If you stand on the shore long enough, the ocean’s waves and the pulse of the blood in your veins will synchronize. Go to the water’s edge. Wait and be mesmerized by the ancient unstoppable rhythm until you no longer hear the waves as separate from yourself. That moment is the beginning of the story I have to tell, and that of all of us.
Forty years ago, my mother came to this New England beach where I now stand because she had begun hungering beyond all reason for seafood. For weeks she had consumed pound after pound of fish, mussels, clams, shrimp and seaweed. She had sought the ocean’s edge hoping for salvation from her compulsion, but instead she found that she wanted nothing more than to annihilate herself under the waves. Distracted by the sound of an ambulance siren just as she was about to take the first step towards the deep, she ran a half mile back to her family’s vacation cottage, locked the door behind her, and vowed never to go alone to the shore again.
She and her father had finally decided to sell the cottage, and my mother was clearing away generations of summer vacation debris to get it ready to show to buyers. They had stopped coming there years ago when she was ten and hankered for more glamorous vacations. The two of them were the only family each had since her mother had died giving birth to her before having other children, so the cottage was abandoned when it no longer interested her.
The next morning, she began to toss out everything but a few small mementos from her own childhood. Among the bottles of long-expired aspirin, tattered life jackets, and sun hats, she found a battered box of fishing gear bearing her father’s name with a photo hidden inside. The small, browned snapshot showed my mother at about four years old perched on the lap of a woman with another girl a bit older beside them. The woman had one arm around each child as they cuddled into her and stared smiling at the camera. The little girls were both wearing swimsuits, one black and one pink with bows, while the woman had on a 50s style sundress. My mother could not remember ever seeing the woman or girl before.
As mysterious as the photo was, the fishing gear was equally puzzling. She remembered her father talking often about the cruelty of fishing yet here was proof that he had once been an enthusiastic fisherman. My mother tried to imagine her father fishing and, as the bob hit the water in her mind’s eye, a memory came back to her whole and certain. She was a child, wearing the photo’s pink swimsuit with bows and a white straw hat. She was intently considering whether this should be the day she would plunge into the water and swim away. She had always been certain that she could become a fish anytime she wanted, but she simply had not chosen to do so. She also suddenly knew beyond doubting that the woman in the photo was her mother and the girl was her sister, that her father had lied to her, and that somehow she had forgotten everything.
In her memory, my mother was about to begin walking into the water when her sister broke from my grandmother -- her mother -- and ran up the beach, waggling a small fish. “Look what I caught! It’s all mine and mom’s going to cook it for me for dinner!” My grandmother grabbed the pole. She carefully detached the fish, blessed it, and threw it as hard as she could to make sure it cleared the shallow water and swam home.
The three of them began the sandy walk up to the cottage when my mother asked my grandmother, “When I become a fish and go into the ocean, could I become dinner for you to eat?”
My grandmother stared at her. “Why do you think you can become a fish? Who told you that?”
“No one. I’ve just always known it,” my mother said, and she began to cry, though she did not know why.
The next day my grandmother gave both little girls the black swimsuits in the photo. My mother immediately put on hers and ran towards the waves. She had never before been allowed to go into the water without her mother being within arm’s reach, but on this day her mother stood on the beach holding her sister’s hand, just watching. And there the memory ended.
My mother did not mention the photo to her father, afraid of what she might learn, but simply told him that she had reconsidered selling the cottage. She did not return there until a number of years later, after she had married, moved to Arizona, given birth to me, and began bringing me out each summer to spend time with my grandfather, who had become too frail to travel.
My mother might have spent her life convincing herself that her odd memory was a fantasy if I had not been enthralled by a balloon on the beach at age three. As the merry red globe blew over the ocean, I threw my head back in joy and began running towards the waves. My mother screamed as my head disappeared under the surface and she dove underneath the waves. Without thought, she began to breathe underwater and swam in search of me down towards the ocean floor as effortlessly as she had ever walked or run on land. At that moment, all the rest of her forgotten memories returned.
