by Nancy McDaniel

For some reason, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my father lately. My dad and I were very close. I was an only child and my mom died when I was 16, so Daddy and I spent a lot of time together. He died about 12 years ago. I don’t think about him every day, but I’ve thought of him a lot lately.

Part of the reason is that my dad’s best friend, who was like a second father to me, died a couple of weeks ago. I was in Florida with his family for the memorial service. As I listened to the eulogies given by his sons, who are two of my close friends and nearly brothers to me, I kept getting Daddy and Ralph mixed up in my mind. So the memories came flooding back. And being in Florida and having lots of beach and pool opportunities, many of my best childhood memories of my dad washed over me, just as the surf used to.

Vacations in Florida
When I was a child, my mother and dad and I went to Florida a lot. Sometimes they would take me out of school, with books and lesson plans for me to work on. Sometimes it was during spring vacation. Sometimes we flew, but right after I had my tonsils out, we took the train. I often think of all the fun things we used to do there.

When I walked on the beach recently, I saw so many children and their fathers doing the same things we used to do, over 40 years ago. For some reason, I found that somewhat amazing. I don’t have children of my own, though I do adore them and love to watch them, just doing things that kids do.

No Stranger Danger or Cyber-Space Here
It struck me that many of these activities seem to be the quintessence of a happy childhood. I found it oddly reassuring that, even in these fast-paced days of cyberspace and Stranger Danger, when children seem to growing up so much faster than we did, these simple, timeless events will become memories for today’s young children, just as they did for me.

I saw a mom and dad walking down the beach with their toddler in between them, each holding a hand, counting “one-two-three-whoops,” as they gaily swung the child up in the air. They kept doing this over and over again. Each time, the child smiled and giggled as much as the time before. She never seemed to get bored. Neither did the parents. I remember my dad and mom doing the same thing when I was little. It just looks like fun and I wish I could still do it.

Kids Gotta Run and Birds Gotta Fly
I saw a sturdy pair of chubby, tan legs hurtling after seagulls, which madly dashed away. What is so much fun about chasing birds, I wonder? It reminded me of being at the city zoo and watching a clone of that child, with the same little chubby legs, running after pigeons, with the same result. The birds frantically fly away from the laughing child. I used to chase birds too, while my dad just smiled indulgently. I guess he figured I couldn’t hurt them and I’d certainly never catch them because I was a bit chubby and couldn’t really run very fast.

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder
I watched children slowly, methodically picking up broken, pathetic-looking shells. They would slowly put each one into a bright plastic pail, doing so carefully, presumably trying not to break them further. As an adult, I pride myself on only picking up shells that are “perfect.” Maybe all shells are beautiful and worth picking up when you’re 4 years old, when everything is new, special, and bright and shiny.

My dad and I used to pick up shells together. But what I loved even more was when we would find a sand dollar or a starfish. Or when he would pick up flat stones that he would expertly skim over the water. We would count the number of times that the stones would skip. He was really good at it, sometimes getting up to five or six skips. I usually had to satisfy myself with one or two. He didn’t seem to mind. “That was a good one, Tootsie,” he’d say.

The Beach as Construction Site
A child patiently moves the sand, one full shovel at a time. But to where? Or does it even matter? I watch them moving the sand away and moving it back again. Endlessly. It strikes me how patient children can be. I guess I used to be, too.

I remember that I used to try to dig to China. With my mom and dad watching, I’d sit for a really long time, digging deeper and deeper. It was always China, never Japan or New Zealand or Italy. Why China, I wonder now? I used to wonder if there would be anyone in the bottom of that hole when and if I ever dug that far. Would they climb out and be my friend? I think my parents loved this activity because it kept me quiet and basically immobile for a while so they could relax and enjoy the beach.

With my dad’s help, I used to build a sand castle or a fort for hours and hours. We would put flags and shells on top of it. Then I would be heartbroken and briefly inconsolable when the tide swept it away, as it always did. But, with the persistence and sunny optimism of a child, I would start all over again the next day, hoping for a different result.

As I walked along the beach this time, I saw a group of children working on a large fort, each with a different task. I wondered how they would feel when their hours of work washed away with the tide. They’ll be back again tomorrow, I’m sure. Some things never change.

Daddy as Protector
I saw a child held close in Daddy’s arms, jumping the waves. He looked a little scared, but was laughing all the while.

I remember how I did this with my dad, probably my very favorite thing to do with him. I would wrap my arms tightly around his neck, holding on for dear life. It’s probably a miracle that I didn’t drown him. Sometimes I would get ocean-eyes or a mouth full of salty water. I’d choke and cry a little. But Daddy always made it better. Daddy made it safe. It’s one of those classic approach-avoidance conflicts. The inherent fear of those big waves juxtaposed with the complete trust I had in my dad. I knew without doubt that nothing bad could ever happen to me as long as he was there. And it never did.

Daddy as Playmate
As I lay around the pool, I heard a little girl pleading, “Daddy, Daddy, watch me, watch me!” “Come play with me in the pool.” “Puhleeze, Daddy?” “I know you’re not really asleep, Daddy. It’s daytime.”

Her daddy was a stronger man than mine. He resisted for a very long time. I’ll bet she was an only child, too. A dad can be a great playmate when you’re an only child, especially a daughter. He finally gave in, as mine always did. Once he did, he looked like he enjoyed it as much as she.

Her grandpa tried to teach her to do the “deadman’s float.” I was always in awe of the way my dad could float – even in the ocean. He would lie on his back with his toes pointing up and his hands cupped behind his head. And he could float like that indefinitely. I can’t do it; I never could. I thought maybe it was a physiological thing that males could do it better than females. But over the years, I’ve asked other men to try. I’ve never seen anyone able to do it like Daddy could. I wonder why.

I watched that same little girl being warmly and gently wrapped in an oh-so-big beach towel when it was probably long past time to get out of the water. Her slightly blue lips quivered and her body shivered, but her daddy held her close and gave her warm beach towel hugs, until the trembling stopped. Just like mine always did.

I remember the days when I stayed out in the sun too long (were there any other types of Florida days?). We didn’t have #25 sunscreen when I was a child. Just Coppertone and that little girl with the dog pulling down her swim suit bottom. So, Mommy and Daddy gently rubbed cool Solarcaine on my warm, too-pink skin. It was the most loving feeling, much the same as the Vick’s VapoRub on my chest when I had a bad cold. It was a feeling of unconditional love and caring. It almost made the misery of a sunburn (or a cold) worth having.

Time to sleep, with sweet dreams of warm sunny days and gently lapping waves and playing until you are just too tired to play any more. And then starting all over again the next day. The beginning of another sunny childhood day on the beach.

I have so many wonderful memories in my life and so many of them include my dad. But clearly, these beach memories are some of the very best. And my wish for all children is that they can create many of the same wonderful memories. If they do, they will have them forever.