Photo: The beach

We spent the early afternoon on it, exploring the low tide, myself enjoying being tour-master to my spouse and three children. Until a few days ago, when an illness in my family had prompted an unplanned visit to Victoria, my children had never even seen the ocean outside the context of a television screen. Born in the mountains, my sons, and my daughter born in the prairies.

Now here we were, turning over rocks and catching crabs, explaining how barnacles feed and having profound conversations regarding the cycles of life, as only a beach can truly illustrate.

I realize with wry sadness how much I still remember, how much I really knew and understood even at the tender age when I left this place, and how little my own children understand for lack of having the daily lessons of life's struggles that I had on these distant shores.

The beach — this beach... the place of my youth.

Did I realize in the fleeting moments of those idyllic days of yore what the beach really represented, or would come to represent to me? To a child, the days stretch out like honey from a dipping spoon, seemingly connected yet in truth flowing, dwindling.

Perhaps I'm getting old, I tell myself as I watch my own boys curiosity and apprehension at the strangeness of what the tide had uncovered, their faces contorted in moues of distaste at the stench of drying seaweed and the various organic matter to have washed up on the shore. A local youngster meanders about the beach in boredom, randomly spinning in circles, kicking sand and throwing rocks into the gentle lapping of the surf. He could have been me twenty years ago, I think and smile.

He doesn't know what a treasure he has beneath his feet. Will he return here some far off day, his own descendants in tow, speaking glowingly of this wondrous place?

We had stopped here the day before, but the tide was high and the changes to the beach were so painfully obvious only to eyes which could see them through the lens of the decades, so left after a short time.

On the beach nothing stays the same. Sands and driftwood come and go, creatures are born, live and die in a flash only for their remains to be gobbled up by the next vie du jour. It is comforting, in a way only old farts like me can appreciate, this circle of life.

We walked down farther than I had ever dared as a child, my middle child scrambling up the rocks and leaping with joy to the next. They are each different aspects of my younger self. My oldest son hangs back, complaining quietly but consistently of his boredom and of his wishes to return to playing video games, while my daughter follows akwardly in the wake of her brother crying "look what I found daddy!" every time she finds a broken clamshell, crab or dead thing.

Dead things are everywhere here; it is the way of the beach. My own father was deposited here at this beach some ten years before. His ashes had gotten caught in the bag as my mother and sister tried to pour them carefully over the gunwale of the boat and a sudden breeze had blown some of his remains into our mouths while the rest plopped into the dark bay waters unceremoniously.

Though the dead are plenty, it is life which abounds upon the shoreline. Everywhere you find another stinking carcass, another colony thriving in its abundance. There is no time to hum a dirge for the passed pasts; even as the tides flow in and out, the rhythm of my breath, the beating of my heart, the lapping of waves upon these changed sands, new life arises.

There was an involuntary pause at the top of the walkway while I gathered my nerve. Each step down the hill towards my old home was surreal, the ancient cement my father had walked up in his youth, and his father before him, familiar under my shoes.

I found myself at the front door, through which I could see a stained glass window my mother had made in the door of what had been my bedroom. Memories of laying awake, staring at the strange light as it shifted and danced through shadows and across the ripples of the colored glass.

I rang the door bell of the house where I grew up, clutching two framed pictures under my left arm. They have moved the front door, the new owners, and after a moment of confusion found my way to the opposite side where the new door stood. Presently, a man appeared across the lawn, having emerged from where the old front door had been. "Hi?" he asked cautiously.

These lines I had rehearsed ceaselessly over the past few days — I had been planning on doing this for years. For the past twenty years since leaving this place I had imagined what it would be like returning here as a man, my children down the road playing in the park where I played and me, a stranger on my own doorstep.

Perhaps it helped that they had moved the door.

"Hi, sorry to disturb you... um, this is going to seem out of the blue to you, but I have been planning this for years. Ahem. My name is James Bethell, I grew up here. I brought you a gift," I motioned to the pictures under my arm.

There was only a slight pause before his eyes brightened. "Oh! I have been expecting you. Just a minute!" he said and disappeared back into the house.

He had been expecting me?

