A Child of Water

Essay by Beth Wilder and illustration by Sam Morton

I am a child of water, born under the sign of Cancer on a blistering summer day long before central air conditioning came along to save the soul of the South. My poor mother, a tiny woman, bore the full weight of her 10-pound baby girl on slender hips and swollen ankles for weeks past her due date. She sought refuge from the sweltering heat of their little Fox Hall apartment in the only place she could find: the soothing waters of the YMCA pool. My mother would float for hours, the buoyancy gently lifting her swollen belly, rocking her aching body in the rippling waters, offering some solace for a while. I am convinced I have prenatal memories of those days, floating in the warmth and safety of my mother’s womb as she floated in the cooling comfort of that swimming pool. I have been trying to get back to the water ever since.

My father says we are all people of water but that some of us have a little more salt in our veins, some of us feel the pull of the tides a little more than others. Millions of years ago, an early version of earthly life climbed out of the primordial sludge to give it a go on land. While life on terra firma has been pretty good for mankind, many of us still feel we belong back where we started. History books are full of sailors and explorers who heeded the call of Mother Ocean, seeking fame and glory on the high seas; of marine biologists and oceanographers dedicating their lives to the study of secrets held within her depths; of writers and musicians praising and honoring her with story and song.

You can add my name to the list of those who cannot resist the pull of the tides, the rejuvenation discovered along a shore staring at a distant horizon, the solace found only at sea.

I married a man with the same passion. We were both blessed to be raised in families of ocean lovers, so we spent countless days in and on the water in our youth. We were engaged by the old pier at Inlet Beach, honeymooned on the shores of Waikiki, and vacationed with our own children along Scenic Highway 30A for decades. 

Some our best family memories are of beach trips, the kids clamoring from the back seat to be the first to see The Big Bridge across Choctawhatchee Bay, the sign that we were almost there. It is a sight that never disappoints, the bridge rising majestically over the emerald waters, the ocean visible just beyond the spit of land that holds our family beach house, beckoning me home.

We have often wondered in our 30 years together how the two of us wound up in a landlocked city hours from our beloved Gulf of Mexico. My husband has always said the only thing Birmingham needs to make it absolutely perfect is a harbor. Barring any bizarre global warming episode that might leave the Magic City with a shoreline, I think we are stuck. Sure, there are plenty of lakes close by, but we are not lake people. We need the vastness of the endless sea to fuel our sense of adventure, the undulation of the rolling waves to soothe our souls.

We often joke to our children that they will show up one day to visit us, only to find we have sold the house, bought a sailboat, and headed off toward the sunset with nothing but a bathing suit and a smile. They laughed this off until earlier this spring when we earned our captain’s licenses at a sailing school in Fort Myers.

We don’t have any plans to go anywhere just yet (we still have one in college, after all), but don’t be surprised to pick up this magazine one day and read a column of mine that has been phoned in from a far-away locale. I might become Portico’s first foreign correspondent, regaling all with tales of our high sea adventures.

Until then, weekend getaways and family vacations to Seagrove Beach will have to suffice. And maybe a few more sailing lessons or a week on a bareboat charter. Every time I get in the car and head north, though, with the expanse of the Choctawhatchee Bridge in front of me and the glorious Gulf in my rearview mirror, I will feel that inevitable pull, the mermaids whispering in my ear to come back, come back home. I will crank up the car stereo and sing along with Jackson Browne at the top of my lungs, “I’m going to leave you here/And try to get down to the sea somehow.”

I’ll be back. I’ll always come back.

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