The Tanner beach house is north of Sydney by a hundred kilometers. I packed my navy cotton swing dress from Britches (a piece of clothing my mother considers divine, since it covers-all touches-nothing), but now that I see the trailers spread out in front of me, I realize I’ll be in Booker’s Roanoke lacrosse shorts the whole weekend.
We drive in past the barbecue area, and John gives some folks a neighborly wave. The double-wide is mostly yellow and white inside. There’s a tiny sink and a plastic fridge like the one Tracy and I used in college to chill our Milwaukee’s Best. Above the kitchenette is a compartment with a mattress where John tosses his bag. The kids take a tiny room with bunk beds, and I apparently have the sofa, which opens into a bed.
“There’s a privacy screen on tracks,” John says, showing me how to cordon myself off when the time comes.
The kids are eager to get to the beach. Milly stuffs her shovels, rakes, and molds into a mesh bag. Martin dons his sun hat; two flaps bounce around off the back like rubber splash guards on truck tires.
“I can stay and sort out dinner,” I offer, assuming John would like some time with the kids.
“No, come along,” he says.
I scoop up the inflatable floaties, and we head out single file, through the caravan park and onto a sand path.
“Can we go round to the jetty?” Martin asks, popping a raisin in his mouth.
“Great idea. Just a five-minute walk, Kelly,” John says, throwing me with uncharacteristic eye contact.
“There’s pelicans!” Martin tells me.
“Pel-i-cans,” I say like Captain Kangaroo, “their beaks hold more than their bellies can!”
Martin likes that one.
“And farther round a bit, there’s a lookout,” Milly adds.
“We used to come here quite a lot,” John says, explaining their expertise.
“Tell her about the surfers,” Martin prompts.
“The girl surfers,” Milly amends.
John explains, “When we first started coming, there were only blokes. But then, over the years, we started to notice some sheilas out there.”
“And Mummy said, Girls can do anything boys can do.”
“That’s right,” John and I say at the same time. I look down, embarrassed to have been caught moralizing to the kids when their father is right here and able to do it himself. “They absolutely can,” John finishes.
When we get to the end of the path and the ocean opens up before us, Milly draws John to the waterline, and Martin asks me if I know that “twenty-eight percent of the ocean is abyssing.”
“I heard something like that. I think it might even be eighty-two percent—”
“That’s right! Eighty-two percent!” Martin runs toward the water, turning back to see where I am. “Come, Keely!”
“Yes, come,” John insists. The three of them stand in a row, alone on their special beach, waiting for me. “We’ll show you the kite-flying stretch.”
Now they need me. Now I’m useful.
I’m not here to make bad sandwiches, to paint their nails or heal their chapped lips. That doesn’t matter. They need someone to listen to the story of Before—how good it was to swim with Mummy, to bike and collect shells, to jump in the water holding hands off that platform right there. That’s what I can do. I can justify the reminiscing. I can take them in, learn their history, witness their suffering and their slow but indisputable survival.
The beach is part of my mother’s narrative, too. Her friend Betty Moran had a house on Thirty-fourth Street in Avalon. The Pigeons took over for a week every summer. I tagged along because Mrs. Moran’s daughter, Poopsie, and I kept each other occupied making drip castles and playing under the deck with frogs that we’d name and marry off. As we got older, we listened to eight-track tapes and did dance routines for the ladies, with tennis balls stuffed in the tops of our bathing suits.
By the time we became teenagers, Poopsie and I had stopped doing shows and spent the week shadowing our mothers, setting up beach chairs, covering ourselves in Bain de Soleil, playing backgammon. We followed the ladies as they came in from the beach, dragging their monogrammed towels and L.L. Bean totes, showering outside and changing into bright Lilly Pulitzer skirts. The ladies made short drinks with cracked ice and curls of lemon hanging off the rims, and under every glass was a cocktail napkin that said MONEY ISN’T EVERYTHING, BUT IT SURE KEEPS THE KIDS IN TOUCH. Everyone smoked and played cards. Poopsie and I drank grape Fantas, and nobody asked us how many we’d had or told us to slow down.
My mom loved playing gin and could win all night. No one could beat her except Mrs. Maroney, who, I learned that summer, used to go on dates with my dad. “A hundred years ago,” Mrs. Maroney said. “Another lifetime.”
My mom put her arms on Mrs. Maroney’s shoulders and said to me, “How would you like this crazy gal right here to be your mother?” and everyone laughed. Mrs. M. was jokey and she bought me an ice cream once, but even so, I didn’t think I was supposed to be some other lady’s daughter, and it threw me that my dad had liked someone else before he liked my mom.
“Come over to me, Nelly Norrigan!” Mrs. Wilson said. She lived on our street and had a Swedish accent and liked to pinch my ear. Her first name was Birgitta, but all the Pigeons called her BiBi. She pulled me into her in a way that made me feel special. “What do you think about all this, little Nelly Norrigan?” I told her I thought it was time for me to take her on in backgammon and she said, “Ooh la la, little girlie feeling brave.”
We set up the board. My mom came over, and I played like she’d taught me. I rolled my dice with the cup, I did the lover’s leap, I made points in my home base. But soon enough my mom drifted off to play cards on the screened-in porch, and as her shadow pulled away from the board, I rolled something crappy and panicked.
“Ooh, playing it safe, Nelly Norrigan.”
I should have taken a risk, left a man open. I knew it was dumb, but my mom leaving before I was finished flustered me. I wanted her to stand by, be my witness.