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Santa Rosa Beach, 1999

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Essays, Writing on March 23, 2016 at 6:45 am

Mel Mendenhall was born and raised in Columbus, Georgia.  He lives in Atlanta and is the CEO CLVL Solutions, LLC

Mel Mendenhall

In my mind we’re all together at Santa Rosa Beach in the Florida panhandle: my wife, my children, and me. It’s the summer of 1999.

“Mel, as soon as you unpack the car” – which is actually a behemoth of a vehicle called a Suburban – “why don’t you run down to the beach with the kids? You know how they enjoy the beach.”

I don’t know how many times my wife, Julie, has said something like this to me over the course of our children’s vacations. It’s been a lot, though, I know. Too often my mind is wandering to work items: things I need to get done, conversations that need to take place. Always busy, always.

My kids are growing up, Allen the oldest, now 16, Brett nearly 14, and my precious angel girl, Ansley, soon to turn 10. I can’t believe it. Ten. It’s good to have them with me here at the beach.

Finally, I’ve started to appreciate the time we spend together on these family vacations. Somewhere it’s registered with me that time is starting to run short, that the kids are getting older and it won’t be long before Allen goes to college. Then what?

With the car emptied and our groceries and supplies for the week put away, I ask the kids if they want to head down to the beach. Ansley shouts “yay” and boasts to no one in particular, “we are going to the beach!”

Brett says, “Let’s go.”

“Allen?…Allen?” I say. “Hey, what’s with the long face?”

“Dad, I’m bored.”

“Allen, we just got here.”

“I know, dad, but my friends are all staying at a hotel at Sandestin.”

“So,” I try to reason with him, “we are staying here like we always do and it’ll be fun.”

“No, dad,” he says, “I want to see my friends.”

“Oh, c’mon, Allen, let’s go to the beach.”

With that, out bounds Ansley, already in her bathing suit. Brett too. We hurry down the stairs and out the sliding glass doors to the beach. Off we go. Except “we” is just me, mom, Ansley, and Brett. Allen is inside sulking.

We play around on the beach for the better part of an hour. We walk the surf and watch the sand crabs run their endless shuttles back and forth from surf to sand. Whatever those little shells are that seem to burrow their way into the wet sand as the waves rush back only to be swallowed again by the ocean, they’re still here, as they’ve always been. But Allen is not here. He is still inside, pouting I guess.

After some time we all go back inside, shower, and ready ourselves for dinner. Then we’re in the car, driving and pointing at shops and people, a morose Allen in tow. We arrive at one of our family’s favorite restaurants, Bayou Bills. Still, Allen isn’t happy. Gee whiz, I think, kids these days.

The next morning after breakfast I walk down to the beach and, surprisingly, Allen follows. He is in his bathing suit and wearing one of his cross country t-shirts. I’m thinking this is good, that he’s warming up to our trip.

Once on the beach, Allen looks pensive. He’s unsettled. I suggest that we walk left, which is east, down the beach to see whether Beakster is here this year at the inlet about half a mile away. Beakster was a tall sea-faring crane that just a few years ago Allen befriended on one of our trips. It was really cute seeing how the bird and Allen really did seem to be playmates. That summer, when we left for home, Allen was sad to leave Beakster. He assumed, as we all did, that Beakster would miss him too.

But here we are now and Allen is gazing longingly and deliberately up the beach to the right, the west, rather than to my suggested course, east to where Beakster may be.

Suddenly, Allen, who’s the captain of his high-school cross country team, looks at me and says, “I’m going running. I’m going to see if I can make it to the hotel where my friends are.”

And with that, he begins to jog away from me, headed west. His first couple of strides kick up sand, some of which ends up on my hairy feet. The sonorous surf seems to speak at me, echoing Julie’s words, warning me that time is precious and our children are growing up.

I stand here for a long time, watching my boy – or is that a young man – growing smaller and smaller as my throat grows larger and larger. In this moment, I know childhood for him is gone and that I’ll miss it for the rest of my life.

I turn east, walking to find Beakster. If I can only find Beakster, maybe I can bring my little boy back.

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