It was the kind of October day that lulls a person into complacency. The warm Indian summer sun betrayed any sense that winter was coming. It could be warm like this forever.
The sun on the changing leaves made lacy patterns on the cool dirt path, and brittle bittersweet crackled orange against the bright blue sky. The sky was endless, like an ocean, cool like waters that go on forever, and as I walked, I stared up into the cloudless vastness and tried to see the bottom. It was the kind of day that made me think I could see eternity if I just looked hard enough.
The coolness of the trees ended abruptly at the edge of the world where the horizon melted into the waters so you couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began. On stormy days, the water was moody and brooding and grey like sadness. But today, the waters of the Atlantic were stretched out shamelessly, asleep in the sun.
A sandy sidewalk and a narrow, New England road came between my path and the beach. I stood there, debating whether or not to bother with crossing. The kids were going to need dinner soon, and the dog would just chase the seagulls. I looked down at Sampson, my boss’s shaggy black Newfoundland waiting by the side of the double stroller, and wondered if he was feeling obedient…or not.
But it was the kind of day that begs you to cross the street, the kind of day when simply living isn’t enough. It was the kind of day that makes you want to soak up the minutes into your skin and breathe them into your lungs and hold them there forever.
I crossed the street. The edge of the ocean was guarded by sleek condos and multimillion dollar homes which wore BMWs like jewelry on perfectly manicured driveways. Their glossy windows reflected the day coldly, turning the beautiful shades of blue into something dark and limited, like the great expanse of the ocean had been scaled down and cropped into something that could fit into a realtor’s brochure. Here, the ocean had a price tag.
Tourists drove by and craned their necks to look at the homes where the somebodies lived, and said things that began with “Who do you suppose…” and “What if…”
But I had not come to stare. I walked up the street to where the iron gates ended. There, in between the condos and the mansions, sat a grand old house, three stories high. The wrap-around porch sunk in places and the grass poked through. What was left of the white paint flaked off the hand-carved columns, revealing the weathered grey of old wood underneath. The only thing new was the bright red front door, which looked as brazen and out-of-place as lipstick on a preacher’s wife.
In the front, the wildflowers and beach grass grew uninhibited, and the ocean was allowed into the house, pouring its soul into every room through the wavy glass of the single-paned windows. You could stand on the sidewalk and look right through the house and into the sea. Even the sand had blown up around it as if the beach had long ago reconciled itself to this intruder, and now it belonged.
But as much as the house belonged on the beach, it was shockingly out-of-place among the wealthy neighbors that had grown up around it. I imagined more than one developer had offered a small fortune for that piece of property. But somebody in the house couldn’t be bought.
On this day, when the ocean beckoned me across the street, I saw an elderly man shuffling out the bright red door and down the overgrown walkway on his way to get the mail. A glass of iced tea sat by a gold and green striped recliner on the front porch, waiting.
The old man looked at me suspiciously and frowned at the dog. Sampson had trotted right into his yard and was sniffing around.
“I love your house,” I said by way of apology and gave Sampson’s leash a yank, which the dog ignored.
“It’s not for sale,” he retorted.
“Oh, I don’t want to buy it!” I said.
He thought I was lying.
“I mean, I couldn’t afford to even if I wanted to. Your house is worth millions, and I’m just a nanny.”
“Hogwash. The house isn’t worth two cents,” he retorted. “The view is worth millions.”
“You’re probably right,” I laughed, “but I love it all the same.”
He softened just a little. Glancing at the babies in the stroller, he asked, “These your twins?”
“No. They’re not twins. This one’s my daughter, and this one’s my boss,” I explained. “I think I’d go crazy if I had twins.”
“Hmpf.” He got his mail from the box, the only mailbox on the street. It looked like it would have fallen apart if not for the wire and duct tape holding it together. “Take this to the porch for me,” he commanded and handed me the mail.
“Oh, okay…,” I shifted the dog leash to the other hand and grabbed the mail obediently as he turned around and slowly shuffled back up the path to his front steps. I was thankful he couldn’t see me try to juggle the mail, drag the dog, and push the stroller up the walkway behind him. But it was worth it for the opportunity to get a closer look at the house.
With painful effort, the old man climbed his front steps and lowered his heavy body into the chair.
“Do you live here by yourself?” I asked, concerned about how he was managing.
“Yes ma’am. I was born in this house, and I’ll die in this house, and I’m not selling it to anyone!” He gave me a threatening look.
“I’m not trying to buy your house,” I reminded him, handing over his mail. “I think you should be able to stay, if you want,” I said, but now I really was lying. He looked about as sturdy as his mailbox only without the benefit of the duct tape.
“You should tell that to my daughter. She comes around every week, clucking like a hen. She put in a new door, saying I shouldn’t be living here with a door that doesn’t lock.”
“That sounds reasonable to me…”
“Too bad this forgetful old man lost the keys already” he smirked impishly. “What do you think of that?”
