I float in the water unmoored until skin puckers and goosebumps dot flesh. I belong to no one and nowhere. That is the most freeing and terrifying thing about me. I was a secret floating in my mother’s womb uncelebrated and unannounced. At thirty weeks gestation, I was born not to a warm bosom but an incubator of needles, tubes and loneliness. Infection touched more of my body than the hands of my own mother. Then after weeks spent unattached under florescent lights, a foster mother cradled me while my mother wrestled with the reality of raising a second child alone while her dead-beat husband binge drank. My mom keeping me brought forth a life where no man, no father, and no grandfather claimed me as his beloved. I am either the freest vessel on the sea or the most ready to capsize.
There is an agitation in the water where the calm river current meets the angry sea. Ripples push against my daughter Tess’s prone body. She rests in the in between where the two elements arm wrestle. It is not personal; the brackish water just wants to make sure she is rested and ready for the wind-whipped waves.
She has floated all the way from the pier where the bottlenose dolphins who I just learned this year, are actually toothed whales, dip in and out of the Savannah River. The rumble of a Captain Dave’s fishing boat hums in the distance and soon I taste diesel. The boats lug tourists in by the hour. We stay on this end of Tybee Island to be able to get as close to the dolphins as the passengers on the boats. This year, we brought our inflatable kayak to enable us to get within a few feet.
I swim and then walk the length of the shore with Tess’s stream of consciousness commentary as our guide. There have been questions about how long dolphins live, questions about why we never left Minnesota when my mom took us camping as kids and more questions about when she can rent a surfboard to take to the other side of the island and ride the real waves. I pick up a piece of a crab shell and pitch it into the water carving a path. She tells me that she enjoys traveling by water much more than by foot.
“Why walk when you can float?”
I laugh aloud at her brilliance. She is content in this moment with the warm water caressing the entire length of her body. Content is not a space she occupies often. The only words I can find are “You are the most interesting person I know.” I toss a cracked shell back into the water. “I love the way your mind works.”
I glance back towards the pier where Tess’s twin sister Mollie and their older sister Gracy, lay on towels atop the sand. They share a set of ear buds and their feet move in tandem to the crash and bang of symbols and guitar licks. Mollie and Gracy share a love of running, sports, music, and doing well in school. When we are all together, which is rare since Gracy is in college, Mollie bounces back and forth between goofing with Tess to hanging with her big sis. During this week, Gracy can be a buffer for Mollie when she tires of Tess’s constant pleas to play, swim, or go in the water with her.
I say a silent prayer for a sun kissed week and that it will be enough to buoy us after the months mired in the untangling of our family. I know I made the right decision to end my marriage and change course from a life of disappointment and chaos. Over the years, my husband leveled the bulk of his emotional abuse at me but it has seeped into my girls’ experiences too. The younger girls are not as familiar as Gracy is with the parenting style I have had to adapt: damage control. On the drive over the causeway, I reassured them that it was okay and normal for them to miss their dad and to miss what was even though I am in no shape to see much good in what was. I look to the shimmer of the water for inspiration so I can say something when their faces show they miss him. Their father’s absence is a relief to me but a hole to them. I have mourned what could have been.
I also pray that this week caressed by water will make Tess collapse from exhaustion and get on a good sleep schedule. If she starts sleeping, she will be in a good place to start seventh grade without a struggle. Less struggle will mean she will not call me daily like she did last year begging to leave school. I repeat my new mantra that holds acceptance and hope in equal measure: “Angels. Please, this or something better.” I am the little Dutch boy holding back the flood with my small finger. This week is gold. Even with the biggest arson out of the house, I need a reprieve from being a firefighter with a garden hose. The slog of working and single parenting three children, one who has severe mental health issues, leaves me distracted and strung out. Here I float. The biggest decision I have to make is where to take everyone to dinner.
We drove across the steamy Georgia marsh the night before to rest on Tybee Island, the site of our annual pilgrimage to the Atlantic. Mollie and I were the first ones up this morning and we got an early start securing a week’s worth of groceries so we would not have to interrupt our week in paradise with the inconvenience of hunger or want. It was already 89 degrees when we woke up Gracy and cajoled Tess to help us carry bags from the car into the elevator and up to the third floor of our rented condominium. By the time everything was unloaded and the cooler packed, sweat ran in rivers from our bodies mottling the sunblock.
The area where the Savannah River’s estuary meets the ocean is called “Tybee Roads.” For me, it is peaceful for many reasons, but mostly because it leads to the place where the water quiets my daughter’s mind and wears out her body so she can rest, so I can rest. The wildness of the southern landscape has always called to me. The live oaks dripping with moss and winding roads a stark contrast to the Midwestern grid that hemmed me in as a child.
