The faded, scalloped-edge photo shows two smiling teens in satin gowns the color of Easter eggs, identical bouffant hair flipped at the ends, and frosted pink smiles lighting up their bright young faces. It was 1969 and they are on their way to their Senior Prom. The young women are our mothers.
I remember when Chelsea was born. I was very little still, but I retain the sense of excitement knowing she was coming; the memory is peppered with sand, sunlight, the smell of eucalyptus, and chiming clock tower bells. Our families were more than just friends. Our parents grew up together, and as young adults, newly married and still very young, they still played a lot themselves. There were volleyball games at the college, there were softball games at the park, and the babies were brought along for everything.
My legs were too small to manage my own swing, but sitting on the edge of the sand-court where the volleyball nets were strung, her mom placed her carefully in my lap. Her cheeks were round and pink, and she didn’t do much yet. The edges of that memory fade, but it’s tinged with blue cornflowers on white cotton.
Martin’s Beach doesn’t exist anymore. The coastal land where we spent every weekend and some entire weeks as children has been sold off and developed and the wild cliffs are no more. But when we were children…
Our dads loved to fish. Fly fish, surf fish, creek fish, river fish, boat fish, lake fish… made no difference. But surf fishing was a favorite. We lived near the stretch of rugged northern California coast just south of San Francisco, and with our brothers and sisters who came later, we grew up on those beaches.
The sand was coarse and variegated, made of crushed shell and beach glass, and after a day of walking the moon-shaped shore, looking for broken bits of shell crushed by the harsh surf, your feet would be polished and raw. The undertow was strong, and the drop off was steep- we grew up with the warnings of our mothers in our ears about never turning our backs on the ocean. Giant fog banks would roll in, and we learned young you can get burnt in the fog almost as badly as in the bright sun.
Strangers mistook us for sisters- our sandy blonde hair curled in the cold beach mist the same way, and our hazel eyes were peppered with identical golden flecks. Our cheeks would get pink in the cold, and we shared a penchant for drawing, pondering, and spending time thinking, sometimes perplexing our respective moms.
As we grew up, our orbits drifted in and out of each others spheres, but there was always a recognition of our shared origins, of a perspective formed in the same place, of similar ingredients: in small boats on early morning lakes, on the rocky banks of Deep Creek while our dads cast flies, on the craggy cliffs of the cold California coast, in roaming in the oregano-scented foothills looking for frogs in late May, or in waiting our turn for the best swing in the world. We were forged from the same materials, even as we expressed them in ways unique. As young women, we found each other again, and the foundation was entirely intact for our own natural friendship to grow outside of our parents influence, and we fed each other from our respective wells.
Through dating disasters, art projects, human projects, casting projects, cooking projects… through dancing by the river, scaring ourselves because we hiked too far, crocheting around a fire, tossing memories in other fires… Through love and heartbreak, and marriage and divorce and through the creation of lives with all we had each been given, there is an abiding love for one another.
Now, looking back with the perspective of a few decades, I find myself as enchanted and grateful for the beauty that is Chelsea as I was in that very first memory of her rose-kissed cheeks and her cornflower-cotton dress.
My life is not only emotionally enriched by having an anchor of shared experience, but anywhere I turn, I have pieces of her— of her light and of her quirky, precious beauty. My son drinks from a cup she made him with a wonderfully odd anteater, which delights him to no end. My daughter has a tea set that was made for her on Chelsea’s wheel, before she was even born. Another child has a bowl with hummingbirds perched upon the edge. There are blockprints, and pencil drawings, and photographs that are as much a part of my home as my own footsteps, and they are gifts, little pieces of Chelsea.
Life has taken us literally continents apart, more than once, and again today, while she’s celebrating a personal milestone, I find myself 3000 miles away. I wish more than anything I could be there with her, and with her other sisters, both blood and otherwise, to romp with joy and dance under the moon and drink in the beauty of her life.
Tonight, with my heart full of love, I will put on Sugar Magnolia, and dance in my chilly February yard with my children and my dog. I will toast my divinely beautiful friend, who is the closest thing I have ever had to a sister.
I cannot wait to see what brave and beautiful things you hold for the world, and what unexpected magic awaits you for your next act. Thank you for sharing yourself with me.
I love you, my dear.