Beach Song

9.Morocco

Morocco: Photo by Julia Goldsby

I love the ocean. The most musical of earth’s components, its pulse—rhythmic yet unpredictable—floods my soul with hope, quenches my desire for a wider perspective, and washes away the grit and grime of a landlocked life. In my fifty-seven years, I’ve spent time on beaches all over the world, not because I’m a Birkin-toting, stiletto-heeled jet setter with beach side chateaux in Malibu and St. Tropez, but because I’m the daughter of a musician, I’m married to a musician, and I’m a musician myself. Music, for most of my life, has provided me with prepaid tickets to the destinations of my dreams. Coastal concerts, harbor happenings, beach bashes, seaside shindigs—we’ve played for them all. Short of being the world’s oldest Baywatch lifeguard, I can’t think of any better way to finance my addiction to salt water and sand. Here are a few of my waterlogged memories.

 1966: Miami Beach

My father plays drums in a Dixieland band for a Teamster convention in Florida. He takes us along for a two week vacation. I eat frogs’ legs at an outdoor luau at the Americana Hotel, with a picture of Jimmy Hoffa projected (eight stories high!) on a wall of the hotel. My dad’s band wears red and white striped shirts and straw hats. I like the tuba player.

“Who is this Jimmy Hoffa?” I ask my dad.

“He’s the boss,” says my dad. “He’s the reason we’re here.”

I become a big Jimmy Hoffa fan. After all, he got me to Miami. Frogs’ legs, it turns out, really do taste like chicken.

During the day I hang out on the beach with my brother and sister. Because we spend so much time underwater, my mother dresses us in matching neon tank suits so she can see our pert behinds on the surface of the bright blue sea. After two days of this, even my eyeballs are sunburned, and I have to go to dinner in the fancy hotel wearing eye patches. Fearful of looking like a pirate, I place my mother’s big black sunglasses over the patches—a Jackie Kennedy meets Bluebeard look that I’m sure will pass for Miami Beach-chic. I am temporarily blind and cannot enjoy the 4th of July fireworks that night. It doesn’t matter. All I care about is getting back into the water the next day. My sister and I play a game at water’s edge. We hold hands as the waves break over us, determined to cling to each other no matter what. We roll back and forth, as sand scrapes our private parts and salt stings our eyes. We laugh and hold on tight. A lifeguard yells at us for pretending we are drowning. We’re perfecting our synchronized swimming skills. Some might call it synchronized drowning. We’re having fun.

My father catches a fish while we’re flipping over each other in the water and throws it at us. It tangles in my hair. I develop Fear of Fish and will spend the next few decades terrified of underwater critters.

1.Beach

1969: Conneaut Lake

My father books a summer job in a resort area a few hours away from home. We spend three months in a lakeside cottage next to Conneaut Lake, a dark blue body of water in Western Pennsylvania. Not an ocean, but it might as well be. I live on a sand-covered pier, swimming back and forth to a raft anchored twenty meters away. Too many speedboats churn the water and rock the raft. My sister and I smear ourselves with baby-oil and iodine so we can tan faster. By August, I resemble a rotisserie chicken with strong triceps. My hair turns silver. I hope that Davy Gallagher, the bronze lifeguard who looks like Ivy League Tarzan, will notice me. He does not. But a boy named Timmy Catcher catches me. We dance around each other and play splash games in the lake. Despite rumors of snapping turtles I learn to water ski and get pretty good at it, except for one instance when my hair gets caught in a tow rope and I almost drown.

I worry about those snapping turtles.

In the evenings, I brush pier sand out of my hair and string tiny love beads into necklaces that no one will ever wear. Timmy Catcher kisses me. Just once.

