The Gulf of Love
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
After getting my degree at the end of 1973, I was qualified to make my way in the world, flashing my sheepskin should anyone doubt my qualifications.
I knew no more after being handed my diploma than I knew before I received it, but I'd been operating as the conservancy's marine biologist since Bill Payne certified me the year before. To everyone in the world of biology, Bill Payne's word was golden.
I did have a greater appreciation for literature by the time I graduated from college, which had as much to do with Dylan and Lucy as my English professors.
I was learning that reading was fun.
Lucy was rarely without a book while we were growing up in Tulsa. I was sure the books she read had as much to do with Lucy's intellect as the schools she attended or the teachers who taught her.
When Lucy was eight and nine, she was reading Emily Dickinson's, Jane Austen's, and the Bronte sisters' novels. My friends and I once laughed at Lucy for carrying books the size of unabridged dictionaries around with her.
No matter where she was, she could sit down and immediately be lost in whatever novel she was reading.
By the time I was beginning to mature, after we arrived in Florida, I understood that Lucy was way smarter than I was. She didn't simply know more. Her intellect and thought process was far better developed than her older brother's would ever be.
Little rattled Lucy for long before she figured out how to accomplish what she'd set out to do.
My appreciation for Lucy's brain was refreshed one day as I came into the house after I finished at work. It was too early for dinner. After a dive that afternoon, I intended to take a shower and maybe catch a short nap before dinner.
Lucy was seated in the foyer with Dylan wedged up close to her and the book she held. She'd just graduated high school and was still home before she'd leave for Florida State in Tallahassee for her freshman year of college.
She was reading out loud and Dylan was mesmerized by the words she spoke. I went to the kitchen to see if there was something I could snag from whatever Mama was preparing for dinner.
“Mama, what's Lucy reading to Dylan?”
“I believe it's Jane Eyre. I enjoyed that book when I was a girl.”
“You notice Dylan is captivated by her reading to him?”
“You just noticed. She's been reading to him for ages. The foyer is so much cooler this time of year. Instead of reading to him in her room, she reads to him there. I can hear her in the kitchen. Her voice carries in the foyer.”
Some days I sat and listened for a while. Dylan hardly noticed I'd arrived home. Usually he'd want an immediate hug and some attention from his daddy when I came in.
Dylan could hardly sit still for long and this was a new way to get his attention and hold it.
Dylan turned three, Lucy went off to Tallahassee for college, and my son went back to being restless much of the time. He was still too young for me to take to the lab with me. I got distracted by my work and wasn't able to keep a close enough eye on him to head off any mischief he might get into.
When Lucy was home for Thanksgiving, I came in from work one afternoon and she was sitting with Dylan on the porch outside my bedroom. The foyer was chilly that time of year and the afternoon sun warmed the back of the house comfortably most days.
Lucy was reading Pride and Prejudice aloud. I read the title from the book jacket as I stood watching them.
This time Dylan was aware of my arrival, hearing me close the door to my room. He picked up the book I left on the rocking chair, where I last had time to read from The Godfather.
“Look, Daddy! I'm reading,” he said.
Lucy looked at him and smiled.
“Yes, you are,” I said, turning the book right side up in his hands.
He gave me the biggest smile.
This made me realize that it was time for me to begin reading to my son. It was obvious that he enjoyed being read to.
With Lucy showing the way I'd take advantage of his curiosity about words. Lucy hadn't mentioned it to me but I'm sure she was hoping I'd pick up on what she was doing.
My sister was trying to pass on her love of literature to Dylan. His daddy thought that was a fine thing to do.
“I read to him every day when I'm home, Clay. He seems to enjoy it. He grabbed the book you're reading when he heard the door close. He's imitating his daddy, you know.”
“I'll get some books and read to him before bed,” I said. “Could be a good way to get him to calm down and go to sleep.”
“That's a great idea,” Lucy said. “It would be a time you two can look forward to sharing.”
“Yeah,” Dylan said, putting his seal of approval on the idea.
