Labor Day weekend on the Gulf Coast is traditionally the final family gathering of the summer for folks from Alabama, Georgia and beyond. We pack up our children and our coolers, our umbrellas, floats and kites, and we converge on the white sand beaches from Gulf Shores to Panama City.
A few months ago, we all wondered if BP had brought an end to life as we know it on the Gulf. Would we spend this Labor Day on fouled, empty beaches, scraping up oil and washing sea birds in tubs of soapy water? But God in His infinite wisdom and mercy had an army of oil-eating bacteria ready to take care of the worst of the clean-up and a disaster was averted, praise His Name.
So our family gathered for a long Labor Day holiday on the famous sugar-white sands of a pristine and perfect Panama City Beach. The occasional patch of black, on closer inspection, was sand that had been carried in by the tide, we fancied, from the black beaches of the Isle of Pines in Cuba. Under a cloudless sky, the water was shimmering green Roman glass. The sun was hot and the Gulf, which I like to think of as a huge mineral bath, worked its healing on our bones as we surrendered to its gently buoyant embrace.
We arrived early in the week -- twelve of us in all --and we had the beach to ourselves at first. As the weekend approached more families started arriving. The early-comers would stake out their spot and hoist their beach tents and umbrellas. Soon little family groups would join them as they pulled in, road-weary and ready to unwind. I watched as parents my age greeted their grown children and welcomed the newest babies to the gathering for the first time. I watched as little cousins hugged littler cousins and ran off to play together, and I watched as sisters and brothers sat close and caught up on each others' lives.
Remember the opening and closing scenes of the movie Love Actually? They're montages of reunions at airports -- fathers and sons, grandmothers and babies, sisters, lovers, best friends -- all captured in that moment when they behold each others' faces and embrace with the longing and fervor engendered by separation. The banked embers of the heart ignite as we enfold the ones we love in our arms and press our cheeks against theirs once again.
Our family was no exception to this orgy of delighted togetherness, and this year our tableau had a new centerpiece: nine-month-old Myra Laine, who took to the water like a tadpole, voraciously licking the salt water off her floatie and squealing with joy when the little waves splashed her face. Around the big dinner gatherings, we passed her from hand to hand and she greeted each face with an expectant smile, knowing she would be entertained in some new way. A beard here, a chunky necklace there, a tickle, a funny noise. It was surely sensory overload, but she was game.
Myra's parents, for whom this first vacation with a baby was really no vacation at all, stoically did the schlepping and the maintenance while the rest of us provided the babysitting and the diversions. "It does get easier," I assured my son when he seemed, at one point, overwhelmed at the amount of work it takes to have a nine-month-old at the beach. "Look at Dad and me," I pointed out as he surveyed the mountain of baby paraphernalia under his umbrella while Myra's mom fed her and got her settled for a nap. "At this stage in our lives, all we need is a towel, some sunscreen, and a bottle of water, and we're good to go."
"Thanks for rubbing it in, Mom," he snorted as I ran off, unencumbered, to play in the Gulf. I've paid my dues; his time will come.