The ocean was calm that day, like a lake. It was the best ocean day of the summer and we all knew it. The water was warm and the waves were gentle, little swells that broke right at the edge of the shore. On this day, all kinds of swimmers, young and old, brave and not so brave, waded out into the surf and that’s what we did with Mom that day.
Mom liked the ocean, but she was cautious. We were deeper into the water than usual. Standing more than waist-deep, we crouched and let the water cover our shoulders.
As children we didn’t think twice about our hair at the beach, whether it got wet, how it dried, whether there was sand in it, how the wind was blowing. But Mom, whose hair was short, kept it styled, even at the shore. I don’t remember where she and Dad were going that night, but I do remember Mom saying, “I can go in the water as long as my hair doesn’t get wet” and the flat ocean promised us that.
We floated together with our heads bobbing and Mom and my sister and my brothers and I talked and laughed. Sometimes I would dive under the water like a fish and Mom would say, “Don’t splash me. Remember my hair!” But she was laughing.
I don’t know where the big wave came from. It came unannounced, with flat seas in front and behind. We were laughing and then we looked up and we saw the swell growing and cresting and we thought, well we can still jump up, at just the right time and throw our heads quickly to the right and twist our bodies into the wave and come back down on the other side and it would be all right. That was our unspoken plan, but we were in the wrong place. We weren’t close enough to move like that and seconds later, the wave was upon us, already breaking and churning in the front, but also very tall and we realized without having the time to discuss it, that the only thing to do was go under, not over, and let the wave pass.
How many times had we done this as children? Hundreds of times in a day, maybe, and days upon days in the summer, our bodies moved under the waves with as much confidence as when we floated on top. But I remember Mom saying “Oh!” just as the wave loomed over us. She didn’t have time to protect her hair, but how could she have done so? She had no choice but to go under with the rest of us.
We popped up on the other side of the wave, still surprised and dripping and laughing and looking at each other, my hair a matted and tangled curtain in front of my face and then we looked at Mom, whose once-styled hair was now ruined and pasted down around her head.
Mom was a good sport that day. We laughed at her, at how different she looked. She didn’t seem to mind, even as she was saying, “Oh no! My hair. What am I going to do now?” But she was a good sport. She didn’t let the wave and her wet and flattened hair ruin the moment. She laughed and let us laugh at her and she gave us yet another warm memory of a perfect summer day, brighter than the sun on that Lavallette beach.