The next day on my way home I went to the bookstore and stocked up on Dr. Seuss books. It was recommended for kids Dylan's age. It gave me a place to start.
Each night I read to Dylan once he said a prayer for his mother and I tucked him in. This was the time of day we were always together. Reading to him became part of our evening ritual.
I started with The Cat in the Hat. I didn't know the story but I'd heard the title, and I liked it. It was clever.
At first I only read to him at bedtime but one afternoon when I came in from work, he brought me whatever book we were reading at the time. We sat together on the porch outside my bedroom and I read to him until dinner time, which was rarely more than a half hour if my planning was right.
The first time through the Dr. Seuss books, Dylan was content. The second time through, it didn't take long for me to wondered if he was listening. He squirmed, scooted, and wiggled in the chair beside me, when I read to him on the porch. He wiggled and squirmed while I read to him after I tucked him in.
Dylan was always a restless child. Reading had calmed him down remarkably, but the calm had fled and the restless returned as I began reading the books a second time.
Lucy was at college and I couldn't consult with her. I wondered if I should have him tested to see if his hearing was OK and maybe see if there might be a malfunction somewhere.
It never occurred to me that I might be the malfunction. I was looking forward to reading the books a second time. I always got more out of a story the second time I read it. I found things I missed the first time I read something.
I assumed Dylan was the same way as his daddy. Dylan didn't miss much but he wasn't paying attention as far as I could tell. It might be weeks before I talked to Lucy. Maybe if I kept at it, he'd calm down again.
I persisted, reading each book a second time. For some reason it didn't occur to me that my son was bored. I was sure the neat rhyme I enjoyed wouldn't get tiresome for a boy heading toward four.
Dr. Seuss was recommended for his age group.
He didn't seem to be paying attention. He didn't squirm when Lucy read to him. What wasn't I seeing? Maybe it was my voice.
When I started reading The Cat in the Hat for the third time to see how he'd react, I finally began to pay attention to what my son had been telling me.
As I began to read, any thoughts of Dylan being slow or not hearing well ended. Dylan began reciting The Cat in the Hat
word for word. He'd say the word just before I read it.
I couldn't recite from the books after reading them twice.
I tried some of the other five Dr. Seuss books with the same result. I could start in the middle and Dylan could recite the words no matter where I started reading.
I remembered what Ivan told me about flying. I flew because no one told me I couldn't.
I was dense when it came to listening to what my kid was telling me. I was so concerned that there was something wrong, that I kept reading the books to him, looking for a different outcome. I got one.
What I needed were some new books.
When Lucy came home for spring break, she said, “I read from whatever novel I'm reading at the time. He always listens. Maybe something with a little more meat on its bones. A plot with some character development.”
I took Dylan to the bookstore with me the following day. After looking over several books, we decided on three Hardy Boys' stories that came in a box. On the way home Dylan handed me The Tower Treasure. He wanted me to read that one first.
This was the first time Dylan picked the book he wanted read to him.
That night we started on the porch in the rocking chairs, reading about Frank's and Joe's adventure. He didn't squirm or wiggle. When it was time for him to go to bed, I sat in the chair beside his bed, and before I finished the next page, he'd fallen asleep.
It took until the third Hardy Boy's book that Dylan began to ask questions.
“Daddy, why did they do that? Do you think that was smart? Shouldn't they have known they were being watched? I think I'd sense being watched.”
Dr. Seuss bored my son and going on four, he related to Frank and Joe Hardy. He took adventures with them. So did his father. By not reading as a boy, except for comic books, the books Dylan liked were new to me.
I guess being slow on the uptake did have its advantages.
Lucy was responsible for another habit I'd gotten into concerning Dylan. She spoke to him like he was an adult. She never used baby talk or slang to explain something to Dylan. My sister spoke in short concise sentences, which wasn't that remarkable when I think about it. She talked like an adult long before I did.
I was amazed by Dylan speaking to Lucy in simple sentences. He became far easier to understand and he responded to us more readily. I cut down on the shortcuts I took when I talked to my son.
