When Dad picks up an empty conch shell larger than his hand, and holds it up like treasured bounty--no cracks or chips--I expect him to place it into his bucket. Instead, he sets the bucket down next to his fishing pole, and fastens the shell to his ear, like a telephone.
“Let me hear!” I say, reaching for the beautiful shell.
He hands it to me. “Put it tight to your ear. You’ll hear the ocean.”
It’s true! I’m amazed. I hand it to my little brother, and he hears it too. This is a side of our hard-working dad we’ve never seen before; playful, relaxed, and with unusual skills. When I consider the positive influence Dad has had on me, what stands out are moments like these, during the summer vacations we spent together on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Dad always packed the car the night before, preparing to make the twenty-one hour drive from the Virginia Highlands to Dennisport, Massachusetts.
Once we finally arrive and the travel weariness wears off, we spend our days exploring. We behold the mighty Atlantic Ocean afresh, like we are seeing it for the very first time.
Dad stands nearby, real quiet, waiting to gage my reaction.
The ocean’s enormity leaves me speechless. It spreads out as far as I can see in either direction; a real-live masterpiece. A hefty wind blows across the water, against my face, and leaves deposits of fresh sand around my ankles. When a wave deposits a water pool, my bare feet start sinking. I jump out, jump up, again and again, in harmony with the waves. The wind, or gravity, or some mysterious force folds them over and under, then drags them back out to sea. Dad has moved on, combing the beach for trinkets. He finds scallop and mussel shells, and puts them in his bucket collection. I follow him, put my bare feet in the footprints he’s left behind.
I taste real salt on my lips as I spy the dunes and seagrasses, all part of the New England welcoming committee. Here, thanks to Dad, my world expands, along with my vocabulary. I catch up to him climbing the black rocks he calls “jetties.” Dozens of them, lined up as far as I can see, extend out into the ocean. We kids climb up too. Dad stops to retrieve a starfish, puts it into his bucket, and shows us how others cling to the undersides of our granite jungle-gym.
“Ouch! What’s that?” I ask, pointing to something sharp, the same color as the rocks.
“Those are barnacles,” he says. “Beware of them.” He also teaches us that the water lapping against the sides of the boulders is at low tide.
“Do the tides have medium and high too?” I ask.
Dad chuckles, pats me on the head. “Tides are either low or high, depending on the time of day.”
While Dad casts his fishing line out over the ocean, we kids race back to the shore to build a sandcastle. We collect more shells for Dad, too. Next to our castle, our older brother gets busy digging a deep hole for us. “Get in,” he says. Then, he covers us up to our shoulders with sand, and only our heads are visible.
Dad is called from his fishing post. “Look, Dad! Only our heads!” He laughs at our bizarre spectacle.
Back at the cottage, he hands us a nickel, and we traipse down to the roadside grocery store for penny candy. After supper, we kids follow his tracks back down to the beach, sidling up next to him, dwarfed by his broad shoulders as he stares toward the distant signals coming from a lighthouse far offshore. He recites a line from some ancient mariner poem, but when he decodes the flashing lights, it’s like he knows another language. He calls it Morse code, from having served in the Navy.
“High tide’s rolling in,” he says.
In Cape Cod, my spiritual formation takes hold naturally. Surely God created the ocean, the sand, and all the natural beauty for us to enjoy. And since He made sure Dad brought us here to see it all, I conclude that heaven must be located not too far beyond the horizon line. The faraway look Dad gets in his eyes when he take it all in makes me feel very small, but not insignificant at all.