Fathom Mag

A Child of the Sea

An unpublished “bonus track” from Ashley Hales’s Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much

Published on:
November 19, 2018
Read time:
9 min.
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The sunlight always came in a bit slant there, stretching through Tudor leaded glass, to land gently on velvet couches. My grandmother’s living room was suspended between light and sea, with dancing flecks of dust, the stuff of fairy tales. There was a quaintness to that southern California house, how it curved in on itself. The sunshine always tried to break right on through.

Then there was Hester. She was small with bright eyes and perfectly curled auburn hair. I’d reach my fingertips tentatively to touch her. I wanted her more than anything I’d seen before. She was perfect, with her button nose and flawless porcelain skin. I was sure if she were mine she’d come alive like the Velveteen Rabbit. But she sat in doll-sized boxes and on my grandmother’s bed. A perfectly preserved prop. I desperately wanted Hester, but she was always too precious, too valuable, to be given to a child. That’s when I decided I needed to grow up. I could touch and dress her, gently, when I would visit my grandmother, but she could never be mine. She was boxed up—just like the memories I have of that woman called grandmother—and untouchable to child hands and loud, raucous joy.

The soundtrack to those early childhood summers was the quiet lap of the sea in Balboa Island, where the water would slosh against sand and the concrete barrier a few feet away. I’d hunker down with playmates I’d just met, wedged between sea, sand, and concrete. I made friends and drip castles, I skipped rocks as the days slipped past. That was back in a childhood without my intense desire to figure it all out, to know all the things, and accomplish. That was when everything just was.

Balboa Island felt like Main Street America with the added glint of southern California’s economic privilege. It was million-dollar bungalows with front-porch barbecues, where my family would gather with old family friends and I’d shake off the sand, my hair stiff with salt water. There were little front porches, surrounded by tiny picket fences where folks would gather for a barbecue after washing the sand from in between their toes. It was like another age with neighborhood parties under lanterns and mid-century charm. We’d feast on burgers. The adults would languish on chairs with cocktails and the children would circle around and around, leaving a trail of sand like stardust over wooden floors. Summers were chocolate-covered bananas and brown-berried suntanned skin from hours in sand and sea. I felt free.

We’d take the ferry, diesel fumes filling our nostrils, count out our change for the clinking coin machine as we drove cautiously onto the boat to get from the peninsula to Balboa Island. I always loved watching the orderly insertion of nickels, dimes, and quarters, where each had its own spot. Here was a piece of history—something I could hold onto. Summertime in Balboa was a game of skee ball and wisps of cotton candy, and it could make you feel alive, satiated with sun, sand. and laughter.

My childhood stretched back before me in stories around the dinner table, where I’d ask again and again to hear what my parents were like as children, as if I could turn back time and make them my playmates.

My childhood stretched back before me in stories around the dinner table, where I’d ask again and again to hear what my parents were like as children, as if I could turn back time and make them my playmates. We’ve always been wedded to water. My dad would sail little boats small enough for one or two, and then bigger boats as he grew. Stories circled around about his imaginary friend, Sacramento Tor, who could do everything that he couldn’t do. The dark stories lapped at the edges of the summer delight: these were the stories that came out only once or twice to fill in necessary gaps, but drifted away like shadows. There was my dad’s finding a voice and threatening to kill his step-dad with a rolled-up Persian rug when the man grabbed his mom. But that step-dad walked out and his mom remarried his father and suddenly we forgot the middle, barren years. We all agreed to just pretend they never happened. Perhaps it’s easier to wallpaper over the crumbling walls.

As I grew, my parents’ new Christian faith meant we didn’t see my dad’s parents very much. As the story goes, we were cut off because my dad became a Christian. But my grandmother still sent me presents, cameo rings I had no taste for. Like empty promises, they resembled heirlooms with no meaning behind them, heavy and weightless. She’d show up at the big events, snap pictures to take back to prove she had one sole grandchild. But it felt like paparazzi, a camera in my face to document the emotions that she should’ve read years before. Too little, too late we slipped away from one another. She, to her closed-off life and me, into a life of ambition.

Now the light seems stuffy, the air thick with memories, without circulation. All that sea air just sat there, and the water fell instead of evaporated and I am left with moldy memories.

