Languages on the Long Island Sound

My sister and I sat on Town beach, recognizing the Greek language being spoken within the gathering of a dozen dark haired, olive skinned people near the tall orange lifeguard chair. Our father and his family spoke the language. We were never formally taught our father’s native tongue and understood only a few off colored words and phrases. Still, we can discern when communicated by the strong “K” and lingering “S” sounds. Plus, the North Fork is notorious for its Greek population.

The older couple in front of us spoke French. They lounged in skimpy suits and massive beach chairs with their tanned feet relishing in the soft laps of the Long Island Sound. Years of public school mandatory foreign language classes paid off as we interpreted their judgment of polluting smokers to their right.

From behind in the parking lot, we heard a trunk slam and then another foreign language wailed over the beach. These new beachcomber voices boomed over the ice-cream truck looping a tape of Jack-in-the-Box. Italian perhaps, I thought fumbling through my purse to find my reading glasses, ready to return my attention to JR Ward’s newest work.

The couple, a man and a woman, argued over who knows what. And as he frequently said, “Mama!” I surmised mother and son. The sand and dried seaweed crunched as one of them neared Southold Town Beach’s interior.

He plopped their beach paraphernalia parallel to our left. He was an older man, sixty maybe, less than six feet with salt and pepper hair and a clean shaven face. He wore dime-store flip-flops and a green and yellow swim suit. He spoke zealously across the tarmac to his mother before he drove the blue beach umbrella into the welcoming sand. He took long strides back to the parking lot and next came into view with a standard aluminum lawn chair, woven in green and white. With his mother’s boastful direction from behind, he placed the chair under the umbrella. Her voice bellowed and he held his hand out as if in protest. But she barked like an unruly dog until the chair was six inches due north under the blue umbrella. He again leapt over the sands back to the parking lot.

I turned to my sister and asked, “Italian?”

She curved her neck away from the mystery novel and towards me. “I dunno but doesn’t anyone speak just Greek or English at this beach anymore?” She immediately snapped her head back into the pages of Stephen King’s murder and mayhem. I returned my driving sunglasses into my purse in exchange for my larger ‘reading at the beach’ sunglasses to place over my prescription reading glasses.

Such are the details of middle age.

I continued to listen to the high-strung man. His voice had changed- softer now, endearing almost. From the periphery I saw him supporting his mother with his right arm as she traversed the pliable sand with a short black cane. She wore cobalt blue water shoes on her feet, a true necessity at the rocky North Fork beaches. Her strides were short as her swollen ankles rolled over shifting sand. She was an old woman, late seventies to early eighties. She had a full round body and a full head of bobbed, wiry white hair; pearly combs adorned her temples. Her face was sketched with wrinkles, born of time and worthy of respect.

Details of old age.

Once at their designated area, she motioned to him to secure the chair. He whispered a few throaty words and ended with yet another, “Mama!” She motioned again with stern undercurrents until finally he pushed his body weight onto the polyester-nylon-woven chair securing the seat deeper into the sand. Satisfied, Mama positioned herself carefully in front of the chair, her hands firmly planted on the armrests. She measured the distance from derrière to chair, moving her head back and forth like a golfer lining up a put. Then, she sat.

Her son clapped in praise and moved to face her, his hands raised in proud fists. Excitedly, he walked toward the gentle waves. His toes skimmed the newly wet sand of the receding tide when she yelled, gesturing for him to return. He stomped, pointed to nature’s salty pool. Unyielding, she waved him back over the notoriously pebble strewn beach and back to their shaded spot. A forlorn sigh and a few disgruntled foreign words were spoken as he trekked towards her.

Once face-to-face they argued, four arms flailing; hands opened, then closed to prove a statement or two. She motioned for her son to stand behind her. He did. And as she lifted her backside from the chair, he lifted up her beach cover up. She raised her arms as he yanked the cloth, fully removing the white garment.

He handed the crumpled mass to her carefully and then signaled to the waiting waters. “Mama, Mama,” he pleaded. She repositioned her black bathing suit strap to her shoulder, folded white terry cloth. She indicated her approval but she spoke to him in a quicker, higher pitch tone. He nodded, lifted the waistband of his green and yellow trunks walking with fever to the water’s edge.

He laughed when the coolness of the water touched his skin. He screamed from joy, looked back towards his mother, who like a symphony conductor directing pianissimo, gestured for him to respond softly.

He continued to laugh- loudly- wonderfully- childishly splashing cold water onto his body. Finally, the tall Italian sixty-something year old man plummeted into three feet of water. His adult face submerged in the open sea. He blew bubbles. He rotated his arms, he kicked his feet, and he swam in place as a child first learning to swim.

He breeched from the shallows of the Sound victoriously pumping his arms like an Olympian winning a gold-metal relay. His mother waved and silently clapped at her son’s accomplishment. She spoke, and he nodded affirmatively before pulling and drawing his swim trunks up beyond his waist.

Mama continued waving. He continued frolicking. Beyond my double set of glasses, ignoring fiction for reality, I continued watching the grown man who meticulously preserved the details of childhood. And over the soft hush of breaking curls, I heard Mama’s unspoken concern for him after she dies.

The final detail of life.