If Dylan could talk like an adult, I was sure I could.
It was during the summer before Lucy returned to Florida State for her sophomore year that I came in from work and I thought I heard Dylan talking. It was nothing like his usual speech pattern.
I went to investigate.
Lucy had been to the elementary school to get a copy of the First Grade Reader. She'd been teaching Dylan to read since she came home on summer vacation. I'd been too busy with work to notice.
Now, when she read a novel to Dylan, she pointed out words he knew. Dylan had been trying to figure out the larger words by using the sounds he knew.
“These are words you learned in your reader. See? Same as in your book. Words are made up of letters and once you learn the smaller words, you figure out the bigger words. Then you can read.”
“I can read a little,” Dylan said with confidence.
“You know a lot of words that are in this book,” Lucy explained, pointing out words he knew. “Here's the... and... it... you.... You know all of those words.”
“Let me see,” Dylan said, stumbling over words he recognized as Lucy pointed them out to him.
It was at the dinner table that Lucy told us, “I'm going to get my teaching certificate while I'm studying for my law degree. I want to teach. Dylan makes me realize how much faster kids learn than we allow them to learn. I want kids to love reading the way I do.”
I thought it was great. She obviously had been teaching Dylan for a long time and he didn't mind learning to read. I was sure it excited him. He knew the books we read were the doorway to worlds beyond his reach.
I began handing the book to Dylan after reading a line. He'd give me a big smile and say the words he recognized. I didn't have Lucy's patience but I was good at imitating her.
Dylan's was a halting speech as he explored letters and the sounds they made. I complimented him on his effort to sound words out. He recognize most two and three letter words. He'd begun to sound out four letter words. He rarely got one of those wrong twice.
Once Dylan heard a word, even the ones he wasn't sure about, he remembered what they looked like and he could come close to reproducing their sound. He didn't pronounce them all correctly every time, but he sampled the sound he thought a word might make.
He never said, “I don't know that word.”
It was rewarding to watch my son learn. After he turned four, he asked more questions about everything.
The world of words was never going to befuddle Dylan.
By Christmas that year I had to stop by the bookstore to pick up a set of ten Nancy Drew mysteries in a box,
We'd read the last Hardy Boys book I was able to find.
There were other titles in print but I had no luck finding any of them. When I asked Harry about the Hardy Boys, he reminded me that I would be going to Washington to appear in front of his committee now that I had my diploma. He thought that would be a good place to look. Washington was filled with bookstores.
There was a big celebration at Harry's over the holidays. It was a combination of “You got your diploma” and “Christmas party.”
It wasn't the kind of thing Harry could pass up. There were always donors, part of his local campaign staff, and people from my life and the congressman's were always invited.
“I got you something for Christmas, Clayton,” Harry said.
“Harry, you give me too much as it is,” I said.
“This you'll love,” he said, handing me a wrapped box that looked very much like a three book box set of something.
“The Hardy Boys,” I read from the box. “These are some of the titles I'm missing. Thanks, Harry.”
“Word travels when you're looking for things,” Harry said. “I sent my secretary out one afternoon and she came back with those.”
“Thank you. Thank her. I was about to start on Nancy Drew mysteries. Dylan will be glad to see these.”
“Nancy Drew? You think he'll like Nancy Drew, Clay?”
“He liked Jane Eyre. He likes the Hardy Boys. Why not Nancy Drew mysteries? It's a similar type story. It's not too complicated and he's beginning to read from the books now.”
“Dylan? Four year old Dylan is beginning to read?”
“Four and a half, Harry, and he starts kindergarten next year. Lucy began reading to him last year. While she was home this summer, she began teaching him to read.”
“My word! Lucy is a treasure.”
“Yes, she is. She's always thinking.”
Dylan was all smiles when I came in from Harry's with the new Hardy Boys. Dylan took out the first book in the package when it was time to read, and he read the first two paragraphs to me.