I have always allowed the current to tug me to places unknown. I was without an anchor when at eighteen, I left the land of 10,000 plus lakes and the memories of my white skin turned pink from hours submerged in Lake Minnetonka during the summer remain. I left trailing the faint smell of fish and earth and traveled south, first to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Depending on the shifting winds, the stench of dead animals from the tanneries, chocolate from the factory, or brewing hops tickled my skin. It was warmer in winter than Minnesota, true, and anchored by the hefty blue of Lake Michigan, but I did not fall in love.
From there I floated to a southern metropolis whose limbs were bursting through the seams of a too-small church coat. My northern accent, ‘you bet yas’ and apple pie charmed the other Atlanta transplants. As did my sweet daughter Gracy’s southern lilt as she sang for a tissue to blow her nose. There were trips to the ocean, the Atlantic and the Gulf. It was just a few hours’ drive to arrive at banks with haunted pasts tucked in among oak trees and inter coastal waterways. The dank humidity pressed my feet to the red Georgia clay for ten years until Gracy and I followed my husband to a land-locked city. Ohio was either the bravest thing I have ever done or the stupidest. It took time to take up space and settle. More time to put down shallow roots. Thirteen years in one hamlet, now two in another across town where the sun bouncing off river water reminds me why in winter, my body finds indoor swimming pools like lemmings find the sea. It is why I raised my three daughters in water. I have shown them the land of 10,000-plus lakes. Like me, they have been baptized in the cool, crisp waters but like me, they gravitate towards heat.
The pressing humidity of Georgia is a stark contrast to Minnesota’s dank coolness. Growing up, the temperature of the lake water averaged 70 degrees. It turned toes and lips purple on countless Memorial Day weekends that gave us the green light to plunge into the water. The water temperatures rose a bit as the days got hotter and by August, it was possible to jump off the raft at the public beach without breath being ripped from lungs. From the end of May until early September, I spent hours submerged; my pruned skin transformed me from a young kid into an old soul. In the evenings while my mom was serving silver platters to the well-to-do at the country club, Uncle Johnny would take my older sister Denise and I out in the canoe or we would fish from the dock using his hand made bamboo poles. Johnny’s house was more of a cottage on an acre of Lakefront property sandwiched between modest homes and mansions. The cottage had two bedrooms; one I shared with Denise and one he gave to my mother while he slept on a faux leather couch in the living room. For five years, he rose early and folded up his bed, had his coffee and took the early bus to downtown Minneapolis to work. Many days I would see the top of his black guitar case coming down the stairs before I saw him when I sat on the steps waiting for him to return so together we could descend the maze of stairs to the dock. He’d slide worms on my hook the right way, so it would stay then take up his guitar to serenade the sunfish that darted around the poles of the dock.
I remember many quiet sunsets with waves lapping at the shore. Even I knew not to spoil them with words. Not that Johnny would have ever raised his voice at me or expressed frustration or irritation. For Johnny, words seemed a luxury the farm boy, who grew up wearing his older brother’s patched overalls, did not tinker much with. Therefore, evenings with Johnny were calm and quiet. My sister was introverted and often lost in her thoughts or dark moods. I remember she missed mom. Pictures of me sitting in Johnny’s lap crying show I cried for her too.
During winter, Johnny would play his guitar for hours while Denise and I read on the couch or played with wooden Fischer Price people. It was also very lonely and in the stillness, lurked crushing solitude. We were fatherless. He did his best to fill in with his presence but he did not have the script or the temperament to comfort us.
My mom’s desire for independence, to not live with her brother and to live close to the community college where she took day classes in order to waitress at night, deposited us in an ugly industrial suburb where I attended the first of two Catholic schools. Already skilled in making lemonade out of lemons, I did not dare mourn the loss of the lake. I did not know how to mourn the loss of daily contact with my uncle. I was already too adept at treading water.
Of course, we still saw Uncle Johnny. Whenever we needed him, he would come; he came to fix the yellow Chevy Chavet in the brutal cold and he came to my rec softball games. We still swam off his dock in the summer but his basement smelled mustier when I went downstairs to grab a life jacket and a fishing pole. Summer days spent swimming were replaced with riding bikes for hours down paved lanes in a neighborhood. It was hot and sprinklers did not have the same effect that jumping off the dock into the cool water did. In fifth grade, my mom bought a house one town over from his and he was there the morning I singed my eyebrows from my face because I did not know you had to light the pilot light on the gas stove. When Gracy was five and she fished off Johnny’s dock, she spun to cast and slipped right off the edge. Johnny jumped in the lake with his clothes on and picked her up, fishing pole and all. Years later, he fished with Mollie, whose face would light up at the sight of the small sunfish dangling on the hook before he threw them back.
There is a picture of me at three or four years of age, that captures my being discovered on the dock by myself. I was not supposed to go there by myself. I think Uncle Johnny took it. I have my finger in my mouth and the end of a bamboo-fishing pole stuck in the water. I do not remember any real consequences because I did it again. And again. The water hitting the shore was my nursery rhyme. I could not stay away.
