Sometimes you have to let go to see if there was anything worth holding on to.
The summer I turned twelve had every indication of becoming the lowest point in my young life. However, thanks to the wisdom of a dear aunt, and the beauty of a natural wonder, that particular summer provided me with a deep strength that I have drawn upon throughout my life.
Earlier that year, my parents had decided to end their fifteen-year marriage. The only home I had ever known would be sold, life with my father would be reduced to a weekend experience, and I would begin seventh grade in a new school. While all of these changes were terrifying to me, somehow that June, they didn’t seem to matter that much. What had disturbed me the most was foregoing our annual vacation to the mountains. Instead of spending the summer tucked away in the cool, verdant forest, I was going to spend the next ten weeks with my elderly aunt, who lived in a quiet seashore community. From what little I knew, the only friends I could expect to make were seagulls.
Needless to say, I did not want to go. I had never been a fan of gritty sand and salty surf, and though I did love my aunt, I hadn’t seen her in nine years. I barely remembered her, and I sincerely doubted she would be much of a companion to me. But I had no choice in the matter. My parents were breaking up, not only with each other, but also our home. The only thing they agreed upon that summer was removing me from the battlefield.
So despite my misgivings and protests, the very day school closed I found myself on a train heading south. Beside me were two canvas bags that held my summer clothes, my books and a daily journal I had been keeping since learning of my parents’ impending divorce. Traveling with me, too, was a heart so heavy with resentment, bitterness and loss I found it difficult to breathe.
When the train pulled into the station, I was the last passenger to leave my seat. The conductor must have sensed how desperate I was, because he patted my shoulder as if to offer assurances that things would somehow sort themselves out. But I knew better, for my life would never be the same.
Waiting for me on the platform was Aunt Olivia, who was actually my grandmother’s eldest sister. Demure, slender, and almost shy, she smiled at me and then hesitantly patted my shoulder in much the same manner as the conductor. I supposed I must have looked as forlorn to her as I had to him.
Listen to the Chicken Soup for the Soul Podcast Poor Olivia, I thought. She was as much a victim in this desperate situation. Her summer plans had not included a ten-week visit from a grandniece. I tried to force a smile for her, and I remember thinking how out of place she seemed at the station, almost like a young girl dressed up in her mother’s clothes. I was suddenly reminded of an old Highlights magazine from my childhood. Its theme was “what doesn’t belong,” and even to the most casual observer, Aunt Olivia seemed almost foreign standing in that station.
Hauling my canvas bags in the direction of the taxi stand, I trudged after Aunt Olivia, who moved with surprising grace and speed for an older woman. Fortunately, the line was a short one, and Aunt Olivia and I were soon seated in an old-fashioned checkered cab heading east toward the shoreline. In no time at all, the landscape started to change. With my face pressed against the window, I noticed the city’s tall buildings, traffic and people soon receded. Within a half hour, I sensed a hint of salty air, and viewed a series of ramshackle bungalows bearing signs like “Bait and Tackle,” “The Chowder Shack,” and “Boating Supplies.”
Three blocks from the ocean, Aunt Olivia directed the driver to stop in front of a small, pink cottage. As I dragged my bags up the seashell path to the front door, I remember thinking that the house looked like Cinderella’s coach, a transformed pumpkin. I tried to swallow the lump that was forming in my throat as I thought “this will be my home for the next ten weeks.”
Settling in with Aunt Olivia was much easier than I had anticipated. To her credit, she respected my privacy and sensed my need to be left alone. She didn’t try to distract me with useless activity or engage me in meaningless chatter. Because the cottage was so tiny, my aunt had adopted a very simple lifestyle, which was precisely what I had needed at the time. Since the dwelling was so small, I slept in an open loft, tucked in the eaves. Every night, as I climbed the ladder to my bedroom in the stars, I felt like Heidi. But unlike my storybook heroine, I had a view of the ocean, not the mountains which were familiar to me.
During the day, I used a rusty bicycle that had once belonged to my mother to get around. For the first few days, I purposely avoided the ocean and beach, preferring to exhaust myself pedaling alone into the town. At the time, I didn’t think that much about it, but in retrospect, I think there was so much anger in me, I was unable to even see, much less appreciate, the beauty of the shoreline.
By the fourth morning, I somehow found myself pedaling to the beach. It was a beautiful clear sunrise, and while I had always been partial to the mountains, the seascape before me held a unique beauty. When I arrived at the beach, it was virtually empty but for two lone silhouettes — one feeding the seagulls, the other fortifying a sand castle against the approaching tide.
Leaving my bike on the boardwalk, I ventured toward the sea. As I walked, I studied the figure feeding the gulls. There was something vaguely familiar about the stance. A natural grace, the fluid movements, almost an affinity with the sea. Then it hit me — it was Aunt Olivia. Dressed in worn jeans, a faded T-shirt, and a baseball cap, she resembled a young teenager from a distance. I recalled the dichotomy of seeing her in the train station, stressed, strained and out of place. Here, against the backdrop of the sea, pounding surf and beach, she looked at home.
Though she did not turn toward me, she sensed my presence. “Have some bread,” she said softly, handing me some crusts without taking her eyes off the pair of gulls she was feeding. As I crumbled the crusts, the sound of the gulls overhead, the scent of the salty air, and the sight of the young boy defending his sand castle effected a calmness within me. I had not felt such peace since learning of my parents’ impending divorce.
Long after the last of the bread was gone, Aunt Olivia and I continued to watch the boy. Finally, she spoke. “You have to admire the persistence in that boy,” she said softly. “He’s trying so hard to defend that castle. He’s decorated it with beautiful shells; he’s put his heart and soul into that project. But no matter how high the walls or how deep the moat he builds, the ocean is stronger and more powerful.”
As she spoke, I watched the boy. The closer the waves came, the more frenzied he became. His digging became manic; his face was marked with apprehension at each wave. Finally, Aunt Olivia extended her hand to me, and together we walked down to the water’s edge.
The boy looked up at us. At first, he seemed confused, but then I saw him smile. Aunt Olivia must have extended her other hand because the boy left his sand castle, stood up, and took her hand. As the three of us watched, a final wave crashed upon the castle, leveling it, destroying the walls, and flooding the moat.
As the seashells that had decorated the castle scattered, Aunt Olivia released our hands. “Let’s collect as many of these beautiful shells as we can,” she said. “These shells were actually the best part of that castle. Let’s gather them together. We’ll use them to build a new castle in a more protected area.” And that’s just what we did.
Throughout my life, Aunt Olivia’s words would guide me on more occasions than I cared to remember. That day on the beach would help me countless times as I fought to rebuild my life after forces beyond my control sent me into a tailspin. Years later, as I struggled to survive my own divorce, a corporate downsizing, and the death of a best friend, Aunt Olivia’s soft words would quiet my heart. And while attempting to rebuild my life, I tried to follow Aunt Olivia’s example by taking the best of my previous existence with me, to ensure that each new castle I erected was a little bit better, a little bit richer, and a little bit stronger than the one before.
~Barbara A. Davey