Listen to There’s Baby That Baby Again, read by the author, or read full text below:
Stone Harbor, New Jersey, July, 2021. We have piled our beach chairs and umbrellas, sand anchors, towels, straw hats, soon-to-be-recalled-for-carcinogens-sunscreen, and books into the navy canvas wagon that we lug Mother Courage style across the fine white sand to a carefully chosen, uncrowded spot, set back enough from the high-water mark so we won’t get flooded when the tide rolls in. As the sun climbs merrily to the thinnest part of the ozone layer, others wend their burdened way onto the beach and settle into politely distanced spots along the seafront. Comfortable at last on our homesteaded plot, I find myself distracted from my book to watch an encampment of what I gather is a large extended family several yards away. Among this group is a flock, a pack, a gaggle of small boys, all between the ages of 4 and 7. Surprisingly quiet, they are in constant motion on skinny legs, flittering like sandpipers, but without the tight choreography.
Each time I look up from my Rickie Lee Jones autobiography, they are equipped with a new beach toy. I first see them all lined up at the water’s edge with a sprinkling of dads among them, throwing what looks to be flanged surfboards with little upright, surfing people attached. No matter how these plastic Kens and Barbies are hurled into the sea, they right themselves and catch a wave back to shore. Will this be as close as these little boys will ever get to playing with dolls? I find the scene delightfully riveting and now I want this surfer doll-boat thing for myself. My sister tells me I can get one at Hoys, the five and dime in town. She has four grandchildren and knows these things. I look over at my currently single, beautiful 33-year-old gay daughter, sunning herself next to me, too engrossed in her book to hear the ticking of my biological grandmother clock. I sigh, check the time on my phone and go for a walk. When I return, the boys now have colorful plastic golf clubs with matching oversized balls, which they smack and then chase, unconscious of each other, so absorbed are they in their personal best. Are they a new breed of child, hatched to evolve into teenagers, self-contained and hermetically sealed by their phones and iPads, replacing the physical with the virtual? I hope not, because right now they are free range and fully engaged in sand and surf and childish things.
Later, I look up again from my book, tsking because Rickie Lee Jones is falling in love with heroin and Tom Waits at the same time. Tom does not approve and dumps her- oh Rickie. Maybe it’s for the best, because if they’d married, he’d be Tom Jones. Optimism rises as I see the boys, now on tiny boogie boards, the dads watchful but not hovering, in front of a brace of red sweatshirted girl guards, overly tan but nonetheless vigilant, atop a white wooden lifeguard stand, reassuring in its classical design, even older than I am.
Then before I know it, there’s that baby again. It’s a young family of four that insists on setting up their tiny colony right behind us. A mom, a dad, a 3-year-old daughter and a toddler-to-be of indeterminate sex – probably “she/her/hers”, but who knows. The baby has a strawberry blonde crew cut and a sweet face. These are the kinds of parents who assume perfect strangers can’t help but be charmed by their child, a child who has yet to learn the dynamics of sand and wind and kicks her stubby feet towards us, mother and baby both smiling a little maniacally. The mom walks the baby between her legs, hands gripping the upraised arms as they plod Frankenstein-like ever closer, expecting reciprocal enthusiasm. I wipe the assault of sand from my nose, mouth and glasses, still managing to smile, because I am on vacation, thanks to the generosity of my sister. But after a year of Covid job loss, I am in no mood to chitty chat with strangers. And shouldn’t that baby be walking by itself by now? They never learn if you keep holding on to them – let ’em get a mouthful of sand, I think to myself, picking the grit from my teeth. I hear my long dead father saying “you have to eat a peck of dirt before you die”, which always made me wonder “Isn’t it, in fact, eating the peck of dirt that causes you to die?” But I think he meant it as reassurance; that invariably a certain amount of dirt will find its way into your gastrointestinal system, so don’t worry about putting that fallen wad of gum right back into your mouth. Unthinkable now but those were simpler, less hygienic times…or maybe the dirt was cleaner.
The mother and baby veer off to a more receptive audience and I am left to question my grandchild longings. Why does that baby annoy me and what is the father doing, other than grinning vacuously and smearing himself all over with pina colada sun tan lotion? But then he goes and picks up the baby and cheerfully takes care of her for the rest of the afternoon, proving me judgmental and wrong.
The 3-year-old however…she seems to like being on her own at the edge of the family nest, both relieved and resentful at not being the focus. She is concentrating on her sand art and if someone tries to engage, she shakes her barretted blond curls, turns away and starts her museum in a new location. Seems perfectly reasonable to me. She stays put and doesn’t make a stink. Then I think is that healthy? A second child can inflict an unpleasant level of maturity upon the first born. I remind myself that this is not my problem. Wait, did she just slice open her father’s foot with the edge of a clam shell? I can’t worry about this kid. She’s fine.
I get back to my book, where I read that despite the roller coaster cyclone of fame, drugs, and crazy risk taking, Rickie Lee Jones has turned out more than all right, strong and uncompromising; not just streetwise, but rutted, fallen tree, gypsy wagon, dirt road wise. Her daughter is the exact same age as my daughter. I wonder if she also is deaf to the ticking of the grandmother clock, but I suspect Rickie Lee is more Zen and laissez faire than I am. If I were the grandmother of the 3-year-old behind me, I’d turn my chair around and advise her on her art gallery, that really looks more like a bakery, which, to my mind, would be a more lucrative option. She could call it All Washed Up, and sell ephemeral cakes, with or without drip castle icing. But hindsight has taught me to keep my clever marketing thoughts to myself and let her decide. I want my grandmothering skills to be better than my mothering skills – like a second chance…but not really.
Suddenly, a Wiffle ball lands with a plop at my feet. It is scooped up with apologies, as the boy brigade returns for a quick game before the parents round everybody up to head back to the rental and fire up the grill. The little family behind us has joined the exodus, the mother still walking that damn baby. The lifeguards whistle everyone out of the water, drag the heavy, cumbersome stand back to the dunes and disappear.
This is our cue. Wordlessly as one, we close our books, remove our watches, rings, glasses and hats, yank down comically ridden-up bathing suits (nothing to see here) and head towards the stark white, breaking waves, curling up and flattening out before us, their coy to and fro, belying their potential death grip. We are respectful of this and keep a sharp eye on each other.
Like me and most of my family, my daughter rides the waves with her arms out front in a diving position. My mother, however, had always held her arms tight to her sides, so all you saw was her white, bathing-capped head, bobbing and smiling, as though the breaker had a face. I wonder which technique my imaginary grandchild will inherit and if I’ll be around to witness it? These normally pang-inducing thoughts of mortality are cut short as a big wave slaps me across the face as if to say “shut up and be here now!” like an impatient, old swami. I look around, aware that the constant pounding of ocean on sand has reduced the ambient noise to a mesmerizing, background hum and I focus on the task at hand. My daughter and I scan the horizon, then position ourselves to catch the next cresting wave, like seasoned hobos hopping a freight train. And for now, the ticking of any and all clocks is silenced, as we are propelled forward.