 1976-1983: Nantucket Island

I arrive on Nantucket Island with a dozen suitcases, packed mostly with books and bikinis. I plan to be a waitress, but, two weeks before Memorial Day I land a job playing the piano in a bar. What a thing! I can spend the summer on a New England beach and get paid to play the piano. During the day, I bask in the sun on beaches called Madaket or Dionis or Nobadeer. As far as I’m concerned, any beach named by Indians is the real deal. At night I put on a glittery tube top and a long skirt and play Carole King songs. I’m wave-tossed, sun-kissed, and boy crazy. A swain named Joe steals my heart and teaches me how to surf fish. I am the only female member of the Kamikaze Water Ski Club, a Nantucket Yacht Club sub-group founded by the stoned teenage children of various Titans of Industry. I worry about sharks and other fish with large teeth. This motivates me to avoid falling when I’m water skiing. I perfect a one-ski beach landing after I spot a sand shark swimming too close to shore.

My favorite bikini is white.

I will return to Nantucket every summer for many years. The romance with Joe fades, but my love affair with the island hangs tight. The rhythm of the waves seems like an external heartbeat, nature’s metronome, an urgent throb that counterpoints human instinct.

By the end of my first summer, the subtle pulse of the waves syncs with my own rhythm. I am hooked. The sand shark never gets me.

Photo by Julia Goldsby

Sligo, Ireland: Photo by Julia Goldsby

1983: Haiti

I travel now and then to Haiti where I play the piano for upscale visitors to a fancy-pants hotel—I’m the featured entertainment in a Third World cocktail lounge. Baby Doc is still in office and the atmosphere feels tense, the resort air smug and sticky. When I’m lucky, I get a lift to Ibo Beach. The  road to Ibo is lined with potholes, rocks, scrambling chickens, and artists attempting to sell colorful paintings for a dollar or two. It makes me sad.

After an hour-long dusty ride in an old Cadillac, I take an African Queen boat to Ibo Island—a slice of sun-drenched wonder in a ravaged country, a place where I can stare at the sea and imagine I live in a fair world.

A jellyfish stings me and a Haitian woman treats the sting with vinegar and shaving cream. It burns, but not for long.

I eat too many mangoes.

Muscat, Oman Photo by Julia Goldsby

Muscat, Oman
Photo by Julia Goldsby

1984: Cat Cay, The Bahamas

I fly from my Third World gig to a private island populated by rich Republicans and wild turkeys. Between piano sessions at Bloody Mary brunches and Happy Happy Happy Hour whiskey tastings, I walk pristine beaches, stare at sparkling water and try to figure out who I am. I belong on a beach, but maybe not this one.

Photo by Julia Goldsby

Photo by Julia Goldsby

1991: Princeville, Kauai

After being fired from my seven-year piano engagement at the Marriott Marquis in Manhattan (and replaced by a tuxedo-clad mannequin at a player piano), I fly to Hawaii with my husband, John. Kauai seems a little distant, but my sister has offered us a place to stay. I cash in my American Airlines frequent flyer miles (all those trips to Haiti) so we can fly for free.

The Kauai beaches, manicured but still rough around the edges, remind me of everything I’ve been missing. My husband and I slide down a steep hillside to visit Secret Beach, where huge boulders interrupt long stretches of white sand. We do secret things on Secret Beach. Then we almost kill ourselves climbing back up the hill.

I attempt to overcome my fear of snorkeling when I watch small children and old people frolic in shallow water, chattering about the colorful varmints swimming among us. I hate knowing there are living things in the water with me, but it’s time to overcome Fear of Fish and get with the program. I don a mask and flippers and force myself to enjoy the lovely residents of the sea as they glide past me.

I hate this. I do. Oh look. Electric blue, bright yellow, there’s one with stripes. Isn’t this fun? What if I see a stingray? Or a shark? Or, God forbid, an eel?

Something that looks like Karl Lagerfeld with gills drifts under my right hand.

Very nice. God, I hate this. Look there—a group of tiny orange fish with spikes. Are they following me? Do they bite? Are there Piranha in Hawaii?

While my rigid body tries to enjoy the underwater fin fashion show, a huge dog—I will find out later it’s a Great Dane named Junior—jumps into the surf and begins swimming towards me. When Junior swims into my line of vision, I panic, lose all sense of reason, and imagine I am being attacked by a Kauai Monster Dog Fish. I take one look at his large choppers and churning paws, and I’m sure I’m about to die one of those long, slow, Jaws kind of deaths, where my body flies into the air, the ocean’s froth turns bright red from carnage, and everybody screams and vomits. I forget how to swim and try to run out of the water on my flippers. Junior continues to have fun.

