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Seal-skin Soul-skin

During my growing up summers in Maine, I swam daily in the cove with my siblings, my mother often joining us.  I dipped under the surface, fluttered my feet, opened my eyes to the swaying banners of kelp, the green sea grass dancing with the tides. Sometimes, I glided among mackerel fish and herring and once a seal bobbed on the surface nearby. My father called me a mermaid.  I stayed in the water until my skin turned mottled and blue, until my teeth chattered, and, even then, sometimes refused to place my feet on dry land.

It was the 60’s and Andre was a pup.  From our cottage home in Fish House Cove, we heard tales of a harbor seal who lived northeast of us in Rockport, was rescued and raised by the Harbor Master and charmed locals and tourists alike with his bountiful display of tricks, who found fame on the local news.

Sometimes it is the seal card I draw from the animal deck.  When I do, I know it is time to pay attention.  The message on the card tells me to immerse myself in artistic and creative expression, to roll with the tides, to plunge into the depths.

A decade ago, my sister and I, both visiting our mother in Maine, hiked the shoreline at Popham Beach.  Mom was old by then, in her nineties, no longer able to paint with her watercolors, to tend her seaside garden, to join us here on this expansive stretch of sand by the sea just five miles from the cottage where we spent our childhood summers, where our mother still lived.  The breakers thrashed against the beach that day.  I think it was September, Hurricane Season, and the surfers were paddling their boards out past the churned water, then riding the swells into shore.  And that’s when I saw it, a shiny black head bobbing among the boards. It was a seal, lifting its torso up out of the water, then diving down under the curls, playing among the surfers — I told my sister that this was a good sign, that we needed to surf our way through our own creative waves.

By the 80’s, when our boys were little, Andre’s fame had grown.  All over the world, people knew of this seal who was flown to the New England Aquarium in Boston each November when Rockport’s harbor froze, who played with the other aquarium seals all winter, was released each April back into the sea where, year after year, he swam the 230 miles northeast to Rockport.  And each year, when the world received the news that he had once again made it home to harbor and family, there was a communal sigh of relief, of joy.  My mother loved Andre, gifted her two young grandsons, our boys, with a book, “Andre, the Seal”.  

My husband just retired from a forty year career in dentistry, more avocation than job, and the two of us have been swimming in an ocean of emotion, tides and tears flowing into shore.  These past few weeks, I have thought of the cove, have wanted to slip into the water under a full moon sky and a sea of stars, have wanted to immerse myself in salt-filled waves, all body, no thought, to emerge from my swim, replenished, ready for something new.

It was in late April that my mother called me, breathless.  She saw him, she said.  Out in the cove.  As she relayed the story, I could smell the sea through the airwaves one thousand miles inland in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He hauled himself up into the turquoise skiff, she told me, the one she now used for flounder fishing, and he sprawled out on the stern’s wide seat, slept all afternoon.  She was sure it was Andre.

My mother carried a tin box of watercolor tubes, thick paper, her camp chair out onto the rocks, painted the cove in all its moods, sometimes gray and misty, the lobster boat and skiff looming in the fog, sometimes cobalt blue high tide sparkly with the rocks glimmering in shades of gold and brown.  She lugged buckets of seaweed up the granite stairs from the beach to place atop her garden’s soil, scrounged the low tide mark for sea moss and mussels, cooked mackerel and flounder she caught herself. My mother wore her seal skin, gifted us our own.

Last evening, I told my husband I would work on my creativity center’s taxes, have them ready for the accountant this morning, but I couldn’t help it.  The sea was calling and I had to go.  I lit a cobalt blue candle on a dark green plate, set myself down on the blue-green rug, surrounded myself with an ocean of poems, poems I’ve written, rough still, in need of the waves’ gentle polishing.  I slipped into my seal skin last night, dove down deep, explored the world beneath the froth, then surfaced again, held up by the buoyant salty sea.

Each May, when my mother was in her seventies and early eighties, I traveled east by car, alone, without kids and husband.  I knew the way, followed the lakes, Superior and Huron, then the wide Ottawa River for miles and miles through Ontario, Lake Champlain in Vermont, the Saco River in New Hampshire, until, finally, I crossed the line into Maine.  It was on the final stretch, when I traced the banks of the wide tidal Kennebec to the sea, when I turned into the driveway, saw the cottage all lit up and waiting, when I stepped out into the thick salt air, breathed in the slight scent of fish, seaweed, balsam fir, when I heard the waves washing the shore, it was then that I knew I had made it.  I was home.

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