Every morning from the bedroom window of the condo, I watch the sun rise over the water. Most days begin as smears of coral against a wash of night-blue, then bring on the drama in pink and peach as the fireball edges into view. Cloudy days take a more minimalist approach: misty layers of gray, a golden shimmer on the water. The first silhouettes on the beach are the fishermen, posted up in folding chairs, their lines stretching out into the calm morning sea. They are followed by the dog owners, wearing billed caps and carrying coffee cups, some with their pets trotting ahead of them, others with puppies or nervous new rescues on leashes.
By eight-thirty, with one hour left until the lifeguards and the umbrella girls and the Italian ice carts and the sunblocked masses show up, the dog party is at its peak. Pooches of all breeds, shapes and sizes are fetching balls flung far into the water, digging to China, playing the dog version of Ring-Around-The-Rosy. Some dogs can actually bodysurf.
As soon as we surmount the dunes, Beau lifts his long, graying snout in the air and scouts for his kin on the shoreline. The vet has told me it’s not possible that he can see very much through his cataracts but somehow he can spot a pair of fat bulldogs or an elegant Ridgeback at fifty yards. He moves toward them laboriously on very short legs, his belly scraping the sand.
When we first started coming to this beach years ago, he could still run as he did when he was a pup, ears flying, front legs pumping, back legs keeping up with their funny lopsided hop, tail spinning in circles like a propeller. Now this is rare. He is in general both the smallest and the oldest dog on the beach; some would say he’s also the cutest. Beau has never had any fear of animals ten times his size, which bull mastiffs and Great Danes actually are. He’ll slip right between their legs, craning his neck to perform the ritual butt sniffing, often getting nowhere near.
I meet the real estate agent at the beach house. “3 bed, 2.5 bath, three floors offering ocean views from the front and a panoramic view from the top deck that is absolutely priceless!”
In this case, priceless equals $950,000.
Joe is sort of irresistible, with his slightly hoarse, mid-Atlantic way of speaking (you’d know those o’s anywhere), his reedy silver Mohawk-ish do, and his deep tan, which he says improved quite a bit just yesterday when he and his fishing buddies were marooned at sea in a boat with a broken engine. The rescue took 12 hours.
I’ve been emailing with him for months; now I’m down at the beach for two weeks in a rental and we’re meeting in person for the first time. Oceanfront Dewey spots are all either too small or out of my price range, but Joe is undeterred. Real estate values here are racing ahead of neighboring Rehoboth, he tells me, largely because the town has so enthusiastically embraced the dog-lovers.
Yes, I say, I am one of them. Emphasis on the love. I am virtually married to my fifteen-year-old dachshund. Beau and I are spending our fifth summer here together.
During the high season, Dewey allows dogs on the beach before 9:30 and after 5:30; as far as I know, this is unique on the Delmarva peninsula. Joe apparently hasn’t spent much time on Dewey’s shore and perhaps is not himself a dog-lover, since he is less familiar with these rules than I. He marvels at what he’s been told by other clients – that all kinds of big and little dogs are running around without leashes down there, and there are no dogfights.
That’s right, I tell him proudly. It’s like a Disney movie.
Is that right? he says.
To be honest, Beau is mostly a peaceable fellow, but every once in a while he inexplicably tenses up and puts on a ferocious display of growling and snapping, usually for younger dogs who may not know the proper etiquette for dealing with Grandpa, sometimes to a perfectly friendly compadre who simply looks at him in confusion. This just isn’t done at Dewey, doesn’t he know?
Aging and anger are connected. The cranky old man or lady is a familiar character, and that is the gentler end of the spectrum. Friends who have parents suffering from dementia have told me about outbursts of rage and even violence. The galvanizing, energizing, blood-to-the-head experience of anger can feel good to a person who is bumbling along in a confused fog. Anger clears things up. It is righteous and sure.
I was educated on this matter at the lunch I attend annually with two friends who share my birthdate. I was telling them about a beloved older friend who is furious at me and seems to have no inclination to forgive me no matter what I do. She is 92 and has always been prone to harsh judgments and unafraid of vigorous debate. Her anger at me may not at all be a symptom of changes in her brain; over the years, I have seen her grimly ticked off at any number of people. I just have never been one of them.
I was married to her son for ten years, and this ten years was the most fight-filled period of my life. Her son and I fought like maniacs, almost daily at the end. But ever since we renounced the blood sport that was our marriage and escaped its warped arena – amazingly, we are friends now — I have been very shy of verbal conflict, which I didn’t like in the first place. That doesn’t mean I never do it, and when I do, I run hot. I probably absorbed my fighting technique from my mother, with whom I often argued bitterly starting in early adolescence, in the way mothers and daughters often will.
But something interesting happened with my mother around the time my older son was born; this was during the Clinton administration. Whether it was the baby, the new president (the first Democrat she ever voted for), or both, my mother went through an extraordinary softening in her attitude toward me. Whereas it had once seemed we could pick a fight about anything, suddenly she started managing conversations with me in a way to avoid conflict. As soon as the tension started to kick in, the displeasure tightening our jaws, she would simply back down and change the subject.
