If you're born in Rhode Island, the beach is never far away. To be a kid with access to a sandpile as big as the ocean itself (or so it seemed), possibilities are endless: multi-turreted sand castles, wide moats, mythic labyrinths and tunnels, and plain ol' deep holes to jump in an out of while your mother tries to read her Agatha Christie mystery or her fashion magazine on the blanket anchored with big round stones so the wind or the hungry sea gulls won't carry off the baby, our picnic lunch, our plaid Tartan thermos jug full of lemonade, or our towels.
It's the summer of 1959. The beach is our destination almost every weekend.
My father drives us in his "new" 1953 Chevy with white-walled tires, shiny chrome, and a steering wheel as big as a hula hoop. Seatbelts haven't been invented yet, so we sit in the back seat untethered, but well behaved. The drive to Scarborough Beach not far from the Point Judith Lighthouse takes us about 20 minutes when we take the back roads and catch Route 1A in Wickford.
We are a family of six: mother, father, three girls, and the new baby boy. I am eleven years old, my sister is six, my other sister is two (going on three). The baby boy in the cotton-lined wicker basket with the mosquito netting over the top is almost four months old. He wears a cloth diaper and a miniature baseball cap with a Red Sox emblem. No one can mistake him for a girl.
My mother is thirty-one. When she walks down the beach, men stare at her, but nobody whistles because she's swinging an infant in a basket a few inches above the waves.
I'm the oldest so I help out by taking my little sisters down to the water where a line of big black stones holds back the heavy surf. My sisters take hands and toe the swirling water at their feet, then they run back giggling and shivering. They never go in past their ankles. The ocean water, even in the summer, is cold.
After a full day in the sun, we looked like lobsters. Red backs. Red shoulders. Red noses. Nobody had heard of sunscreen; they used suntan lotion. We washed off the sand in the outside showers, found our clothes and flip-flops, and piled back in the car. Half the beach came with us.
On the way home, we stopped for fried clams at the Clam Shack in East Greenwich. In another 10 minutes, we were at our doorstep, shoulders throbbing from our sunburns, pockets full of sand and little white stones.