By popular request, another installment in the memoir of growing up rocket. This one's prompted by the photo of the Monterey coast in my last post.
As we blew into the air tubes, she crossed her eyes and ballooned her cheeks so I would forget that my father had demoted me from being fisherman's helper to being Mother's little helper. After we blew up the air mattresses, Mom and I ambled over the white sand toward of San Felipe the tidepools. In black volcanic rock we found pools that shimmered with tiny yellow and blue fish, sea snails and minuscule translucent hatchlings. I poked my fingers in, trying to touch the jewel creatures as they flickered between crevices.
"See this?" Mom said and pointed to a creature made of purple fingers. "It's an anemone."
I heard the word as her finger poked the tentacles and I watched them squirm, like a flower un-blooming. Together we said it: A-nem-oh-nee. Each syllable waved its fleshy finger.
She pointed to a bright red crab with long, spidery claws clinging to the rock. "Remember the crabs we saw under the pier? These rock crabs are their midget cousins."
I knew how they felt. My mother was adept at the spell of naming, revealing the nature of each natural thing with her low, sweet voice. When I could get her to stop and talk, she conveyed marvels: This was not just cactus, but cholla cactus – you knew by its wriggling branches. That fish was not just fish, but butterfly fish, and suddenly it grew wings. She showed me the world one syllable at a time.
We peered down the tidepool, concentrating on a red rock crab. Its eye stalks swiveled and peered at me. It scooted sideways and disappeared into a crevice. She moved to the next tidepool and waved me over.
"Look! Here's a black turban snail shell. It's perfect. See the white tick marks? Like fine print in a phone book."
She lifted an empty orange shell and showed me. I mouthed turban snail and felt the embrace of the whole beach. For a rare moment, everything aligned: word, sense and sound.
"We need a bucket," she said. "Run back and get one, darling."
I ran from disappointment, anxious lest her elusive attention evaporate while I was gone. When I returned, though, she smiled. She reached down and scooped up a small, perfect abalone shell. Showing me its four holes and mother-of-pearl sheen, she said, "It looks like a flute. You could almost blow into it and make a tune." She pretended to blow, but instead whistled a few bars of Bach, the notes swinging away into the wind like birds.
"You know, this place reminds me of a summer I once spent in the Rockies with my mother and brothers. We hiked in five miles with our suitcases to our cabin, but when we got there, the place was littered! Packrats had gotten in and shredded paper on every surface. We made the best of it. Had a wonderful time, just the way we'll have a wonderful week."
Somehow, the prediction gave me chills.
Behind my mother I spotted three village girls. Mom followed my gaze, turned, took my hand and walked toward them.
"Buenas tardes!" she called out in her college Castilian.
"Hola," they responded, smiling.
They stopped a little way off, giggling. Young and dark-skinned, they were so slim that the neck holes of their dresses gapped.
Mom tried again. "Somos de California. Usted habla inglés?"
This brought peals of laughter, and Mom turned lipstick pink, then red. She struggled out a few more words. The girls responded with more laughter.
Mom yanked my hand. "We're going! Rude, stupid girls! Can't they see I'm trying?"
One of the girls, seeing us turn away, ventured a question: "Mi hermano vive en La Cienega. ¿Lo sabe usted?"
I could see there was some mix-up; the girls looked surprised we were leaving, but Mom kept dragging me.
"They're pulling my leg. Peasants!"
The San Felipe girls continued talking and walking after us, but my mother wasn't listening. I looked back. They seemed sorry. I was sorry too, for Mom was as changed as a poked anemone.
"Let's look for more shells," she said, giving me an unpleasant yank.
We collected a few shells, but she was frowning.
After awhile she said, "Let's head back. I want to get on my straw mat with a book. I've earned a break."
She meant a break even from this fragile ocean world, which included me.