It was always a secret favorite thing to do; to wake early and slip outside into the salty morning air, walk barefoot along the dewy grass across the lawn and up to the Water Oak. We had built a little ladder, Russell and I; just a few steps to get us off the ground high enough to reach our arms up and around the lowest hanging branch, then heave ourselves into the hidden basin, the hollowed out sacred place in the middle of the trunk, right where the branches began their journey, pulling apart and reaching up towards the sky; winding their arms high above our heads to shake their leaves at heaven.
I would nestle deep into that hollowed basin, sniffing the tree bark, inhaling it with the deepest breath I could take; it was the smell of the Water Oak that I craved everyday; it was the scent of sand and oyster shells, of fireworks and sugar cane; and it smelled the way my daddy’s voice sounded when we were swimming in the shallows and he was teaching me to reach my arms deep into the wave, stretch out with each long stroke to glide across the water like he did. It smelled exactly like that.
And it was that smell that I craved most after Long Beach was gone; when we made brief visits and I would walk over to the tree, lean into it; its hollowed branches no longer able to lift me up, support my weight; but it always offered up its scent, the comfort of its magic after everything was gone.
Long Beach was my home; my only home. It didn’t matter that I never really lived there, was only allowed to visit; didn’t get to spend entire summers the way Russell and Davis did.
What mattered was that whenever I leaned into the tree, or lifted a shell from the driveway, I came back to me; came back to my dad.
I’ve just returned from a family funeral gathering in New Orleans where we honored the life of my beautiful Aunt BeeDee. It was a reunion of cousins, siblings and of our generations-long love affair with our childhood home in Long Beach, Miss. that we lost to Hurricane Camille in 1969.
At this gathering we shared endless memories and stories of Long Beach and how it was the best part of all of our childhoods – before Camille washed it away. If you’ve read my memoir Water Oak: The Happiness of Longing then you know this story and you’ve met some of these people – including my dear cousins Russell and Davis and my Uncle Warren and Aunt BeeDee who we lost last week. She was a huge part of Long Beach and she was the definition of a strong woman way before that was a thing to be.
I come from generations of southern story tellers and generations of devotion to this Long Beach land that shaped our lives. We learned this weekend that Long Beach had been in our family more than 100 years ago when the first hurricane destroyed it and it was sold to someone with no connection to our family – who then randomly sold it to my great grandfather JP who didn’t even realize the land’s previous ancestral connection. We only discovered this recently through background title searches.
This tells me that the land is indeed sacred to our family and was part of our soul agreements in ways we can’t begin to understand. And never will.
We don’t own Long Beach anymore. And our conversations this weekend were about why we can’t own it again. It has already been destroyed by three hurricanes we know of – including Camille and Katrina.
Yet this piece of land lives in our hearts and souls and always will. I myself dream of Long Beach and all of us there together nearly once a week – always have and always will. We will never “get over” our love of Long Beach and our dreams and memories of it.
What it gave us was a raw rugged love of nature, of wild untamed places and of relationships built on camaraderie and spirit. We learned to be strong and fearless there. As a girl in the 50s in Long Beach I was treated the same as my male cousins and siblings as we climbed trees, took boats out into the rough waves and dared each other to do impossible things and be whoever we wanted to be. This freedom only existed for me in Long Beach. And for most of us that’s what Long Beach was; a glimpse into our wild and fearless selves.
Every book I’ve ever written contains Long Beach in it. And every word I will write in the future was born there. I will live inside of Long Beach until the day I cross over and get to stand there once again on the porch beside my daddy, grandpa, grandma, Aunt BeeDee, Uncle Pete and the rest of us; our soul agreements continuing on as we learn to love each other better and better – sitting in the arms of our oak tree or running through the low tide sandbars with the minnows at our feet. Thank you Long Beach. Thank you for the soul agreements.