The Beach House by Mary Alice Monroe
It was twilight and a brilliant red sun lazily made its hazy descent off the South Carolina coast. Lovie Rutledge stood alone on a small, rolling sand dune and watched as two young children with hair the same sandy color as the beach squealed and cavorted, playing the age-old game of tag with the sea. A shaky half smile lifted the corners of her mouth. The boy couldn’t have been more than four years of age yet he was aggressively charging the water, the stick in his hand pointing outward like a sword. Then, turning on his heel, he ran back up the beach, chased by a wave. Poor fellow was tagged more often than not. But the girl…Was she seven or eight? Now there was a skilled player. She danced on tiptoe, getting daringly close to the foamy wave, instinctively knowing the second to back away, taunting the water with her high laugh.
How like her own Cara, Lovie thought, recalling her youngest. Then, seeing a rogue wave wash over the boy, toppling him and leaving him sputtering with rage, she chuckled. And how like her son, Palmer. Not far away, the children’s young mother was bent at the waist busily gathering up the carelessly thrown buckets and spades into a canvas bag and shaking sand from towels, eager to pack up and go.
Stop what you’re doing and observe your children! Lovie wanted to say to the young mother. Quick, set aside your chores and turn your head. See how they laugh with such abandon? Only the very young can laugh like that. Look how they are giving you clues to who they are. Treasure these moments! Savor them. For they will disappear as quickly as the setting sun. And then, before you know it, you will be like me—an old woman, alone and willing to trade anything and everything for one soft evening such as this with her babies once again.
She wrapped her arms around herself and sighed. “Lovie, you do go on,” she told herself with a shake of her head. Of course she wouldn’t tell the young mother this. It would be rude, and of no use. The mother was harried, her mind filled with all she had yet to do. She wouldn’t understand Lovie’s warning until her own children were grown and gone. One day she would recall this very twilit evening and the sight of her children dancing on the shore and then…Yes, then she would wish she had stopped to hold their chubby hands and play tag along with them.
Lovie continued to watch the scene unfold in its predictable manner. The towels were shaken and folded, then stuffed into the bag, the children were called in from the water’s edge and, as the sky darkened, the mother led her tired soldiers in a ragtag formation over the dune and out of sight.
Silence reigned once again on the familiar stretch of beach. Another day was done. Along the water’s edge a sandpiper peeped as it skitted across the sand and foam line in its straight-legged manner. Behind Lovie, the tall grasses swayed in the evening breeze. She closed her eyes, acutely attuned to the night music. There would only be a few more quiet nights like this. It was mid-May and the tourist season would soon go into full swing on the South Carolina coast.
Soon, too, her beloved sea turtles would be arriving.
She peered out for a long while at the sea as the sky darkened around her. Somewhere out in the distant swells that rolled and dipped with the winds she sensed a loggerhead was biding her time. Waiting until some powerful instinct told her that the moment was right to venture ashore. Every summer for more years than she could recall Lovie had done whatever she could to help the loggerheads through the nesting season. This summer’s group of mothers might even include hatchlings she’d helped scramble to the sea twenty years earlier. She smiled at the thought.
Lovie walked to the water’s edge, right to where the sea stretched to her toes. When she was young—oh, so many years ago—she, too, used to giggle and run away in that timeless game of sea tag. As did her children and grandchildren. But she and the sea were old friends now and tonight she hadn’t come to play. Rather, she’d come to her old friend for solace. She stood motionless, feeling each swirl about her ankles as a caress, hearing the gentle roar of the surf as loving whispers. There, there…
Tears filled her eyes. Seeing the mother and her young children brought back images that were both joyous and heartbreaking. The years had flown by too swiftly, slipping away like sand through her fingers. She lifted her chin and wiped away the tear from her cheek. The vast blue ahead stretched out seemingly to infinity. This was no time for tears, she chided herself. She was old enough to know that life, like the sea, didn’t always play fair. Yet she’d always believed that if she played by the rules, if she persevered, one day she’d have time enough to…
To do what, she asked herself, shaken? She was still unclear as to what exactly was missing in her relationship with her children. Her daughter, especially. When they were young, Cara and Palmer had played together under her watchful eye on this very same stretch of beach. They’d been close then, had such good times together. But now her children were grown-up and she felt every inch of the distance between them, stretching further over the years.
She turned to walk up the beach toward three lots that remained vacant on this stretch of valuable real estate and climbed the small dune. Beyond the lots she could see her beach house perched on a distant dune like a tiny island, nearly obscured from view by a row of gangly oleanders. Its once vibrant yellow color was stripped by sunshine and leached into the gala of yellow primroses that grew wild over the dunes. All the angles, corners and quaint panes of glass of the cottage were dear to her. Primrose Cottage was more than a beach house. It was a touchstone. A place of sunshine and happiness, for her and for her children.
Lovie stood alone gazing toward the west. The day’s light extinguished and the night grew dark and silent save for the clicking of the swaying sea oats and the gentle lapping of waves along the shore. As ghosts of the past rose up to swirl in the hallucinatory colors of twilight, she sighed deeply, clasping her hands tight in front of her as one in prayer. She was nearly seventy years old. There was no time left for regret or misgivings, no time for dreams of what might have been. There were plans to be made. The beach house—and all the secrets it held—had to be placed in secure hands. Too much had been sacrificed for too many years to let the secrets slip out now. Too many reputations were at stake.
She had but one hope.
“Lord,” she prayed, her voice raspy in her tight throat. “I’m not here to complain. You know me better than that after all this time. But the Bible says You never close a door without opening a window. So I’m praying for You to open the window. You know how things are between Cara and me. It will probably take a miracle to make peace. But You’re famous for those, so I’m hopeful. Please, Lord, that’s all I’m asking for. Not more time. I’d go willingly if I knew things were settled here before I left.” She smiled ruefully. “I’m going whether it’s willingly or not—I know that, too.” Her smile fell as she grimaced in pain. “Please, Lord, answer this one small prayer. Not just for me, but for Cara. Help me play with my child once more before I die. Bring my Cara home.”
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