As if reading my mind, Tess asks me to tell her about how I would sneak down to the marina by Uncle Johnny’s house and buy candy. She loves to hear me tell her about when I was four, I walked the half mile to buy what I could with the change that I had scrounged and was bitten by a dog that was tied up outside the marina, its owner inside buying bait. I had just wanted to pet him. He bit my pinky. They called my mom. She had not realized I had left the yard. She never really had a beat on my whereabouts.
“Weren’t you too young to walk all that way by yourself?”
I tell her yes, I was too young. I do not tell her that I was too young to open cans of soup and eat it cold. I was too young to go door to door selling Jell-O to raise money for my candy fix. I got the idea from my big sister who was hawking crap to raise money for her Catholic school. I was definitely too young to know that it was best to go unnoticed and to not subject oneself to listening to their mom sobbing on the water’s edge at sunset when I’d snuck down to the dock. I knew then what I know now: water and nature offer comfort when confronting the grief of abandonment and the crushing weight of single parenting. My mom and I had both chosen relationships with unsteady men. Other than Johnny, the men of our past are not worth silt. They are magicians, sales men, liars and thieves.
By now separated, my seven-month pregnant mom still bummed a ride to the hospital from my father. He dropped her and did not return for five years when I sat on the same stairs where I waited for Uncle Johnny to come home from work for him to come and meet me for the first time. Uncle Johnny watched my mom’s dogs the many times over a twenty- year span she came to Atlanta, then Columbus, to offer a life preserver to keep us afloat during squalls brought on by my husband’s addiction and mental health issues. Johnny was the present lifeguard behind the scenes.
I love that Tess loves water as much as I do and that it brings similar comfort and escape. I love that she picked out a seashell Christmas ornament with Tybee on it as a way to remember the beach when there is snow on the ground.
The first year we came to Tybee, she did not love anything. She did not even like to be away from home. I had no idea if the week was going to be for me, pure hell stuck inside the entire time because it was too hot and the sun was too bright. She had stopped swimming in pools after our trip to the water park the year before. Her increased anxiety rendered most things that she loved to do out of the question.
We had unpacked the car as a storm formed. The waves were chaotic. We did not take the time to put on suits but quickly ran down to the water’s edge. Tess beat Mollie into the water. Her wet leggings clung to her skin as she returned to the fury and gave her body over to the water. I had to carry her out after the first lightning bolt lit up the darkening sky.
That entire week she stayed in the water for hours. Even though it was in the 90’s, she wore the black half wet suit as her beach uniform. It made her easy to spot when I would look up from my book to check on her. I only had to make sure that I got sunscreen on her face and forearms. That was during the era of compression shirts and thick sweatshirts in summer, when her sensory needs drove what clothes she wore and how safe she felt. We established a routine, which elated Mollie: the girls and I would rise early each morning, ease into the river, swim towards the surfacing dolphins, and float the morning away. Then we would rinse off in the pool. By the time, we were ready for lunch; we would pack a cooler and spend the afternoon at the beach, Tess in the waves. We were in the water too, hoisting our body above and through the waves, body surfing, and cooling off. It was pure magic. Tess slept like a drunk each night – mouth open and snoring from exhaustion.
We went back to Tybee the next August. We set up camp on the beach at the same location where I’d encountered a Stingray the year prior, reasoning that getting speared again would be akin to lightning striking twice. I am not the kind of person that has that kind of luck.
Her legs kick and catapult her into the ocean and she body surfs for a while. I watch her face light up as a wave deposits her in the sand by my feet.
“Mom, swim with me.”
I follow her out past the line where the waves are breaking. There is no need to ease into the water; the temperature is the same as what I used to once bath my babies in. We float as the water heaves up and down like a seesaw. Tess turns away from me and says, “it’s different this year but I still like it.”
I agree and reassure her. She dips under the surface and I follow. A wave rips overhead and rattles my skull. Even the wakes of sea-worthy vessels that obnoxious captains cruised on Lake Minnetonka could not match the force of one sea wave. I turn and face a swell and it slaps me across the face. I taste the sea and I know then, really know, that the water will hold us all up.
Tybee is our talisman yet I am once again finding true north. I tip my toes to the surface and float on my back. I will explore, I will not settle, and I will not make apologies for having heaved us into a life raft. I will keep us afloat. My girls will bob but they have me and they have the sea.
Kelli C. Trinoskey is an Emmy-nominated writer who lives in Columbus, Ohio with her daughters. Trinoskey formed and facilitated the Young Writers’ Workshop at the Thurber House (the educational center that honors the legacy of James Thurber) and served for three years as a writer in residence for The Wexner Center. She is currently at work on a documentary about dyslexia.