Finally she saw me, swimming and breathing as easily as she. She grabbed me and began moving back towards the surface when my grandmother, now an old woman, and my aunt, now strong and powerful, waved us into a small underwater cave where we were welcomed with embraces, tears, and bewilderment. My grandmother and aunt were no longer human, but my mother knew them still, and also understood that we had also lost our human form when we began swimming away from the land and sun.
I wrapped myself around my grandmother, already knowing who she was without being told. She looked me in the eye and said “Yes, I can tell you are the same as your mother. You have the same love of the ocean, a yearning to be here, within the heartbeat of life’s beginnings.”
Then she turned to my mother, “We had hoped that if you forgot us, you could stay above, give birth to this little one, and pass on those traits to her. Then, when the time was right, maybe she would be grown and ready.”
She held me to her and looked into my eyes so that I would remember what she said. “You will come back, I promise, but not yet. Someday, maybe a long time by your reckoning, but only an instant by the ocean’s.”
My mother pulled me from my grandmother and woefully arched away from the family she had just rediscovered.
“Take this,” my aunt called after my mother. She swam to her and handed her a seashell. “In it you will always be able to hear your mother’s voice. Listen whenever you need to.” Holding the shell in one hand and me in the other, my mother swam back to the surface and returned to her human form, as I did also, as soon as we broke through the skin of the water.
Everything in our family changed after that day. My parents moved back to New England and we and my grandfather journeyed to the cottage for weeks in the summer and most weekends in spring and fall. My grandfather watched as my mother and father repaired the cottage, year by year, and filled it with neighbors, toys, dinner parties, and noise.
When I was about thirteen, my mother brought me to the edge of the shore and told me about the selkies. She showed me her selkie skin, that looked for all the world like a black, metallic bathing suit, and gave me mine. “We selkies look like seals in the water, our first home, and become human on land when we shed our selkie skins. In olden times, the stories said that we would venture onto the beach and be lured by human men who would hide our skins, marry us and father our children. Always, they said, we would eventually find where our skins had been hidden and return home to the sea.
“What lies!” she laughed. “In reality, we chose to come to land to see the sun-kissed paradise that above-the-waves must be. Then, when we realized what humans had made of the earth and saw how they treated women and the ocean, we retrieved our skins and went home. Yet, we still loved the land and even the humans, so we waited until the time when we could be heard, when old, oppressive ways began to be questioned, a time not so long off now.”
When I had put on my selkie skin, she told me “You can go visit your grandmother and aunt any time you want, but for now you must always come back on land.”
My mother disappeared into the ocean sometime around my 20th birthday, blessed by my nevertheless grieving father, who knew that her place was in the waves and that he had no right to hold her to the land. She gave me the seashell and told me that I could listen to it anytime I needed to hear her voice.
One brilliant summer day, years later, when I arrived for a visit beneath the sea, I saw many selkies, but not my mother. My aunt came to me and told me, weeping, that my mother had died some months ago.
“That can’t be true,” I said. “I spoke to her just a few days ago. I had heard her voice in the seashell!”
“Did you really think it was only her voice in the seashell?” my aunt said. “That was never just one selkie’s voice, it was the mother of us all” and she swept her gaze across the horizon of the ocean floor.
It was then that I knew what I needed to bring to the surface. I am now motherless. My mother grew up motherless. Now I can see when I look around me how people everywhere are behaving in a motherless way – feeling unworthy, abandoned, unloved and so defiling the ocean because they do not recognize it as the body of their mother who loves them and making war on others, not realizing that they and all living beings originally came from the sea and so are truly our sisters and brothers. Our mother is all around us in the ocean, the rivers, the lakes and the water within our own bodies. No one is ever motherless as long as the ocean embraces the land and all of those who live on it.
And that is why I tell you my story, and that of my family and all the selkies. Hold your own seashell, whatever it may be to you, to your ear and listen. Hear the waves coming into synchronicity with your pulse. Feel the tides washing over you as they have since the beginning. Your mother is with you.