Air Date: Week of April 23, 1999
Commentator Susan Shepherd reflects on how one particular stretch of beach in Florida took on life-and-death meaning in her life.
CURWOOD: Florida is a place where waterways play an inextricable part of everyday life. And in this aquatic environment, people often form strong bonds with lakes, rivers, and oceans. One such person is commentator Susan Shepherd.
SHEPHERD: When I was 13, my family moved from Philadelphia to Florida. In August. It was so hot the air shimmered and the cacophony of frogs screeching in the trees nearly drove me mad. Even the plants steamed. I swore I could see vines crawl like snakes over trees and devour them whole.
We were not good children, any of us, and I thought my parents wanted to take a long, hard look at what hell might be like. Thank God for the nearby beach. It became my refuge. On the sharp, brilliant days of winter, the ocean danced crashing and foaming. I learned to surf. Paddling out scared, I'd feel the sea below me become enormous and deceptively flat. Then a wave would form and rush toward me, growing and growing, sweep me up and toss me on the beach.
Struggling with undertow I'd stand, gasping, my hair and bathing suit full of sand. Shaken but excited I'd repeat the dance again and again until, too exhausted to make it home, I'd fall asleep in the sand.
When I played hooky from school, I'd spend all day swimming and exploring. Once I walked down to the inlet and made my way out the slippery, moss- covered jetty where a fisherman cast his line from the rocks. We stood silently, watching a huge, black shadow drift toward us. At first we couldn't place it, but then the telltale coffee-scoop snout gave it away: a manatee mother with her baby. I found myself slipping into the water and swam toward them. The baby stayed snug against its mother's side, but they didn't seem to mind me intruding. They were hungry and the jetty was covered with food. As I treaded water within several feet of them I realized: this Florida wasn't hell, after all. It was heaven.
The best times on the beach were full moon tides. The water receded so far I could walk for miles on exposed reefs. In tidal pools I watched stranded fish dart frantically in a last-ditch effort to save themselves. And the crabs. They'd pop out of their tiny holes, look me jauntily in the eye and stand their ground, lifting their useless pincers. Heaven.
But as it turns out, it was also hell. About the time I was getting set to leave Florida for college, my younger sister Leigh died in a car crash. After the funeral my family walked down to the inlet. We made our way out the long jetty and shook her ashes into the sea, where they plunked like pebbles.
I like to imagine my sister's soul down there on the ocean floor, where the fish poke and the grasses wave, as she rides the tide heavy and warm as a mother's love back and forth like an eternal rocking chair.
Years later, after giving birth, I held my daughter against my chest, pondering this new heaven. My midwife sat beside me with a puzzled look and asked, "Why did you keep shouting the word, 'beach'?" I couldn't explain it to her then, but later I realized: it's the one and only place that really soothes me.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: Susan Shepherd is a member of the staff of Living on Earth.
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