I remember hanging on the underside of the staircase at my other grandparents’ home, using them as makeshift monkey bars and watching the people go up and down. I was always an observer as an only child. That was the home with old rubber bands carefully gathered on the Oldsmobile gear shift, hoarded in the diehard habits of the Depression-era, just in case. The tortoise-shell change jar with pennies that shined like hope.

Everything was clean, not in a sterile way, but there was ample space for cartwheels on the grass and drawing in chalk on the patio. There was toast with marmalade and Nana served me grapefruit on blue and white china every time I stayed over, even though I didn’t like it. I loved the serrated edges of her grapefruit spoons, her milk glass, and her upholstered white chairs. There were always neat and clean pairings, from the wooden chairs and farmhouse table to the soft-boiled egg and egg cup. I always felt like royalty staying there. That was the gift of her hospitality: her ordinariness, those generous and thoughtful touches of home.

She gave me a ring with my birthstone; it’s too small for my finger these days, but it made me feel grown up to have a real gem. I’d watch as she put on her makeup and painted her nails carefully, her cherry nails as classy as the gold locket hung that round her neck and her monogrammed pinky ring. She’d wring her hands and bemoan the knobbiness of her knuckles. But she was pure grace to me.

I’d spend hours there at her beach, just forty-five minutes south of my estranged grandmother’s home, chasing the waves, screaming with delight at the water’s edge and collecting sand crabs in buckets of wet sand. I kept going back for more: for the dizzying shock of the Pacific until my limbs would numb themselves to the cold. I’d will the ocean to lift me higher and higher. I’d surge through the top of waves bursting through them like freedom. My nose and eyes and pores would fill with salt and I learned how to watch the ocean waves, to dive down deep and hold on to the sound as the wave crashed over. 

My parents and I would trudge up the hill after enjoying our frozen grapes and cool sodas and pause to look back and catch our breath. We would look back at the view, to see in miniature what our day had been, with umbrellas and towels peppered across the beach below. If I was lucky, we’d follow up the sand with a quick trip to the neighborhood pool, and I’d jump in and feel the sand leave my body. I’d stay underwater as long as I could. Holding my breath, letting water move around me, to turn me into the quiet that I sought. Underwater, everything was still, complete, and the embodiment of peace. But I always had to come up.

Movement has always been in my blood, even if I’m not always ready for it.

In the same way, I remember loving swinging as a child. I could soar above the playground drama and, by pumping my legs hard for a few minutes, I could feel the breeze blow right through me, like I was invisible. And then there was the calculating, the inrush of breath as I let my arms lose the security of rusted metal chains and I was flying. Then I’d scramble right through the sand and do it all over again, just for a second to fly. I so desperately wanted to get caught up into something larger than me.

My Nana would make dinner and I’d sit and listen to her stories, the stories about Arkansas, with the ever-growing list of cousins back in Fayetteville, people I was supposed to know the way she talked about them. Stories of the beautiful Anderson girls—the generation right before hers. Her mother and her sisters and the daughters they bore. Those were the girls with class, with grace, and with all the boys tripping over themselves goggle-eyed at their beauty.

Movement has always been in my blood, even if I’m not always ready for it. My grandmother found her man on a train moving east, en route to war. The young ladies turned up to dance with the young servicemen; he was smitten. My grandfather was a boy from California, that great golden wish out West, with a dashing smile and penetrating blue eyes. There were stories of letters crossing the ocean while he was stationed in Europe. I can see him now (my grandfather dead these last several decades) in that dusty black and white photograph all decked out in a Scottish Highland tartan on leave. His eyes a sparkle. Who could resist those eyes?

That California boy married that Southern girl and they moved to Los Angeles, where she was overwhelmed with freeways and congestion and so many people. But she made a home and birthed three babies. She threw parties while her youngest fell asleep amongst the fur coats. They’d take a boat twenty-six miles to dance all night on Catalina Island. After each party, my mother would listen closely, tucked in bed, as her parents did the dishes together, going over the details of that night’s soiree. One washed, one dried, and order was restored; they balanced one another, those two. My Nana dove into the life of salty sea air and yet, home was elsewhere. Home was the Arkansas dirt, the stately brick of the University of Arkansas, Southern hospitality, and a bourbon and water. She’s now been planted in the shifting southern California sands for more decades than she was in Arkansas. I miss seeing that Revlon plum nail polish on her now-bare nails, the little loss of luxuries as one ages and begins to drift away mentally, from home.

