Sunday, November 18, 2012

When Holidays Collide

I've been thinking a lot about holidays this last week. Yes, I know I'd have to get someone to look after the chooks... Perhaps reminiscing about previous holidays will have to do for now. And this is the one I keep escaping to in my head...

The beach was huge and deserted – aside from the massive driftwood logs and the colony of seals living at one end – and all we could hear was the wind whistling between the cliffs and our children’s delight as they explored the wide expanse of sand. It was my fantasy Australian summer holiday; a beach to ourselves. Only it was autumn and we were in a tiny Californian coastal town.

Our wooden cottage stood at the top of the hill, surrounded by tall grasses, looking down over the ocean. The shingled restaurant sitting on the edge of the cliff was empty except for us and the waitress.

After dinner, the kids tucked in bed, I went searching for wineglasses and a corkscrew in the kitchen. On the bench sat a black, hardcover journal with ‘Guest Book’ embossed on the front, one I hadn’t noticed earlier. Tucking it under my arm, I ventured back to the lounge imagining I would quickly flick through seeing endless entries of names, remarks about the weather and home cities.

When I did close the journal, the bottle of wine was finished, the sky pitch black. I lost two hours inside those pages but I had found so much more.

Here it was; the guest book I’d been waiting for all my life. Entries that went on for 10 pages: the soldier back from fighting in Iraq who couldn’t get over the quietness here, who could still hear gunfire and bombs in his head but who found the beach and the ocean healing. Every morning he’d walk along the beach and stare out at the open expanse, marvelling at nature and questioning his involvement in manmade destruction.

There was the couple who came here to try and save their marriage, who had managed to find the time and space in this little cottage to actually see each other properly for the first time in years. After two nights they left feeling stronger in their desire to stay together. Did they?

Soon followed the man who brought his girlfriend here to cook her a romantic dinner of pasta followed by strawberries and chocolate and who joyfully left at the end of the weekend with a fiancée.

Then there was the family with teenage children and an old Labrador who had been holidaying here for years and had recently discovered their beloved dog was dying of cancer. This weekend was the last holiday for this old dog and the family delighted in watching him run along the beach he had always loved and playing in the long grasses surrounding the cottage. It was bittersweet, the family unsure they would ever be able to return to this little town without their dog.

But I think the story that caught me the most, the one I kept returning to, was written by a woman on her honeymoon. Only a couple of days before, she and her now-husband ‘got all dressed-up in new party clothes’. With their kids they ran down to the San Francisco registry office, had lunch at a very ‘swanky’ restaurant with their families and close friends, all stayed the night at ‘an even swankier’ hotel before piling the kids and dog into the car and driving to this tiny town to stay in this little cottage.

Their days had been spent relaxing, playing on the beach and enjoying becoming a family: ‘all of us here together, my wonderful new husband, his two young sons, my little girl, and the new baby we’ve just discovered is growing inside me.’

It was the baby, such a symbol of lifelong love and hope that captured my imagination the most and who I kept thinking about long into that night. A baby who would by now be a preschooler, a baby who cemented two families together forever.

The beach didn’t feel so deserted the next day. The driftwood and colony of seals were still there but I could also see that soldier, sitting on a rock just next to me lost in his own private hell; there was the old Labrador bounding past, flicking sand up joyfully as he discovered a new lease of life; the unhappy couple tentatively holding hands at the water’s edge; the newly engaged couple lying on a rug away from the rest of us. And there were the newlyweds; watching their children build sandcastles alongside my own; his hand resting protectively on her stomach.

A new beginning for them all.

And a beach that was never really just to ourselves.

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