He held the book too tightly and he stumbled quite a bit, but he didn't hesitate trying to read the words. If he didn't ask me to read them once he was done, I didn't and moved on to the next paragraph.
Some nights he'd ask for the book back to read a little more and some nights he wouldn't. We both enjoyed the stories and I was fascinated by the pace of my son's ability to learn.
I would never tell Dylan he couldn't fly.
I started taking Dylan to work with me in early 1974. I'd come in for lunch and take him off Mama's hands so she could have free range to do whatever she wanted.
I'd found some biology books for kids at the bookstore. They had pictures of fish, turtles, frogs, and various other amphibian species. He liked looking through the books. He did his best to read what was said about each of the pictures.
When I sat him down with one of those biology books with a lot of pictures, he was happy as a lamb. If he got restless and began to wiggle and squirm, I took him to Pop's shop.
Pop loved having his grandson under foot and he added pizazz to the conservancy's day. Everyone who came over to the shop stopped to talk to Dylan.
Pop always had something Dylan could do to help out. I think spending time with his grandfather at work was some of Dylan's happiest times. He loved being in the lab with me but Pop was interactive with him. Dylan saw where he was helping him, even if it was pushing the broom to get the excess sand up. It was a task that had no end. There was always sand being tracked inside.
Dylan loved feeling useful, but when Pop was ready to go out to do a check of the beaches, Dylan made a beeline for the truck. He loved to ride. He loved riding in both Pop's pickup and Teddy's Chevy.
Dylan's world had expanded beyond the conservancy house.
Harry gave me a raise when I was certified by Bill Payne. Another raise came with my diploma.
I'd been thinking about getting a marker for Sunshine's grave for some time. I could afford it now. I'd been by the stone cutters where they made the markers a half dozen times but I couldn't go in. I sat in the Chevy in the stone cutter's parking lot trying to summon the courage to do this simple task.
Sunshine had been gone since 1969 and I hadn't done it yet.
I couldn't afford one before and I wasn't about to borrow money for a headstone. I had nearly two thousand dollars in the jar on the fridge by the time I got my degree. When I emptied it out this time, Mama wouldn't object to how I intended to spend it, but I was still putting it off into the new year.
It wasn't a question of cost. The question was about my courage. My son was growing up and he needed to know I cared enough about his mother to put a simple marker on her grave.
Dylan wasn't getting any younger and as soon as I began taking him to work with me, I knew it was time to do what needing doing.
I wanted a marker at the site before Dylan asked to go to his mother's grave. He didn't ask to go yet and I had a little time left.
Early one morning I emptied the jar on the fridge for the second time. Mama smiled and patted my hand. She knew what the money was for and she knew how hard this would be on her youngest son.
I refused her offer to go along with me. I had to do this alone.
I had to do it for Sunshine and for Dylan.
The strangest part of this epic, as hard as I made it out to be, I saw the stone I wanted before going through the gate at the stone mason's shop. It caught my eye as soon as I got out of the Chevy. It's as if it was waiting there for me to finally show up.
That was the one.
It was an obelisk five feet tall. It sat on a substantial pedestal. An angels was carved on each corner and roses led from one angel to the next.
A man about Pop's age walked toward me. He was the stone mason. The dust from cutting into the stone gave him away. Even his forehead was dusty.
“I can see you don't need a tour,” he said, stopping beside me.
“How could you tell?” I asked.
“I've been doing this for forty years. When someone knows what he wants, I can see it on his face. This is not a cheap monument.”
“Good,” I said. “My wife was not a cheap woman.”
The man stood next to me with a pad when I described what I wanted him to inscribe.
“I want the word Sunshine on the obelisk, S-U-N-S-H-I-N-E with the S at the top and the other letters leading down toward the base. On the base under the word Sunshine, I want the word mother written across the pedestal so that the e in Sunshine is connected to the e in mother. Do something our four year old son will appreciate.”
“It's as good as done,” he said softly, drawing a design between Sunshine and mother.
Across one side I want the word wife. Across the opposite side I want the word friend. That's all. Nothing on the back.”
