Lost Footprints: Returning to the Places of Childhood
November 17, 2011 12 Comments
When I was a child, about once every two years my extended family would descend on a small island off the Gulf Coast of Florida called Sanibel. We came from Michigan, Texas and Oregon. We created on Sanibel a reality separate from the ordinary world, where we combed the beach for shells, swam out to sea, played volleyball and tennis, read and exchanged books, and stayed up late playing raucous games of canasta. All of us gathered together–aunts and uncles, parents and grandparents, children and cousins who saw each other only once or twice a year. Together we fashioned a space in time and place that existed only when we were together and unraveled when we parted.
In early November I drove my grandmother from Michigan to Florida, where she will spend the winter. One day I crossed the new causeway to Sanibel in search of the reality I had known as a boy. But though Sanibel remains beautiful, though the ocean laps at the shore and murmurs in the same language as when I was a kid, though pelicans still glide across its roiling surface like World War II bombers and conchs, clams and sand dollars still pile up on its beaches in infinite number, this is not the Sanibel I knew growing up.
No, that’s not right. Sanibel remains the same; I have changed. I’m not that little boy anymore who strolled alongside the ocean and believed it held all the answers in the world; not that boy who dreamed of quasars and nebulae, of unpacking the universe and deciphering its mechanism; not that boy who fretted over girls, wrote little poems about cresting waves and grains of sand, and wandered the beach for hours in search of the perfect sea shell. No, I’m someone else.
Today I stroll down the beach. The ocean laps at my feet. I leave footprints in the wet sand and the waves sneak in behind me and wash them away, so that if I turned around I would see only an incomplete trail of footprints the waves had not yet erased. A stranger may happen upon my trail just after I’ve left the beach, and though he could say briefly that a man had walked there, he could not tell you where that man had come from.
I feel like this image encapsulates the human experience. We move through life leaving footprints in the sand. Before we’ve walked ten steps the world wipes away the evidence of our presence. Maybe we walk faster, sprint and get ahead of the deleting waves, but they always catch up with us. We can pound the sand and so leave deeper impressions. Our footprints may last longer, but still the lapping sea fills them in, erases them.
I returned to Sanibel in search of footprints I left there as a boy, but the ocean had long since washed them away. It’s a mistake to believe that the places of childhood should somehow be faithful to me. How many little boys felt about Sanibel as I did? It was, is, will be their island, too, even as it really belongs to no person. And that’s OK.