We get up each morning, pull on sandy swimsuits and stained shirts, grab our makeshift toys — comprised largely of old yogurt containers, straws, and plastic fast-food utensils — and run out to the beach. We can’t remember the last time we bathed in something other than the ocean, and that’s just fine.
The beaches are relatively empty; the unseasonably cold 70-degree summer that is far too chilly for the native Californians is downright balmy for we Washingtonians. Last week, we had Disneyland all to ourselves for a few hours: A late afternoon downpour drove the less rusty away, so we ran around the saturated park, splashed in lakes/puddles, and rode The Pirates of the Caribbean at least 7,397 times.
On our way home to Washington, we stopped at this dank little motel in one of my mother’s childhood hometowns, Laguna Beach. An overnight stay has turned into much longer, maybe a month, with my mother rarely coming out of the tiny bedroom at the back. When she does, she is bleary-eyed and somewhat removed from us, as if she’s in a parallel universe, contending with other children, other husbands, other families, and she doesn’t have the ability to be in both places at the same time. Her interactions with my father are strained, her refusals to leave visibly frustrating him.
But for me and my brothers, our new beach life is amazing! These aren’t the rocky, jagged beaches that we’re used to, over which we must always tread gingerly so as to avoid the wrath of a billion barnacles. No, these are soft, sugary beaches, made for running, wrestling, and sculpting sandcastles. My brothers and I spend all day on them, occasionally heeding my father’s calls for us to come and eat whichever fast-food fare he’s procured. Our days are filled with scrapes and surf and sun, and this is our life now. We are beach children.
Until we’re not. One day, we wake up, find that our father has packed up everything, our mother shoos us into the Toyota van, which we’ve nicknamed the MoonBuggy, and we begin the long trek back to chillier, rockier shores.
My mother and I are having one of our extended weekends together; it’s rainy, of course, and she’s come over to Seattle to visit me. We’re holed up in my townhouse, the light filtering from the upstairs loft barely making a dent in the rainshadows, the old electric heater firing up like an incontinent jet engine every now and again. We sip wine as she recounts tales of her rather complicated childhood.
“So the only house we lived in for more than, oh, six months was this one in Laguna Beach–”
“I love Laguna Beach!” I cut her off with a joyful squeal. “Remember when we were there when I was a kid, and we ended up staying for a whole month?”
“Yes, I remember. But it was only a week, Katherine.”
“Well, whatever. It was such a great summer, with Disneyland and swimming every day, I loved it.”
“Yeah, well … I remember it differently.” She takes a sip of her wine. “You know, that was the summer that I told your father that we might have to divorce.”
My parents have been divorced for decades and had lived somewhat separate lives before that, so the revelation of divorce wasn’t surprising; but her telling me that she had been thinking about it since that summer, so long ago, was.
“Really? All the way back then? Wow.”
“Well, I didn’t know what to do. You know, I was the Relief Society president and I was just really burned out. I couldn’t face going back to Washington, going back to the church. I hated it; it wasn’t me anymore. It was so different in California than here. You know, when I joined the church, it was all hippies and the seventies and so a lot of the Mormon stuff was what hippies were doing — making their own clothes, growing their own food, canning everything, you know, all that back to the Earth stuff. But in Washington, it was just old farmers and they were really conservative so, after several years of it, I couldn’t stand it.”
“So that’s why we stopped going?”
“Kind of. Well, I told your father that I couldn’t go back to it, that if he needed me to be the Good Mormon Wife that I couldn’t do it anymore and maybe we should get divorced. But he agreed that we could go back and that maybe I could do less. He didn’t agree to us not going at all, though.”
“Yeah, because I thought that happened a few years later. But I always thought it was because of the sock thing!”
She laughed. “No, not just the sock thing.”
There is no cable television on the reservation; there are only six channels: The ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS affiliates and two unaffiliated local channels that play reruns of sitcoms from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. When the weather gets bad, the antenna goes out and so then we have only static.
In our rural community, most of what we learn about American culture comes to us from the television; and in 1986, “culture” means Miami Vice. It had come out a couple of years before and its impact on style has finally reached our little backwater — specifically, the “cool” boys are walking around in shoes with no socks and wearing comically oversized blazers on top of t-shirts.
My two older brothers are no exception, but Mormons aren’t known for their reverence to current fashion — at least, not the Mormons that I grew up with. Every Sunday, my older brothers don their best Don Johnson stylings, saturate their hair with gel, and go to church. Now, they started out with socks on; we know this because they were wearing these getups for a few weeks without issue. Then, one day, there is.
After Sunday School is over, my younger brother and I convene at the MoonBuggy, alone. We begin playing on the grass next to the parking lot, and only after we notice that many of the cars have already left the church do we begin to get a little bit worried. Where are our parents, our brothers? Another few minutes pass and then the four of them come out of the church: My two older brothers have their heads hung low, my mother is looking irritated, my father resigned. They reach the MoonBuggy and, before we can say anything, we’re ordered to get in and we leave. As the youngest members of the family, we’re often not included in Important Things, and neither my parents or older brothers are interested in sharing with us what had happened. So we promptly forget about it.
The next Sunday, there are muffled shouts coming from my parents’ bedroom as we are getting ready for church. I can’t really make out what they’re saying, but since they fight often, I also don’t really care. I instead try to focus on the game of pretend that I’ve fully launched myself into, hoping to shut out the yelling. My parents finally open the door, my father stomping to the other side of the house and shouting something at my older brothers. My younger brother and I are still in the dark as to what’s going on, but again — we don’t really care. We’re just happy that we’re not the ones in trouble for once, and we climb into the MoonBuggy with an air of benevolent self-satisfaction. It feels good to be the Good Ones!
After a ride to church in total silence, we give ourselves over to the order of the day: A two-hour-long testimony meeting, then two hours of Sunday School. Again, my younger brother and I convene at the MoonBuggy alone. But, this time, we don’t have to wait long, because our mother comes storming out of the church, my brothers following sheepishly behind her, our father walking along much more slowly, looking particularly pained.
When they reach the car, my brothers climb in and sit quietly in the back; my younger brother and I are looking around confusedly, asking what’s going on. We’re told to just get into the van and that we were going home. The ride home is again in silence, and now my younger brother and I do really care. When we reach our house, I send my younger brother out on a mission of reconnaissance; he returns with eyes gleaming.
“They weren’t wearing any socks!” He exclaims triumphantly.
“What do you mean? They had socks on this morning I thought.”
“They told them that if they came to church again without socks on, they couldn’t come back. So today they went there and they took their socks off in the bathroom and so they got into trouble. And mom and dad had to talk to the bishop and they told them we couldn’t come back until the boys were wearing socks.”
“So are we going back?”
We didn’t go back. It seemed so serious then, but now, in my shaded apartment decades later, we laugh about it.
“So that’s what I always thought, that we stopped going because the boys wouldn’t wear socks! I didn’t know you had been having issues with it for years.”
“Why did you even become a Mormon? It’s not like you were born into it, so what happened?”
“I just wanted things to be normal, you know? And my friends who were Mormon seemed to have the most normal lives I had seen. Their parents were around, they ate dinner together every night, they had clean clothes. There wasn’t the kind of chaos that I had at my house, the drinking and the fighting and the abuse.” She laughs to herself a bit. “I guess trying to be normal was my teenage rebellion.”
There isn’t much of a sunset to be seen tonight, but what little light has been able to filter through the clouds has dimmed a bit more. We each take another sip of wine as we stare out the window, caught in our own individual reveries of perspectives past.