Lost Footprints: Returning to the Places of Childhood

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.

What can I say? Sea gulls are always awesome.

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.

Osprey eating a fish.

Grandma knitting at the beach.

Sanibel Island, Florida.

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About atomsofthought
Teacher. Traveler. Writer. Reader.

15 Responses to Lost Footprints: Returning to the Places of Childhood

  1. pattisj says:

    I imagine you have great memories of those younger days. Places that seemed larger than life when young appear diminished as we grow older, also, having lost the luster as the days faded away. But there are new places, new eyes to see with, and the wonder starts anew. I didn’t see the fish at first, but then I noticed the perfect shadow cast by its tail fins. Lovely picture of your grandmother. That’s an image you will keep.

  2. afrankangle says:

    An excellent reflection about growing up and change. You had a reflective walk, but still enjoyable .. just in a different way.

    • You’re absolutely right. I think one of the ways our experience of life changes as we get older is that we gain context, so that happy moments become less all-consuming and instead take their place alongside happy moments from the past. It’s a calmer, more reflective, sort of happiness.

  3. Very lovely and thought provoking, as I’m sure we all have places like this in our hearts. My place has grown and changed enough to hurt my heart a little any time I’m lucky enough to revisit it. But like you said, that’s okay. It’s the memories I truly cherish, after all. And those are safely tucked inside me.

    • You’re right: we always have the memories, which often are even better than the experience itself. Our brains have a way of erasing the bad stuff and retaining the good (I read a good science article on this phenomenon 🙂 ).

  4. Wonderful thoughts. There’s some inescapable tie between ourselves and those special places that we visited regularly while growing up. It seems that thinking back upon those places or revisiting them inevitably remind us of growing up, of innocence long ago.

  5. beautiful. I feel like we are always on a search to recapture what we had as children that somehow got lost along the path to adulthood. Lovely read 🙂

  6. Epizeuxis says:

    Such a beautiful place. And the reflections described so well. Nice post.

  7. Jenny Trozell says:

    I like the way you write, those are beautiful reflections!

  8. 陈力点点头,挥手将陈思掩盖了。两个人就向着宇宙核心的核心走去。
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  9. 陈力立刻转身,背朝着赵紫晨:“我真的不是故意的,如果你想离开,我可以放你走。”
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  10. 陈力抱着她摇晃了好一会,解释了半天自己是因为被阵法困住了,解了半天阵法才解开。
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