“I think you’re a troublemaker,” I said with a laugh.
He grinned. “Let me tell you something,” he said, leaning forward in his chair. “I didn’t get this far in life without being a little bit of a troublemaker.”
The old man squinted up at me. “How old do you think I am?”
I shifted my weight a little and hoped he’d just tell me. He didn’t. He looked ancient. Was that close enough?
“I bet you’re eighty-three,” I said, but that was a lie too. He looked at least ten years older than that.
“Ha!” he shouted, slapping the arm of his recliner. “I’ll be ninety-eight in a month!”
I smiled. “No wonder you’re ornery.”
His eyes held a smirk as he sipped his tea. “You see those houses there?” he asked, pointing to the string of mansions that bordered his property. “None of those were here when I was a kid. That house was nothing but a field where we’d play stick ball after school.
“Sometimes, we’d play hooky so we could watch the ships come in to the harbor. I used to wait for my father’s ship to come home, so I could be the first to tell my mother that he was back. But one year, the ship went out, and it never came back.”
He stopped for a second and looked out over the water.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I paused respectfully before asking, “You lived here your whole life, then?”
“When I wasn’t out at sea. I spent most of my life on the water.”
“Even though your father died out there?”
“There’s worse things than dying out at sea,” he said.
I wasn’t so sure.
“Besides,” he explained, “the sea was all I knew. It’s all any of us boys knew. We were just a poor fishing town back then. It’s not like it is now.”
“It’s not much of a fishing town anymore, I guess.”
“You ask any kid growing up what time the tide was coming in and they could tell you. It’s not like that anymore. They want to knock down my house and put up condos so the rich people can sit out in the sun and say, ‘Oh, what a view!’ and then turn around and complain about how much seagulls poop and dead fish stink.”
“Is that why you stay?” I asked. “So they can’t build here?”
“Nah. You want to know why I stay?” he asked in a way that made me think I didn’t. “Let me show you.”
To my surprise, he stood up. He turned the doorknob on his brand-new front door. “See? Don’t even need a key,” he chuckled. “Come with me. I’m not a serial killer.”
“It makes me feel better just hearing you say that,” I said wryly.
“I like you,” he laughed. “Follow me.”
He pushed the front door wide open and stepped aside. I gasped.
From his front entry, I could see the entire horizon. The east side of his house was a jumble of windows, and all of them were full of the ocean.
“It’s the view,” he said.
“It’s amazing,” I breathed.
“No,” he said sternly. “It’s terrible.”
I tried to hide my confusion. “Well…” I began.
“I have spent my whole life on the ocean and I have come to know that it is terrible. I lost my father to that ocean, and more friends than I can count. You must know it is terrible first, and beautiful second. Otherwise, you won’t respect its power and you won’t appreciate its beauty. And that will kill you. Or worse.”
“Worse. You’ll think the ocean is something you can have, and you’ll put up big, fancy houses and look out at it every day through your sunglasses and never really see it, never really know it. At least if it kills you, you’ll know something about it before you go.”
I nodded, but I felt insecure. “I’m afraid I don’t really know the ocean very well,” I confessed.
The old man took my hand in his and pressed it to his lips. “My dear,” he said, “that’s the most truthful thing you could have said.”
He was quiet for a minute. The dog whined at a crab and the kids kicked in the stroller.
“I’m just an old fisherman, and I’m afraid I must say the same thing: I don’t really know the ocean very well.” He shrugged and then added simply, “Some things are too big to know in this life.”
“Then why do you stay?”
He looked out over the water with a longing in his eyes. “What if you got to the end of your life and realized that all you ever tried to know could be known, just by looking, and you never even thought about anything that couldn’t be seen with your own eyes? What if all you ever chased was something that could be caught?”
“I’d say that’s the way most people live.”
“Probably. I guess that’s the troublemaker in me! I don’t see much difference between living and dying, if you live like that. I want to live—and die–pursuing something bigger than myself. I’ve spent my entire life on that water, looking at it, feeling it, tasting it. Every time I think I know it, I find there is more to know. And that’s just the way I think it should be. So I stay here, and I look out there and remind myself that there is something bigger than me, something that’ll take all of eternity to know.”
“It doesn’t sound like you need that reminder,” I said with a smile.
“We all need that reminder,” he countered. “Otherwise, our eyes will blind us and we’ll forget to look beyond what we can see, and we’ll only get what can be gotten in this world.”
We listened to the gulls and the sound of the tide coming in. He added softly, “It’s very close now.”
“What is?” I wondered.
“Eternity. You look out there, and you can almost see it.”
The sky had turned into a brilliant opal, reflecting red and orange and green across the cirrus clouds that had formed in the cool of the evening. It no longer looked like an ocean, but more like a jewel. He was right. If I looked hard enough, I could see something of eternity on that warm October day when the ocean begged me to cross the street.