Dumbfounded I stood there. I had prepared myself for "That's nice, now get lost", but not for "I've been expecting you."

The same man appeared at the door with a woman, whom I recognized from my internet research as being his wife. They invited me in graciously and with an unexpected warmth. I had imagined it like this, but never expected it.

I show them the paintings, watercolors some earlier ancestor had contracted when this house had been a cottage and the neighbourhood had been seaside farmland bordered by old growth forest and property values hadn't amounted to the millions they do today.

Doug, his name is, explains that he had been waiting for this day for twenty years. I tell him I had too. We speak of how my family had lived on this land for a hundred years, before hard times had coerced my own parents into parting with this little bundle of paradise.

They convince me to remove my shoes and have a tour. I look at what had been the kitchen — it is now a hallway room — and see where my grandfather died, but I don't tell them. They know a bit of the history, apparently my father had told them a fair bit about it. Here, the old pull-down ladder to the attic has been repurposed as access to a loft in a bedroom.

Doug tells me of some dark secrets he uncovered too... dozens of empty liquor bottles hidden in the walls discovered during renovation.

"Your father had a drinking problem, didn't he?" he asks. I nod.

"Ron Bacardi white rum." I confirm.

He nods too.

Everything has changed. As the tour continues I come to realize that this is not my home anymore. His teenage daughter appears, and we are introduced.

"This is the only home she has ever known," he tells me.

"It's a great place to grow up, isn't it?" I feel like crying. Not because I am sad, but because I am coming to grips with the fading notion that I alone feel like I have soaked into these walls. The teenager disappears back downstairs, clearly weird at the stranger in her midst.

I am led downstairs.

What had been a dark and terrifying place as a child has been finished. My grandfather had been a butcher and there had been meat hooks hanging from the ceiling and the menacing glint of bare incandescent bulbs off of saw blades sent a child's imagination asunder.

The door to the basement was sliding and weighted to close unless hooked. Standing in this spot I am eight years old again, grabbing a box of macaroni off the shelf of the pantry with a forced calm, timing my steps to catch the door before it slammed shut behind me. By the third step back up to the kitchen, I am flailing as if all the demons in hell were grasping at my ankles. Today it is a nice place, drywall and tiles conceal the holy terror which gripped my adolescent mind.

Doug shows me three life-sized cardboard cutouts of the Tin Man, Cowardly Lion and Scarecrow still pinned to the doors. "I've been saving them for you," he tells me. They are like the faces of distant relatives in photographs, smiling and serene as the last day I saw them.

My gut says to leave them, so I decline. They aren't mine anymore. The little girl in the next room has as much claim to them as I do.

I am cognizant of my spouse, patiently waiting down the block minding my three children who surely must be going completely batshit at the time I have been gone, and begin making my getaway.

As we stand at the top of the driveway, I shake Doug's hand and thank him earnestly. "Thank you for this," I say, and I feel like he understands though I can't see how he could.

We share a moment, the kind that linger forever in memory and are backlit by sunsets over the waves on the beach.

The beach is a place of life and death, and of life's new arisings.

We share a branch on our genealogical tree now, this home is interwoven into our families and in some small way it makes us family too. But it is their branch now, not mine — mine waits for me down the road, in relative ignorance of what has just happened to my psyche, and their inherited family tree.

As I gather my children and climb into the minivan, I can't help but think of their teenage daughter, perturbed at her parents openness with what amounts to a complete stranger, and smile as I wonder if she will raise her children here, as my father did, or if she will one day find herself at that house on Cordova Bay Road, a stranger at her own front door.

We pull onto the road and as I pass the house one last time, the girl is escaping with her "not boyfriend", as he was introduced, who had shyly avoided looking my direction during my tour.

Our eyes meet, even through the shield of my sunglasses, and the torch is passed as I make my way out of the past.

The beach is for the living, the dead are only shells on which the living walk.

Message to Canadians: The Beach is a place of life, death, and life's new arisings, where in each decaying carcass is a new colony thriving in its abundance.

P.S.I love our province and remember fondly the lessons learned on The Beach.
Author photo

By James Bethell

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