It was a little surreal at first. But there it was. Clearly my mother had decided that no difference of opinion was more important than peace between us, and I was lucky enough to enjoy this more soothing version of our relationship for another two decades.
I am thinking about all this here at the beach because in the past week I have had two really awful fights with my daughter. One had to do with my using a politically incorrect expression in what I thought was a jokey or meta way, and I won’t repeat it here because it would just compound the mistake. My daughter’s big smile instantly evaporated, and she said something harsh I don’t exactly recall, and I felt humiliated, and we had a bitter back and forth.
I would not describe the feeling I had during this fight as pleasant in any way, but it was extremely powerful. How hard it is to stop once you start! Eventually, I stalked off and spent what was left of the night in injured silence, shooting angry glances at my daughter.
Here at the beach, as I have explained, I get up at 5:15. Since my daughter sleeps til 2, I had plenty of time the next day to feel horrible about the fight. Finally, she woke up and warily agreed to talk about it. It started off rocky, but one thing we could agree on is that our conflict partly reflected generational differences. Her generation is extremely politically sensitive, even doctrinaire, regarding matters of gender, race, #metoo, trigger warnings, etc.
Baby boomers, on the other hand, are more comfortable flaunting rules than following them. When we came of age, saying forbidden words was cool. Still, I regretted the whole incident and plan to avoid this sort of thing.
On the other hand, my daughter could be nicer to me. She said she saw my point.
So anyway, we made up. The day was sweet. More days came, one with a plan to dine that evening at a Mexican restaurant in Rehoboth.
Just as the margaritas and chips and queso were delivered to our table on the terrace, a large group including someone my daughter had gone to elementary and middle school with sat down at a neighboring table. I might not have noticed, but my daughter alerted me by text. Why by text? Because so much did she not want to see or greet this person that she would not speak their name out loud and risk drawing their attention. She didn’t want me to even look their way. And the reason I am being so vague about the details is that as in the case of the first argument, it would only make things worse.
As I tell these stories, I am finding my own behavior less and less sympathetic, but the fact is that I did not take my daughter’s reaction seriously. I had always loved to make jokes about this person and was eager to rehash them now, with our dinner group. I began doing so. And surely we would say hello to our old classmate, no?
Actually, no. My daughter got angrier and angrier and at last, I got it. This was serious to her. Bad feelings from the past were coming up. Oh, okay, I thought. She is actually in pain. At this point, I desisted. I felt chastened, or I thought I did.
But the real chastening came after we left the restaurant. My daughter wanted to express her rage at my insensitivity and misconduct at greater length, and I very much did not want to receive any more negative feedback. A blow-up ensued, complete with making a scene on the boardwalk, stomping off, sitting on a bench alone sulking, having to be cajoled back to the car, etc.
This time, fortunately, we were able to make up almost immediately. I felt terrible about not only what had happened that evening but also about whatever hurt my daughter had gone through so long ago that was coming up now.
A few nights later, we were seated in another restaurant when the hostess ushered a large party to a table next to ours. My daughter widened her eyes in horror. Oh, no, I thought, not again! These damn resort towns!
Just kidding, she said.
On one of our last mornings in Dewey, I was meandering around the beach with Beau, following close behind as he greeted friends both human and canine from the weeks preceding. He was the picture of geriatric affability, grumpy Grandpa nowhere in sight. What a cute puppy, people exclaimed. He’s no puppy, I told them. But the beach keeps him young.
Right around then, my subconscious mind, chewing away on recent events, helpfully sent up a memory from the files. It was the famous coleslaw incident of 1989, which inaugurated the era in which my mother stopped fighting with me. I was in my kitchen in my house in Austin, Texas, chopping dill and watercress and mashing up umeboshi plums, all required for my special, non-traditional version of the dish. My mother looked dubiously at the work in progress and said, “Do you have to put so many ingredients in the coleslaw?”
What the hell? Of course I did! What did she want, some mayonnaise-y slop? I was no Republican weenie-roaster! Not only was this coleslaw delicious and unusual, it was macrobiotic! It was good for you!
My mother took all this in. And said something to the effect of, Oh. Sounds good. Then she went off to change a diaper.
I quickly saw my subconscious’s point in sending me this little video message, courtesy of my long-dead mother whom I miss so much. Whether she backed down because she realized she was wrong, or because she was tired of our ruining perfectly good afternoons, dinners, and vacations with pointless shouting matches, she enacted the interesting possibilities of letting it go. Not taking the bait. Like the dogs at Dewey.
Today we are going home from the beach, and among the things I am packing in the cooler is a cabbage I picked up from the CSA before I left Baltimore, but never managed to use while we were here. I think I will make some coleslaw for my daughter when we get home; these days, exotic ingredients are no longer involved. Then I will resume my study of real estate listings in Dewey Beach and my correspondence with Joe. But really, who needs money, who needs property, who needs umeboshi plums, if only I might have a very slow, partly blind, occasionally feisty old dog to take with me to the beach next year.