My third grade Baptist Sunday school teacher took us fishing on the water. I had no taste for fishing. I was not okay with fish or the act of catching them. He was old to my ten-year-old eyes and lumbered about awkwardly. What was left of his flopping curly hair would move with his enthusiasm as he taught us every Sunday morning, running about the room. In his bountiful generosity, he gave out full-size Snickers bars for Bible memorization. On Sundays, his wife would accompany our poorly sung hymns at a tinny piano, and there was always a sparkle in his eyes and a rolling joy when he sang about the blood of Jesus. It was embarrassing back then to us newly self-conscious youth-adoring young girls.

But he loved fishing and so, in some way, we did too. Maybe it was because I wanted to be the straight-A student even back then, to check off the boxes, but maybe too, it was because we so desperately wanted to be seen. When we’d done our work, he took us out on his little boat. It smelled of diesel and water and blood. We caught fish, we laughed, and there was ample provision. I don’t even remember his name, but he remembered mine for years when I walked into that church. He’d crush my hands and pump them hard to welcome me home. He knew me: I’d fished with him. My girlfriends and I would snicker and try to avoid him in the first blushes of youth when we’d run into him in the church foyer. Yet in those hand-gripping moments we’d hear the stories of boat after boat after boat on water. We were a part of a story that stretched before and behind us. We knew we were welcome.

When I was eleven I was baptized in that Baptist suburban church of my childhood, the one that taught the Bible instead of Peanuts comics like the church down the street. I was dunked, along with my mother and father, in a jacuzzi tub in the middle of a service. With water dripping off of me, I didn’t feel anything immediately new. For years, I had sat in countless red plastic kid-sized chairs and “prayed the prayer” and “accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and savior,” hoping to do it just right, wanting it to stick. What would happen if I had said the words wrong, or if I died that evening? Would I really be saved?

Bible reading plans and chastity cards felt safer. They were tangible markers of faith instead of the power of Spirit that moves like wind and sea where he wishes.

In junior high, I threw myself into quiet times. I secretly lit candles in a closet underneath the stairs, read the appropriate Bible passage for the day, and journaled my prayers in a flowery journal bought from the local Christian store. I claimed the cover’s Bible verse as my own: that if I delighted myself in God—if I found a home in him—that I’d have the desires of my heart. Then, this essentially meant that I’d find a cute Christian boyfriend like in those Christian romance novels. I would doodle on the welcome cards and meld my name with that of my latest crush. I was learning the easy ways of doing the Christian life.

I lit the candle in my prayer closet, secreted the burnt match away, perhaps so my parents wouldn’t see I had fire uncontained. But the collection of burnt matches also gave me tangible reminders of faithfulness, of showing up and believing God would show up too. On the edge of adolescence, I read through the Bible in a year. If I missed a day, I’d read two weeks’ worth at a time. The check marks in my Bible reading plan were checkmarks of my faith. Each little box marked off filled me with pride that I was joining the ranks of serious Christians. I even read through Leviticus and Ezekiel. And I figured if it was worth doing, I would do it fully, perfectly. Was this not what mature Christians did?

Somewhere along the way, I lost the freedom of the ocean, of all things made new. I lost the raucous raging fury of a God who envelops, buoys and covers. Bible reading plans and chastity cards felt safer. They were tangible markers of faith instead of the power of Spirit that moves like wind and sea where he wishes. I wanted home to be orderly, safe and predictable. I desperately wanted to do it all right. If I could make the kingdom of God into checkboxes, I would.

Ashley Hales
Ashley Hales (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is a writer, speaker, and host of the Finding Holy podcast. She is the author of Finding Holy in the Suburbs and A Spacious Life: Trading Hustle and Hurry for the Goodness of Limits. Ashley is married to a pastor and the mother to four children.

Cover photo by Anastasia Taioglou.

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