little white pickup truck. He brought the hay for Mom’s ducks and set it down as he spoke. “Your book, Julie,” he turned and faced me. “I cried for days, sometimes I couldn’t get out of bed.”
I stood silent; eyes fixed on him as he spoke. This was the first time we had seen each other since he read the memoir. He rested a palm on the side of his truck and continued. “Jan was worried about me. I’d read a little and have to put it down because I’d be sobbing. But I needed to do that. I felt better. Your book helped me so much.”
The contract of silence was now just gravel at the top of the driveway. The place where Louise backed the rambler out of the yard in 1973, waving and smiling. Right near the patch of grass where the angel plant sprouted just a few years ago. The statue of Mother Mary stood on the small outcrop of ledge watching us.
I took a breath. “Thank you for that.”
His big crystal-blue eyes, glossy with tears, looked right into mine with seriousness “Thank you for writing it. There were times I didn’t think I’d be able to finish reading it.” He paused to wipe his cheeks.
I nodded. “There were times I didn’t think I’d be able to finish writing it.”
I knew how significant those tears were. He has Bardy genes too. We shared a big, warm two-arm hug. Brotherly love.
He wiped his face with his shirtsleeve. “I have something at the farm you might want. It’s been out in the garage. I told Ma about it several times, but she never came to get it.” He paused.
“It’s little Mary’s diary.”
“Oh my god. You have her diary?” There were few words for me in that moment. It was as if someone offered me the world. Time stopped and for a nanosecond, Mary and I were once again sitting in her little room with the daisy wallpaper. She sat at the small desk writing in her little square diary with the gold lock. I watched intently, memorizing the way she held her pencil and formed her letters. I wanted to be just like her.
“There’s not much written in it.”
“But I think she mentions you.”
I couldn’t wait to see her diary. To hold the little book that she wrote in. Run my fingers over the ink or pencil that she put on the page. “Would you mind if I stop by later and pick it up?”
“Sounds good. I’ll be home.” He got in his truck and drove toward the farm. Grama and Dziadzia’s house, where Mom grew up, and Mary and I cooked and cleaned, weeded the garden, tended the animals, and played marbles in the driveway.
In typical procrastination mode when facing something important, I ran some errands and stopped at the town garage to fill two, 5-gallon buckets with sand and salt. I dropped the buckets at the compound and headed to the farm.
The dog barked inside the house, and I could hear Shane talking to his wife. “Julie’s here. Can you get the dog? Come in,” he called.
The three of us sat down at the dining room table, and Shane handed me the diary. “Here it is.”
“Oh, wow.” Instantly, I recognized the yellow cover, the gold clasp, and the Holly-Hobby-looking girl on the front, with her pink hair tie, matching dress, and white apron. She sat in a chair, chin and eyes lowered, smelling a bouquet of daisies. The small pleasures of living in the moment. Like the moments Mary and I had spent with the seashell pressed to our ear, listening to sounds of the shore. Up until this moment, that shell was the only one of Mary’s possessions I had.
I rested my palm on the diary. A book where she recorded her life moments. Slowly, respectfully, I opened the cover, and fanned the pages carefully. Shane was right. There were not many entries. But each one was precious. Noteworthy details from April 29, 1974, in the life of a 12-year-old girl included having roast pork for dinner, and a field trip with her class to the state library in Hartford. “It was fun. I wish we could go again,” she wrote.
As Shane began talking, I closed the diary and listened. He shared deeply personal stories I’d never heard before. His experience searching for our sister, Louise. Dad driving the green Volkswagen beetle, Shane in the passenger seat. Driving, endlessly driving, everywhere and anywhere looking for Louise. From town to town, dirt roads, back roads, cabins, and campsites. Shane, thoroughly exhausted, would fall asleep and wake up staring at the ceiling of the VW bug. And afterward when Louise was found, bearing the whispers, the unimaginable anxiety. The alternating silence and chaos at the house.
We talked about how that trauma was fused to his nervous system. Horrible experiences and memories stored in the body. As a child in the 1970’s, there was no outlet to process them.
He paused and then spoke again about the memoir. “I’d read a little and start crying. I’d have to put it down. But then I’d get drawn back. I had to read it. There were some things that you didn’t have in the book.” He paused. “But they wouldn’t have made it any better.”
