The only words I can remember my maternal grandfather uttering were spoken on a visit to Higgins Beach in Scarborough on a hot summer’s day in the early 1960s. By then he was in his 80s, and he dressed like the Aroostook potato farmer he had been all his life: long underwear, wool pants and a flannel shirt. That day he was wearing black dress shoes, which caused him, as we walked on the beach, to say, “The sand is slippery, thinks I.” We kids thought it was hilarious that he dressed as he did for a trip to the beach, and we wasted no time in turning his antiquated phrasing into an oft-repeated joke. While my siblings and I cavorted in the sand and water, he sat in a beach chair and stared at the ocean.

At Pine Point, looking toward Ferry Beach. Photo courtesy of Peter Vose

My parents had both been born and raised in the County, though my father had not lived on a farm. He never quite understood the attraction of the beach. He occasionally accompanied us, but he found it hard to be idle, and once he brought a chair he was refinishing to the beach and sanded it happily while we, rather mortified, played a distance apart. My mother, though she could not swim, liked the beach. She loved sitting and reading in the hot sun or standing in the shallow water and allowing the dying waves to caress her feet.

But we children all loved the beach. We loved to ride the waves, to dive into or over the waves. We liked to walk on the beach, to lie on a towel and read, to draw in the sand, to drowse in the warmth of the sun and enjoy the laziness that overtook us as we dozed or daydreamed. Scarborough has several fine beaches, but we favored Scarborough Beach, then called “Jordan’s” after the family who owned it, or Higgins Beach, which was closer but had limited parking. After a beach day, most of us had sunburns and needed cooling applications of vinegar that made our house smell like a pickle factory.

My beach reading this summer included Rebecca Mead’s “My Life in Middlemarch,” which is an appreciation of George Eliot and of her masterwork, “Middlemarch.” Mead argues that Eliot is not being sentimental about where we grow up in her famous book. Instead, she argues that Eliot is saying “there is nothing particularly special about the landscape of our youth … except for the important fact that it is where we learned to be human.”

Scarborough is a vastly different place now than it was when I grew up there. But the beaches, aside from worryingly warmer water, remain largely unchanged. And they continue to be fine places to experience the pleasures earth offers: from the warmth of sun on one’s body to the delicious  sensation of plunging into cold water on a hot day. Beaches continue to be fine places to learn to be human.

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