“The Sea Grave"

A Memoir by Danna Bodenheimer

To this day, nearly three decades later, the whole thing still kind of bothers me. It shouldn’t have felt like such a big deal, but it did. It just did.

Earlier that summer my mom bought me a pair of jelly shoes to soften the roughness of the sea’s bottom on my soft, 7-year-old feet. The shoes were from Caldor and nothing short of perfection. They were this very subtle baby pink, sprinkled with tiny pieces of glitter that caught the light of the sun as I walked along the water’s edge in search of treasure. The idea of treasure drove me through my days, though I had no idea what a genuine treasure would be. It was a completely abstract concept that could only be defined by the final discovery of it.

The plastic of the shoes was woven into infinite swirls that held my feet with complete security. Every time I looked down at my feet, I fell more deeply in love. I wasn’t just in love with shoes, but with my toes in the shoes, with the sand on my toes in the shoes, with the growing tan lines that came around mid-July and left me with those sweet swirls whether the shoes were on me or not.

I spent my days by the bay in Springs, planted somewhere between Kings Point Road and Lion Head Rock Road. I had a few friends, maybe one or maybe none, as I think about it. I was best friends with the water, really. The shells too. I knew every kind, every color, and every texture. My searches were painstakingly focused on these very thin, papery shells. They appeared in all the colors that are in rainbow sherbet, each so prettily pastel. These sweet, nearly silken shells sometimes had a tiny hole in them, perfect for stringing together another necklace or bracelet or anklet or key chain or necklace. I guess I said necklace twice.

During one of the hotter, hazier days, I took a break from searching to enter my beloved sea. I had my shoes on, always, as the bottom of the water was usually rocky that summer. Without the shoes, my feet would be battered for sure. The barnacles and roughly edged rocks almost typically produced a little blood for those who were unprotected. But me, well I had my pink jelly shoes woven around me. I swam out to a neighbor’s dock that was moored into the sea bottom by rusty chains and sharply hooked anchors. It was out deeply enough that diving was safe. I reveled in my repeated practice sessions, mimicking my fantasy of how dolphins would move in and out of the salty, flat bay waters.

At around dive 19 or 27 of the afternoon, the water stole my shoe from me. Only one of them, though, leaving me half-shoed and devastated. I don’t know how it came off. I didn’t feel it go. But to be sure, it was gone. I started frantically searching, even gathering other people on the beach to join my search. Somehow my hysteria dragged the beach sleepers and readers and knitters into the water with me. I was sure we could find it. How far could one shoe, in a familiar section of water, really go? But it was nowhere. It was as if it never existed.

I vowed to find it somehow.

My mom offered to take me back to Caldor to find another pair. By this late August day all the water shoes had been replaced by school supplies. Rows of goggles turned into rows of pencils and backpacks. Beach towels were now folders, highlighters, Mead notebooks. The only hope could be found on the edges of the rows, but sparse clearance sales were filled with only broken sunglasses or sand shovels long separated from their mother buckets.

Day after day, I resumed my search, with one shoe on, the other foot bloodied. I simply couldn’t fathom the loss. This was land that I knew. Or, I thought I knew. I fell asleep thinking about the shoe, trying to piece together the mystery. I let the tan lines even out on the right side, while continuing my loyalty to my spiral pattern on the left.

I dream about the shoe sometimes, still. It comes to me at night after an unconscious, nocturnal deep-sea search at that Clearwater Beach.

But the shoe isn’t the only part of the sea that haunts me in my dreams.

It all comes to me in nightly sleep waves.

This is the thing about a childhood in the Hamptons, to have lived it as a kid is to grieve it as an adult. The way that the jellyfish-filled water leaves skinny little kid-legs stinging never quite fades, even after an adult’s loving application of meat tenderizer and years passed. Nor the way that you need windshield wipers at night no matter the absence of precipitation. Some sort of moisture just rests upon the windows and obscures all views. That precise moist darkness never really relents. Or the way that the pesticides sprayed on the potato fields smell most delicious when fused with honeysuckle. No two smells can ever compare to this intoxicating brew. And all the lines that you stand on as an adult pale in comparison to that one line, out the door of the Sedutto Ice Cream shop, all the way down to the Vered art gallery.

The Hamptons, made devastating and otherworldly by our surrounding sea, takes things from us. I lost the innocence I had before a boy kissed me too roughly behind the movie theater. I lost my death virginity when my first cat died out here after a summer of sudden illness. I learned to drive out here and I learned to crash out here.

Every shell on the shore is a story of a sea animal’s life lived and ultimately lost. Every grain of sand was once part of a larger rock before breaking down into its current granular construct. Every piece of beach glass was once a functional piece of material made to serve a grander purpose than being worn down by unrelenting salt and water. Every piece of shore, once miles wide, has been shrunken by years of vicious winds, harrowing waves, shifting dunes, and inevitable erosion. 

I can’t stop returning to the water, to this water. This is the water that allows me to swim in the depths of grief. The waves knock me down, throw me around. These waves also let me get back up, just like grief does. It takes you in its undertow, doesn’t it? I never know if I will find my footing again. Yet, I always do, somewhat bloodied, somewhat shoeless.

I don’t know why that shoe meant as much to me as it did. I wonder if I really loved it when I had it or if the love was only felt when I lost it. I wonder if I trusted the sea before it stole from me, or if my love was steadily one that was based on the danger that I knew was there. I wonder if I will ever feel as protected by anything as I did by those two shoes, or if aging by the sea means that safety and protection will feel like a mere myth. I wonder if I will ever find it.

Does it matter though? No matter what this exact land takes, it gives back something too. Are the stars more infinite anywhere on this earth?  Is the sea more perfectly flavored by salt and seaweed in any other set of beaches? Does the rain smell any more impregnated with the relief of a good movie than on this route eastward?

The sea takes and it takes, it reeks of death and grief and thievery. But that isn’t all there is to it. And even if it were, I would still come back and look for that little jelly shoe.  


Danna Bodenheimer is a psychotherapist and writer who lives in Philadelphia. She visits and revisits the East End as often as she can.