The boardwalk is crowded today, and I don’t know whether it’s because it’s Easter Sunday, or if it’s because the weather’s so nice. But any sign of people on the Wildwood Boardwalk means that spring is here and summer is right around the corner, and typically that’s a good thing to us, locals. We love when the town comes alive again after the dead winter. That’s the case for my dad and I today as we stroll down the five-mile wooden pier that outlines the coast of our little island.
We waited until the sun began to set because that’s the prettiest time of day—when the beauty of our home is really captivated and showcased for all to see. Even though it sets on the opposite side of the island over the bay, the sun’s rays paint the sky in a masterpiece of warm colors, swirling and interweaving them against the sky and casting parades of fiery reds, oranges and pinks onto the ocean at our left. The waves are calm tonight, their ripples breaking gently along the shoreline, greeting the few couples that still walk lightly along the water, stopping every once in a while to gather shells or take a picture.
“I missed that smell,” I say to my dad as we walk. “The smell of the ocean—the salty breeze. I missed it.”
He smiles at me and keeps walking. He knows perhaps that’s not the only thing I miss, but he doesn’t say it. He doesn’t have to. “Another month and you’ll be home for summer, Nat,” he says. “Another month.”
Another month and I’ll be home for summer—and I can’t wait. Going away to college in North Carolina is hard, especially when you come from a tight-knit family like I do, and the past three years away from them has been tough, but it’s almost over now. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy school. I enjoy having independence and that freedom to make choices for myself, I enjoy experiencing life, growing and learning in only ways that would present themselves by having no one there to hold my hand. I enjoy meeting new people, branching out and finding my own paths to venture down, finding what interests me and what makes me happy—finding myself. And I enjoy the fact that my parents have given me the opportunities to do so, despite sacrificing their own, personal wants, for me. It makes coming home to my parents and four brothers all the more special.
My whole life people have always told me my family is not like everyone else’s, and it’s taken me a majority of my twenty-one years to finally figure that out. With the seven of us, I thought it was normal to sit down to dinner every night, to always have people together, people laughing and joking, fighting and bickering, staying and going—even now when my brothers and I are all getting older. My friends would always tell me how lucky I was to be surrounded by such a close family, how lucky I was to have people who stick by me unconditionally, who care about me and my well being. Blinding loyalty, they called it. Only when I stepped outside my home and wandered off on my own did I realize the bonds I have with my parents and brothers weren’t “normal,” but really rather unique.
The ringing of the bell brings me back as I watch a small boy slam the buzzer on the ground with a fake sledgehammer, the red light illuminating as the ball slowly travels to the top—a typical boardwalk game. His friends surround him, cheering and screaming as the stand worker hands him a blue stuffed dog twice the size of him. The blue blends in with the ocean behind him, with the sun continuing the fall, restoring the ocean back to its original color.
“It’s getting chilly,” my dad says. He’s wearing the black East Carolina fleece I got him last Christmas from the campus bookstore. “Good thing I got this nice fleece from my lovely daughter to keep me warm.” He squints his eyes and bobs his head back and forth in a playful manner.
I can joke around too. “I guess we can’t stop and get ice cream now, can we, Dad?” I say with a conniving smile. “I mean, it is getting cold and all.” Stopping at the Dairy Queen, on the strip of stores on the boardwalk that includes everything from t-shirt shops to pizza parlors, tattoo and body piercing places to tarot reading and carnival-style game stands, is my father’s favorite part of walking along the boardwalk.
“You little witch,” he says. He laughs hard now, and I notice his nostrils flare the same way mine do when I’m laughing at something I think is really funny. “What about some pizza?”
I look to my right and see the young boy dressed in his white Sam’s Pizza uniform carefully taking a freshly cooked pie right out of the oven and sliding it under the glass counter facing the storefront. “I thought we were supposed to be exercising,” I say.
“You’re no fun today, Nat.”
“I know,” I say. “I’m just thinking about tomorrow. I really don’t want to leave already.”
My dad turns from me and continues to walk, facing straight ahead. His short brown hair is blowing in the warm breeze and his hazel eyes seem to gaze emptily at the crowds of people walking ahead of us—young teenagers gathering in groups and contemplating what attraction to take part in next, families riding bikes and scooters, zipping by us on both sides. I’m only 5’4,” but I’m almost as tall as my dad, I notice, as I take my eyes off his sad expression and gaze emptily along with him at the people. It’s silent for a little while between us, with the roller coaster buzzing and the wooden boards below us creaking in the background.
“I don’t want you to leave either, Nat,” he finally says.
