The first time we went to the town of Duck on the Outer Banks of North Carolina was during the summer of 1986. I was pregnant with my first child. My husband and I fell in love with the wide soft beaches, the absence of crowds, and the ocean water that was so much warmer than what we were accustomed to in New Jersey.
The easiest types of vacations to take with young children are beach vacations. It’s hard to interest a four-year-old in the Coliseum. So we returned to Duck every summer for about ten years, with our first son (beginning when he was six months old), and later with two boys in tow. All four of us grow a bit tender inside when we pull out a memory of those days from the back of our minds, where it has been slumbering.
The island on which Duck is situated is a spit of land tucked between the Atlantic Ocean and Currituck Sound. It’s on one of the many barrier islands along the North Carolina coast. Each side of the island is a different world. The air on the sound has a ripe smell, like plowed dirt. It’s so unlike the sharp salt smell on the ocean side, it’s hard to believe the two are less than a mile away from one another. I would go to the ocean to get some sun while I read, or to take a walk, or jump in the waves with my delighted and laughing kids. I went to the sound to sit, look across the water at the horizon, and think. Even now, I think of the ocean as outgoing and appropriate for the daytime. Conversely, I think of the sound as introspective and well suited for the end of the day as the sun is leaving, telling us it’s time to rest.
Our family’s favorite activity while on vacation in Duck was, hands down, crabbing. This consisted of sitting on the pier and dropping chicken necks, hooked onto strings, into the shallow brown water of the sound. It’s surprising how strong those chicken necks are. You would expect these fragile crescents of tiny, thin bones to snap after one or two insistent tugs from a crab’s pincers. But they never do. They always hold up until the crabs have picked away nearly every sliver of slimy, three-day-old meat.
For us, crabbing was always an end-of-the-day activity, having spent the day at the beach and therefore feeling lazy from the heat and the fresh air. I liked to end the day on this calmer water. The boys would be brown, despite my conscientious application of sunscreen, with a red flush across their cheeks and noses. We would go to the sound before returning to the house to shower. If I kissed one of the boys, I would taste salt and smell cocoa butter.
Sitting on the dock I would notice the sun softening into runny shades of orange and pink, as if someone had run a hand through it and smudged it across the sky. As dusk drifted in, the daytime sky deepened into dull silvery tones that matched the dock’s weathered boards. The horizon would blur and I could almost believe the sky was melting into the sound.
While I was contemplating the water, a great deal of action was going on around me. A tug on the string indicated that a crab had taken the bait. My husband would call out “Netman!” and the boys would spring into action.They took turns fetching the net. What pleasure I felt watching them hop around with anticipation.
We all would eye the water expectantly as my husband gathered in the line. The boys hoped for a big, fat one because my husband threw the little ones back into the water immediately. Once my husband eyed the size of the catch and gave the OK, whoever was “Netman” would bring the net underneath the crab. Together the boys would caution, “Be careful Daddy, don’t drop him,” as the crab wriggled until, with a flick of the wrist, my husband dumped the funny looking creature into the bucket. The boys would giggle at the scratchy metallic sound the claws made as the crab scuttled around the bottom of the pail. After we’d been there a while, a pile of crabs accumulated.
Eventually, the boys would beg, “Ooh Daddy, please, let them dance, please.” My husband would smile at the boys’ pleasure in this small thing and dump the crabs onto the dock. For a moment they sat perfectly still, as if they were dazed and uncertain where they were or what had happened. Then they would skitter sideways along the dock, making a scratchy sound as they moved over the graying wood planks. It’s remarkable that they always know which direction will take them back to the water. Both boys would clap, glad that the creatures were back where they belonged.
One day we were joined on the dock by another family. They mentioned that they were going to keep the crabs they caught and have them for dinner. Since we never ate them, we offered them our haul. When they left with their buckets brimming, I looked at one of my boys and saw his lips quivering, his eyes shiny with the tears he was trying to hold back. He had overheard the other family talking about eating the crabs and he was shattered. Quick moral assessment in my head: Would it be acceptable to lie to him so he wouldn’t be so bereft? No brainer for me—of course it was. So I told him the family was taking the crabs to play with them on the sand near the ocean, and would put them into the sea when they were done. Big mistake! Through the copious tears that now coursed down his cheeks he asked, “But then how will they find their families?” My sweet boy.
A few weeks ago, my husband and I returned to Duck for the first time in many years. It was only the second time we were there without children. We had perfect weather and enjoyed a wonderful week being relaxed and lazy, noting what had changed (not much), and visiting favorite old haunts. One new addition was a wooden walkway that meandered for about a mile along the edge of the sound. We enjoyed walking there every morning. Then, one day, we came upon this scene:
A family with two young boys crabbing. The family we used to be so many years ago. Sadness wrapped me in a tight grip and wouldn’t let go. I didn’t just cry—I sobbed, for at least an hour. I cried for time lost that I could never retrieve, time that I viewed as possibly the best time of my life, come and gone. I wanted to be on that dock with two little boys, my little boys.
I longed for all the sensations to which young parents are privy. I wanted to feel the dense weight of a baby in my arms, with legs and arms so fat there are creases where there are no joints, with chubby, dimpled hands that look as if you could screw them on and off. I ached to again feel my baby burrowing his creamy face into my neck and to listen to his tiny little baby grunts.
I wanted my seven-year-old son back, the one who climbed into my bed and snuggled as close to me as possible. He would be slightly damp from his bath, and I would be able to smell the shampoo in his hair, the soap on his young smooth skin. That boy who was now a memory would slip his slender arms and legs around me in a full body hug, listening with rapt attention as I read a story I had read to him hundreds of times before.
But then I thought about what I have now. Two beautiful (inside and out) young men, who work hard and have a strong moral compass. Who have already achieved great things, and overcome serious challenges that would have defeated me. Who have each taught me fundamental truths through their exemplary behavior. Who make me laugh. Who have amazing lives ahead of them that I have no right to wish away by longing for the past. Who always make me feel happy and supported and loved.
What more could I ask for? I am extraordinarily lucky. Why would I want to go back twenty-five years when what I have now is so precious and rare? I think of a saying I once heard:
Don’t be sad because it’s over.
Be glad that it happened.
The next day we walk by that same family. I hope they are making memories they will cherish. It’s their turn. I smile and wave and continue walking.