He showed me a book with different styles of print for me to pick what I liked. I picked one style for her name and a different style for the words that described who she was to the people who loved her.
The Olsons, Harry, and Twila stood on the hill by Sunshine's grave the day the obelisk was set into place.
The word Sunshine faced the Gulf of Mexico.
There wasn't a dry eye once we were alone.
Mama said as she took my arm to walk back to the car, “It's perfect, Clay. Sunshine would love it.”
Only one person I wanted to be there wasn't there.
It had been easy.
My life was easy.
Only one place in my life was hard.
When Harry built the new biology laboratory to put the conservancy on the cutting edge with state of the art equipment for its future marine biologist, he built my office so my window faced Sunshine's resting place on the hill beside the conservancy.
Harry never mentioned it to me but the first time I looked out the window while sitting at my desk, my eyes immediately went to the top of the dune a hundred feet away.
This was the kind of thing Harry did but never mentioned. He knew I'd know why my window was where it was.
I knew where Sunshine was. I hadn't been to her grave since the day we buried her. I knew she was close and being able to see the hill where she was buried made me feel closer to her.
Once the obelisk was set into place, I could see it when I looked out my window at the top of the dune.
When Dylan started coming to the lab, I sat him in my chair so he could see the obelisk. He was content with that until after he turned five. That's when he wanted to walk to his mother's grave.
It wasn't that long before he would wait until it was getting close to the time we'd go home, and he'd ask if he could walk to her grave alone. He'd say, “I'm going to visit my mother, Daddy.”
He'd head out the front of the lab, cross the sand, and he'd climb the hill behind the conservancy building. When he reached the obelisk, he'd wave to me where I was waiting in the window and I'd go about finishing up for the day.
I would go to get him if he hadn't come down by the time I was ready to go. On some days I left Dylan alone with his mother for as long as he liked. On other days I made the trek to her grave to join him. He liked it when we were there together.
He liked sitting next to the obelisk to tell a woman he'd never known about his life. It amazed me how intensely Dylan felt about someone he'd only seen in pictures. Somehow he knew his mother and he loved her.
Dylan had Sunshine's purity.
When I made the climb to the top of the dune and I heard Dylan talking about his day, I pictured Sunshine wearing a yellow knit hat and a white knitted shawl as she smiled radiantly, while we looked at the Straits of Florida at the southern edge of Key West.
That's when she still had good days. Once we returned from Key West, she began a slow decline. At times it was difficult to picture her now. It seemed so long ago.
One day when Dylan was at the lab with me, he said he was going to visit his mother. When he didn't return by the time I was ready to go, I walked across the sand and up the hill.
As I climbed the last stretch of sand that took me to the top of the dune, I stopped when I heard singing.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are gray. You never know dear, how much I love you. Please don't take my Sunshine away.”
I moved slowly to let him finish. He looked back over his shoulder, sensing I was there.
“Oh, hi, Daddy. I was singing to my mother.”
“I heard. I sang that song to her while she was sick,” I said.
“Yes, I did. Where'd you learn the words?”
“I heard it at nursery school. It's pretty.”
“Yes, it is,” I said, wiping my eyes as we started down.
I thought of Ivan. I thought of telling Dylan how he'd come into being. How it was that I was his daddy.
It was a conversation we would have sooner than later. As I held his small hand in mine, I wanted to protect him for a while longer. I don't know how much Dylan understood then, but by the time he was five the questions about Ivan had begun.
He knew where his mother was. He had no knowledge about his father. Before he turned five he had a memory of Ivan I knew nothing about. He was still thinking about what it meant.
Dylan had been putting the pieces together for the past year and keeping the truth from him wouldn't be possible or wise. He knew I married his mother so he'd be my son and so he'd be an Olson.
We hadn't gone much beyond that. I hadn't anyway. The truth was implicit in that piece of information. When Dylan needed to go further, he'd ask. He knew who he was and he wasn't afraid of the truth.
The trick was not to rush him into learning the facts about his life.