Coming from Shane, my brother, that was so satisfying to hear. Because it is his story as much as it is anyone’s in the family. And it was absolutely non-negotiable to get it right. Up to that moment, I didn’t realize how important his affirmation was to me. Now, I’ll never forget it.
It was twilight when I walked out of the farmhouse and over the large steppingstones of dark gray, metamorphic rock. Their lines and folds and glittery flakes of mica record a history of unimaginable stresses, and hardships overcome. I ran my fingers over the little gold clasp of the diary in my pocket and smiled. This journey has indeed been one of reclamation which continues to unfold in magical ways.
Within 15 minutes on that warm December afternoon, everyone knew Jacob’s name.
It was the day he disappeared.
We had been returning to Periwinkle Park from the beach when we ran into Jon. He raced toward us on a bicycle and seemed quite upset.
“Have you seen my son? He’s riding a blue bike.”
Eric glanced quickly at me and back to Jon. “No. We didn’t see any kids. What’s his name? How old is he?”
“Jacob. He’s five. He knows he’s not supposed to leave the park.” Jon turned his bike toward the back gate.
“We’ll get on our bikes and look for him,” Eric shouted.
Jon glanced back at us, “Thanks!” And sped away.
Periwinkle Park is a gated community dotted with palm and coconut trees, near the white, shell-covered beaches of Sanibel Island in Florida. It is a curious mix of tent-camping spaces, RV sites, mobile homes, and a bird sanctuary. I never thought of Sanibel Island, or the park, as a place that might be dangerous. Until the day Jacob went missing.
We hurried back to our little shack, grabbed our cell phones, and rushed off on Rosey and Buttercup, our bicycles, in different directions.
Eric looked back at me and shouted, “do you have Jon’s number?”
“No. But I have yours,” I replied and rode off over the crusty limestone gravel and shell hash.
We pedaled through each winding road in the park. The chain turned; the tires spun in time with my thoughts which circled around the name Andy Amato. Little Andy, only four years old, lived near my hometown. He was last seen following his older sister and her friend into the woods near their home in 1978. Only his toy Weeble was ever found. Jacob would not be like Andy. He couldn’t. I pedaled faster, eyes scanning the surroundings.
I scoured each driveway, parking space, and square foot of lawn, searching for any trace of the missing little boy. Nothing. Until the Phaeton RV at site 227. There, leaning against the electric hookup, was a small blue bicycle with white training wheels. I called Eric immediately.
“Does Jacob’s bike have training wheels?”
“I don’t know. Where are you?”
“I saw a little blue bike at site 227.”
“Ok. I’m almost there now. I see it. I’ll call Jon.”
But the bike was not Jacob’s.
When I exhausted each corner of the park I joined a large group of resident searchers, expanding by the minute, who had gathered outside of Jon’s residence. One woman asked, “has anyone heard anything?” Mumbles of no, nope, not me, filtered through the group. I asked about the blue bike. “He doesn’t use training wheels” one of the men said. “The police are on their way,” someone else offered.
The police. Suddenly I was three years old, and watching the police in my parent’s driveway,. Decades ago, when the whole town was searching for my sister Louise. Louise never came home.
The sun sank toward the horizon along with the hope that Jacob was still in the park. If I were five years old and taking off on an adventure, where would I go? Buttercup and I headed out of the park, toward the twinkle lights on the bike path.
After pedaling for about 10 minutes, my phone rang. I glanced at the screen. It was Eric. My heart paused, “Did they find him?”
“Yes,” he said. “He was at a friend’s house.”
“Oh, thank God.” I began breathing again. Jacob was fine. I was grateful for all his parents would not have to endure.
In 2020, 30,396 juveniles (under the age of 18) were reported missing in the United States alone. 8% of those cases remained open at the end of the year. Some, like little Andy Amato, were never found.
Although Jacob's story had a happy ending, it is a powerful reminder of how things can change in an instant.
At the close of 2021, Jacob’s story is a reminder to be vigilant. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, “When recovering a missing child, the most important tools for law enforcement are an up-to-date, quality photograph and descriptive information.” Please consider one of your resolutions to complete a Child ID kit for your children. Set a reminder to update it every six months.