My husband and sister laugh for hours. I swear I will never snorkel again.

My sister makes a bra out of coconut shells and does a dance we call the “Big Butt Hula.”

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Tel Aviv: Photo by Ruben Bauer

1993: Montauk

John plays for an upscale summer party in Montauk, Long Island. We use his salary to finance a few days in a seedy hotel on the beach and hang out with our nine-month old baby, Curtis. Perched on a blanket, we encourage him to play in the sand. He hates sand. He throws it and cries and stays on the blanket. The only thing that soothes him is his father’s baritone version of “Blue Skies,” accompanied by me doing a stupid dance. We have buckets and shovels, but he’s not interested in toys. None of this sandcastle stuff for him. In an effort to get away from the beach, he learns to walk. One step, then two. Not running towards the water, but away from it. Clearly he does not take after my side of the family. Or maybe he already has Fear of Fish.

Montauk, Long Island

Montauk, Long Island

*****

We move to Europe in 1994. Our kids each learn to swim at an early age and, in spite of our son’s dislike of sand, we take occasional seaside holidays whenever we can afford it, or whenever someone pays us to go. We scald our feet traversing the dunes of Grand Canaria, and teach the kids how to body surf in the freezing North Sea on the Belgian coast. We encourage them not to stare at topless sunbathers on the Cote D’Azur, and to wear sturdy swim shoes when navigating the rocky shores of Cornwall. Carrying on with the Goldsby-Rawsthorne-Meloy tradition of “singing for our supper,” the kids have visited some of the world’s most impressive beaches while taking part in educational trips, volunteer opportunities, or music exchange groups. They’ve walked on beaches I’ve never seen, beaches that belong in their memories, not mine.

Slathered in sunscreen and decades past my best bikini years, I remember sitting on the sand and watching my kids when they were little, holding hands and leaping through the surf into deeper and deeper water. I remember the game I once played with my sister. Never let go, no matter what.

Respect the water, dive under the waves, and when you’re older, wiser, and more tired than you want to be, remember there’s magic at the beach. Fall in love a few times. Get a suntan. Feel the salt in your eyes. Encounter a Dog Fish. You might avoid the frogs’ legs buffet, but by all means, do secret things on a stretch of sand where the roar of the water is louder than your own voice.

“Get to the beach,” I tell them. “As often as you can.”

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Mykonos: Photo by Stacey Papaioannou and Julia Goldsby

*****

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Coming soon: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

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  • luvmyrecords

    Beautiful! Thanks for the reminder during a busy Summer! This Long Islanders first found a new part of himself in Virginia Beach

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Hi Greg! Nice to hear from you here. Sending lots of love your way. I miss you and Em. xoxo

  • dkl

    Packing my beach bag with a lump in my throat…a beautiful essay, soothing as waves, sweet as salt spray. Thank you, Robin.

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Thanks, dkl. Enjoy your holiday. Stay away from the Dog Fish. xoxo

  • globalmom

    This essay brings back such vivid beach memories. I too had a fear of fish especially after an encounter with a barracuda. I love the stories you share and the wonderful photos.

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      A barracuda? Those things are scary. Way too many teeth. Thanks for reading, globalmom. xoxo

  • Melissa Meyer Mash

    Very enjoyable reading! I too love the beach but rarely swim in it after seeing JAWS at too early an age! Funny how that stuff stays with you. Your stories are particularly poignant in the immediate aftermath of the Tunisia massacre. That is a danger we never considered when lying on the beach growing up.
    I do enjoy snorkelling though. Funny, when I see the schools of fish, I think of music. They turn and sway in unison to the time of an unseen conductor.
    How lucky you are to have a profession that takes you to so many wonderful spots in the world!
    Your stories made a lovely start to my weekend – thank you! Melissa

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Thank you, Melissa! I wrote this essay before the Tunisia tragedy. Beaches are not immune to evil.

      Glad you can snorkel; you’re a brave woman! But yes, you are right—those schools of fish seem to be choreographed. Fish ballet.

      xo