My father and I have always been really close, ever since I was a little. I guess you can say I’m Daddy’s little girl. My mom always jokes that I have him wrapped around my little finger, but I don’t think so. I remember transitioning through different phases in my childhood, and Dad was right there with me, as if he was changing too. When I went through my musical phase at the tender age of five, he’d lay sprawled out on the living room rug right next to me or tap alongside me on the kitchen’s tiled floor watching Mary Poppin’s so many times that I broke the first tape—literally. By six, he’d brush my hair back into updos during my girly phase, undoing and redoing my ponytails when I’d scream at him for the bumps. When it came time to choose between cheerleading and basketball in middle school, and I traded in my tutu for a pair of Nikes, he was under the basket spotting as I practiced my foul shots. In high school, when I told him I was considering becoming a writer, he willingly encouraged and urged my decision. So naturally, when I told him I wanted to break away from our little community in Wildwood and travel down to North Carolina for college, he supported me—even though it killed him.
And even though it killed him, he let me go. But I guess that’s what parents want to do—let their kids go and fly from the nest and discover things for themselves. That’s what they want for their kids. I know that’s what my dad wants for me. And I also think that parents let their kids fly on their own and experience new things because they want the best for them, wishing them a safe flight and all the while hoping for a safe return home—or a return at all.
“Watch it, mister,” a kid says as he zips by on his skateboard. My dad leans to his right to hurriedly jump out of the way.
“Kids these days,” he says. “They have no respect anymore.”
“I know, right? It’s a good thing you and mom raised me right,” I say jokingly as we continue to walk along the pier.
My dad nudges my shoulder, sending me flying an extra step on the boardwalk.
“Hey, Nat look at that.” He points straight ahead. “Remember that?” A little girl is walking straight ahead of us, tightly grasping onto her father’s hand and twirling in pirouettes around his thumb. Her frilly, red dress floats in gentle circles as she moves her legs. “You used to do that,” he says. “My little shadow. You never left my side. Do you remember your Minnie dress?”
I look at the little girl, her blonde curls landing softly on her shoulders as she twirls, the way my brown curls used to land around my own shoulders when I was that age. I look at her red dress with the fringed white collar outlining her neck.
“I remember,” I say with a smile, because I do.
“Daddy, come watch The Sound of Music with me,” I said. I was five years old and bossy, at that. It was a warm, sunny summer day, and although my brothers were outside playing monster trucks and digging up sandcastles in the sandbox, I chose to stay inside and march along with the Von Trapp Family.
“Only if you sing a song for me, Natty,” my father said. He came from the kitchen into the living room to find me facing the television, entranced in Julie Andrews singing “Favorite Things.” “Oh, Natty, your favorite song is on.”
I turned around to see my dad with the video camera in his hands, his right eye hidden by the eyepiece. “Daddy!” I said. I did not like to be recorded, even if I was engaged in the activity I felt most comfortable doing—singing. “Daddy, turn that thing off,” I commanded.
“But you look so pretty today,” he said. “You have your Minnie Mouse dress on today, and Mommy did your hair all nice in curls. Don’t you want to go on the back porch and sing for her?”
I looked down at my frilly, red dress, contrasted with rather large black polka dots, a stuffed, and rather dirty, animal of Minnie Mouse in my left arm. A picture of Minnie was stitched on my chest. It was true. I was dressed up today. I even had my white dress socks with the red bows on the tops on my feet, protected safely by my shiny dress shoes—or what I liked to call “shoe glasses.” I reached up to feel the bow Mommy put in my hair earlier that morning. “Fine,” I said after feeling the bow still securely wrapped in my hair. I ran over to my dad and grabbed his left hand with both of my little ones and put both of my feet on his left one. “Only if you walk to the porch with me standing like this.”
“You really want to walk like this?” he said.
“Oh, Nat. You’re a little witch, you know that?” my dad said with a smile.
“I thought I was your shadow?” I said.
“A witch too, Natty,” he said, still with a smile. I smiled too because I was a little witch—I knew my dad couldn’t say no.
It’s getting colder now, with the sun almost completely gone. My father and I walk most of the way silently, but it’s not that awkward silence. We are taking in the moment…together.
“Mom! Mom! Can we get ice cream?” a kid pleads as he runs ahead, the rest of his family slowly walking by us. We both look to our right to see Dairy Queen nearing ahead. And it’s closed, completely deserted with the metal covering safely securing the counter.
“You know, Dad, I was kidding about not getting ice cream,” I say. “But I didn’t think it was actually going to be closed.”
My dad looks at me and smiles and places is hand on my shoulder. “It’s okay, Nat,” he says. “We’ll get it next time. It’s just not time to open yet—it’s too soon. Another month…another month.” And we continue to walk along.