All my love and best wishes to you and your family for another year of happiness, celebrations, and watching your loved ones grow. Cherish each moment.
Bob’s recipe for 3,000-pound cement.
(3,000 pounds of pressure per square inch) Use a ratio of 1 pail of cement (preferably Portland) to 2 pails of concrete sand. Add 1 pail of pea stones; mix dry with cement hoe (a garden hoe with holes), then add water, about a pail, ½ pail at first, then the rest incrementally, as you keep drawing in the dry stuff. Let dry 1 to 2 weeks before pressure test.
Dad loves cement. The process of making it for him is an art, but also a mental salve. Especially when he’s upset. He’s always kept busy, but when something is on his mind, there’s no other way you’ll find him. “When you’re upset, just keep yourself busy”, he’s said. I passed that sage advice on to my first-year students at SCSU this fall, and I live by it myself. It works. Mixing a batch of Portland cement is just one of the possible diversions.
When the mind is upset trying to mix ingredients to get conclusions that make sense, there is really nothing better than keeping busy. Coming from a meditation instructor, this may seem counterintuitive, but consider for example, the relationship between yoga and meditation.
Yoga has traditionally been practiced in order to tone down physical and mental restlessness, before sitting in stillness to meditate. First, stir the ingredients well, and then let them be still.
When the mind is a stinging swarm of thoughts, especially when the worry is beyond our control, activity works out the nervous energy in the body, created by the mind’s need to “do something”. Simple actions are best -- gardening, mowing the grass, scrubbing floors – because they allow us to work with our emotions at the same time. Mixing water, soap, and dirt, scrubbing swirling them together, rinsing the floor clean. All while letting worry float somewhere in that bucket of dirty water, getting it off the floor. At least for a time. Giving our mental processes time to slow and settle. To downregulate and manage our stress so that it doesn’t become chronic.
So, when Mom was hospitalized this month for COVID-19, Dad and I got to work. Cutting branches, clearing grapevines from the stone walls, and raking the yard. We were worried, but not worried sick. We kept busy.
Ultimately, this mode of self-care gives us the energy we need to continue to be strong for others. Because we can’t give to others what we don’t possess ourselves. Kindness, compassion, and deep understanding of our own process is critical. So, in sage advice from Dad, “Get to work. And it will work itself out.”
As I was paddling on the lake today, I went searching for Pink Water Lilies which usually bloom around this time of year. I found their cheerful, cotton-candy-colored blooms floating among clusters of glossy-green, saucer-sized lily pads in the two northern-most, shallow coves.
I’ve always loved to photograph these aquatic plants but until today, I didn’t know that their essence is used in naturopathic treatments. It wasn’t until after the photographs and a brief session of paddleboard yoga that I went back to the dock and read more about these velvety beauties.
According to Cynthia Scherer, a flower essence practitioner and researcher, Pink Pond Lily flower essence helps to clear old paradigms related to self-image and the perception of others. Scherer suggests it also helps to clear unsafe feelings left over from old traumas.
As I learned while writing the memoir, Finding Mary, trauma causes the unconscious to experience a persistent lack of safety. This may lead to the “stuckness” I describe in the memoir. As a defense against uncertainty, the mind attempts to keep things familiar – causing our perceptions of self, others, and life circumstances to appear fixed. This view limits opportunities, whether they be accomplishments or relationships, because we literally are not allowing ourselves to see or trust new possibility. Change is unknown, and unknown can be scary.
Each time I offer my book to a stranger or a new venue, I feel that fear. The book is a deeply personal story, my first inclination is to keep it to myself. What if people don’t like it? Even after the amazing support I’ve received from vastly different groups of readers, the doubt still lingers like old trash. I realize I need to face the fear and move forward into the foggy grey of reality.
I’m not planning to try the plant essence anytime soon, but I can attest to the solace water lilies provide, when paddling into a quiet cove amidst blue skies and birdsong on a warm summer day. Their optimism and courage reach from the murky depths of the lake bottom into the sunlight and remind me that there is indeed a season for everything. To fight change is to fight the tide. Yet risk can be paralyzing. To be open to change is to be vulnerable, and that can be scary. Perhaps I can take cues from the water lilies as they are a graceful role model. For there is both possibility and beauty in unfolding.
To add a comment or view other comments:
click on 'comments' at end of blog.