Fountain of Youth Found on Mexican Beach
The first wave splashed me with uncertainty. Beneath my feet, sand swirled out to the sea and I bounced to maintain balance. Before I regained footing, I was buffeted back toward the shore as a second wave broke across my shoulders. I felt caught in an uncertain middle as the upper and lower parts of me now pulled in opposing directions.
What could I do but laugh? Suddenly, I felt 28 years old, riding a sensory memory of the surf at Benidorm, Spain. We spent a month there once, Dean and I, students traveling on curiosity and a shoestring, forming bonds of connection with fellow travelers from around the world. The freedom of youth, of splashing waves and open minds buoyed us then through the challenges of cheap beds and language perplexities.
Now, the splashing waves of the Pacific Ocean at Puerto Escondido, Mexico, were transporting me back through the decades and dropping me on that Spanish beach—playing volleyball with the boys from Australia. Sampling jug wine and late-night flamenco guitar with a conscientious objector from Germany.
Ponce de Leon could not have asked for more! Here it was, the Fountain of Youth on the coast of Mexico, lifting me back in time and space. For a moment, my spirit felt reborn in a giddy blend of risk and delight.
It wasn’t my first February flight to Mexico for a winter infusion of sun and warmth. For years, my destination of preference has been inland cities rich in arts and history. But this year, at the urging of friends, my spouse and I consented to five days on the beach before heading inland. That decision was a stretch for me. As a true child of Oregon I grew up with public swimming pools—no connection at all with tidal waters of the Pacific beyond appreciative views from the shore. I’d no more go into the surf at Newport than fly a glider off Mary’s Peak.
For a child of Oregon,
surf is to be seen but not touched
Spain brought my first taste of salt. It came four decades ago as a welcome break in an English winter. After six months in a dank, London flat while Dean pursued studies, we were eager to shed woolens and warm ourselves in the sun. A no-frills travel package aimed at winter-weary British pensioners transported us to a nondescript Benidorm hotel peopled with clients many years our senior.
In the arrogance of youth, we scoffed privately as our travel companions toted jars of English marmalade and bags of Tetley’s tea to breakfast. Before long we were invited to join a table for bridge where we spanned age differences with hearts and clubs. When our partners retreated for afternoon naps, we donned swimsuits and created friends our own age on the beach.
There, the Mediterranean delivered a safe initiation to the thrill of uncertainty, the elation of survival, that flow in the rhythm of seaside waves. It was a heady time. We felt limitless, even on our no-excess budget. The world ahead, a balloon of possibilities. We had not the slightest clue back then that we’d one day be the old folks ourselves, chasing the chill of age on a resort patio.
This time, the hotel was closer to the shore. The furnishings more gracious. But the guests who clustered at the pool—refugees from Montreal, Boston, Chicago—seemed remarkably similar to the English pensioners of Benidorm. And this time, I was one of them—one of the senior bathers with loose-skinned arms and soft bellies I’d dismissed with youthful narcissism all those years ago.
But when I ventured into the breakers, cautiously and skeptically at first, I found myself sloshing in an unexpected ebb and flow of age. In the foaming surf, my sense of personal identity seemed to reel with the same loss of balance my body experienced in the surging waves.
Half of me felt buoyed by youthful exhilaration; half of me laughed at ironies I couldn’t ignore. One moment young, floating on expectancy—the next moment, pulled off balance in the uncertain sands of age. I bounced in delight, savoring a sense of self that had expanded beyond the boundaries of birth year and calendar age.
The shifting sands were unsettling some strong assumptions about age, and also about vacations on tropical beaches. Beach resorts, I had decided at some early point in adulthood, were the same around the world. Spare me surfside vendors offering trinkets, drinks, and helicopter rides. Don’t strand me on a chaise splayed beneath the sun. Take me, instead, to locations with unique vistas, tastes and arts.
(Okay, some of you may be taking offence right now, preparing to refute my narrow-minded views. Hang on!)
Oh, Carolyn, my aunt gasped,
You've gotten old!
Last month, I had to eat my words. Confront my arrogance. I didn’t mind the taste one bit. My spirits soared in the rise and fall of waves, hurling me back to a time when my barriers and persuasions were so much more permeable.
Amid the unexpected glee that burst from every swell I recalled an even stronger “age wave” that had caught me by surprise just a few days prior to this vacation trip. That late January day, I traveled up I-5 to Lebanon for a visit with my mother’s last surviving sibling.
Auntie Mae was a refuge in the years when my widowed mother dropped my younger brother or me on her sister’s doorstep. On those occasions, we arrived sniffling with colds or swollen with mumps, unfit to accompany our mother to Tennessee School where she supervised the education of students in grades five through eight.
Auntie Mae tucked us into her own bed on those mornings, soothing us with patience and comforting words. Safe in the calm, unwavering welcome of her home, I’d lie in bed and listen to the voices of my cousins in the kitchen, setting out for their own classrooms at Crowfoot School. Now, my mother’s little sister is 102 years old, matriarch of a sprawling clan. I hadn’t seen her for a while and was looking forward to catching up when I reached my cousin’s house where Auntie Mae now lives.
“Oh, Carolyn,” my aunt gasped in distressed surprise when I stepped into her room. “You’ve gotten old.” That greeting, I confess, delivered its own wallop of surprise. Nothing had prepared me for such unbuffered honesty from this woman who’d always greeted me with nothing less than full appreciation.
There she sat, neatly dressed, hair combed, composed and at ease in her chair beside the picture window that offers a view of the world passing by outside. Clearly she had been expecting someone else. A child of seven or eight perhaps. Or maybe a youth of 16. But not this—a mature woman, aging now well beyond the years she herself had accrued in those early days when we spent so much time together.
When I gathered my composure, I laughed. “Yes,” I responded with a light, teasing tone. “I’ve gotten old, Auntie Mae. But I’m still not as old as you.”
She paused, and I watched her focus shift. Thoughts seemed to circle for a moment. Then with the gentleness I remembered, she nodded. ‘I guess that’s right.” she observed with pensive thoughtfulness. Silence hung for a moment in the air. “I don’t really remember how old I am,” she confessed.
Her words floated back to me as I experienced that elusive and transitory sense of age in the warm, nostalgic pulse of the Puerto Escondido surf. For a few glorious moments there, I, too, forgot how old I am.
Carolyn Kortge of Eugene is a former Register-Guard editor and writer,
and author of The Spirited Walker. Contact her at email@example.com