Have you ever tried to reconstruct nostalgia—the feeling you get when you think back on moments past, on memories that tie you down to people and places that were so fleeting that nothing is left but a blur of color, movement, life? It’s no easy feat to conjure the words to describe these instances, which are really just flashes coupled in your mind to create a mostly indistinguishable array of images. But we do. We bring these moments back as we try to string together our past in an attempt to make sense of our present.
Lately, there’s been one memory—one image that I can’t quite piece together, that keeps popping into my head. It was the day my mother woke me up long before my usual waking time. She rolled me out of bed, dressed me in my bathing suit and fluffy beach cover-up and, softly whispering in my ears as her eyelashes brushed my soft baby cheeks, said, “No school today. We are going on an adventure.” Even at that young age, I could piece it together: we were going to the beach. Why else would we have packed the cooler full of sandwiches and grapes, the big umbrella, and my favorite purple-and-black boogie board into the back of her minivan?
I can’t remember if my older brother came with us or not—I mean, he must have; I can picture him on other days that weekend at the beach, helping me build a sandcastle and slamming me into the waves. But when I think back to this memory it’s just me and my mother, packing up the car. I remember her floral one-piece swimsuit under an oversized white tee, and her hair (at the time a mid-length curly explosion) tied into a topknot with a scrunchie she was a radiant image of the 80s.
The entire car ride I rode in the backseat with the window halfway down, just enough to let the air cool me down and blow the wisps of my hair into an updo like my mother’s, but not enough that the air blowing into my face would make me lightheaded. We listened to my different cassette tapes, including Disney classics and traditional Mexican children’s songs.
As I tasted salt in the air, my mother pointed out the window: “Look, you can already see the ocean from here.” I was too short to see as far as my mother could, but that didn’t stop me from staring out the window for the remaining thirty minutes and imagining waves crashing down on each other.
There’s a gap in my memory between the car ride and setting up at the beach. I have no recollection of taking things out of the car or walking through that patch of excruciating hot sand—a small price to pay for the promise of rolling waves and sun-kissed skin. I do remember clutching my mother’s large hand as we jumped waves and collected seashells. We built sandcastles, lay in the sun, and ate our grapes. Looking back, this time seems magical. Maybe that’s why there’s a gap. My mind works furtively to reconstruct this imagined magical past. I remember thinking that the day would never end, that we would never go back. We had escaped, and this was our life now—running on the beach without a care.
Eventually, an aunt from out of town arrived along with her husband and my cousins. It turned out that was why I’d gotten to skip school: they had come down for the weekend, and my mother thought it would be nice to spend some time with them. That’s when I remember that my brother was there too, that these memories of me and my mother, escaping to begin our own little life together, started falling apart. We didn’t take that car ride alone; my brother must also have been a part of those few hours we spent together on the beach. Each time, I come to this same conclusion. And yet, my memory always starts off with the same image: my mother and I, alone, spontaneously seizing these precious, fleeting moments we share.
Remembering this day, even though it never happened, allows me to imagine that there existed the possibility of running away together one day to start our own little life on the beach.
It has been more than ten years since that trip to the beach, and the memory—even the parts my mind made up—keeps getting hazier. I don’t live at home anymore; I guess you could say I ended up escaping. My mother has cut her hair. She wears it in a straightened bob now, something to do with looking her age. But when I picture her in my head it’s always her wild curls tied in a knot, fighting to be free, to breathe.