The call of the waves came late and strong for me. I was 45 when I first tried boogie-boarding—a form of body-surfing on a short board in the shallower waters. I was enamored by the experience. An urge to try standing up like a real surfer, the kind I had always admired but never imagined to emulate, developed quickly.
This led to my first and, to date, only surfing lesson. I was on a two-week vacation in North Carolina and I’d spent ten days working myself up for this moment. The surf instructor, I’ll call him Dan, was appropriately bronzed and muscled with an ornate tattoo on one rippling bicep. I guessed he was 23 or 24 years old. We, the instructed, stood in a small circle on the half-deserted beach, which shone golden in the almost twilight, and introduced ourselves. There were six of us. All of the others looked young to me, except the man to my immediate left. I snuck glances at him, assessed him as at least my age, probably older, and felt more legitimate. Dan announced that we would do a warm-up exercise, “to get to know one another,” before we entrusted our lives to each other in the surf.
Dan’s idea of a “warm-up” was to ask all of us to go round and say our age.
We went round the awkward circle. 18. 22. 26. 34. Then the man next to me—42. I stifled a gasp and turned to look at him more directly. I hesitated, considered lying, then I blurted it out,“46.” I waited, hoped for a beat of disbelief, but there was none.
The lesson confirmed what I suspected: middle-aged women do not often take up surfing. Well, at least not in North Carolina. And definitely not at the New Jersey Shore, where I now spend my summer vacations. Other, more sensible women of my age are snatching some rest on the beach, some quality me-time—reading books or dozing in the sun—letting their spouses or kids entertain themselves in the ocean.
In the summers since then, I have vacationed with two other middle-aged women friends, Lisa and Deb, and our families. There we women spend hours of every day trying to catch waves. We started boogie-boarding to accompany our kids, and keep them safe, in the ocean. Over the years, our children, now pre-teens, spend less time on their boards or in the water –or they stand and talk in it rather than surf the waves. But our enthusiasm has grown. Now it will often be just the three of us women in the water, bobbing on our boards, waiting, while our kids languish on the beach and pretend not to notice our antics.
So far, we’ve confined ourselves to boogie boards. During that exhausting, terrifying, and exhilarating surfing lesson, I’d spun under the waves as if in a washing machine, as Dan had warned I might, to surface just before panic set in, crashing my head on the astonishingly heavy board. I have always swum regularly; I still swim at least twice a week and considered myself fit for my age. But the day after the surf lesson, my ribs and shoulders hurt more than I thought possible, and more than my dented head, or pride. And I had only managed to half-stand on the surf board once, for a fleeting split second, during the grueling ninety-minute lesson. My decision to stick with boogie-boarding has been more about effort-versus-payoff than fear.
Each day at the beach, Lisa, Deb and I now don long-sleeved rash guards, boardwalk shorts or full-length swim leggings, and copious amounts of zinc oxide sunscreen. Our faces glare streaky white against the dark of our full-cover costumes. Last year, Deb took to wearing a pale blue latex swim cap to protect her frizzy hair.
We begin each session at the beach with a trip to the lifeguards’ chair, for a daily check-in with the half-naked teenage guards to discuss the tide times, water temperature and alerts for rip tides. Last summer, I realized we had become a phenomenon on the beach. As we approached the lifeguards’ chair, I overheard one of the guards say, “Here come the Moms.”
Later, as we waited in the water, I looked around me. I saw elementary school-aged kids of both genders, a few teenage boys, and here and there a dad or adult male. There were no other adult women in sight.
Sometimes, Lisa, Deb or I mistime a ride, fall off the board in a tangle and bash body parts on the ocean floor, emerging in a crawl at the shoreline, gasping for air. Other times, one or more of us will catch a long wave that pounds us all the way up onto the beach, where we land, gritty-face down, at the feet of young tiny-bikini-clad beauties, who stare at us, perplexed. Once, running back to our umbrella for a towel to wipe sand from my eyes and nostrils, I ran too close to a woman, about my age, wearing a gold lace tankini and oversized sunglasses. She reclined on a beach chair, in perfect alignment with the sun, and held a bejeweled iPhone in resplendent pink nails. Despite her look, she did not drop her phone.
I don’t really wonder why more middle-aged women are not out there with us in the waves. It’s not too difficult to fathom. We look ridiculous. And surfing, even our tamer boogie-boarding, is hard work, and gets harder each year. The injuries pile up. By the end of our week at the Shore, my legs resemble a grade school boy’s. Unlike the woman in the gold tankini, I return from my beach vacation looking worse, not better. I itemize the bruises, nicks and scrapes, pop a painkiller or two for my tender shoulder, and wonder how many more years I can take it.
Many, many more, I hope. Because, standing in the ocean, waiting for the waves, I feel my creaking body, see my growing children around me, even as they move further away, shore bound, and I feel ageless and timeless. There in the surf, as a wave lifts my body on its board, as I feel the surge take me forward in that glorious rush, I am all the ages I have ever been and none at all.
One summer, a couple of years back, my family was on Cape Cod for a brief stay. It was late afternoon, and I was huddled under a towel on the sand, my brief attempt at boarding foreshortened by the brutal chill of the water. In the fading sunlight, a woman waded alone into the deserted waves, carrying a short-board. She was curly-haired like me but completely gray and wearing a full-body wetsuit. My daughter, sitting next to me, spotted her first.
“Mom,” she said. “Look! There’s you in the future.”
Donna Luff is a writer and sociologist. She was born in Birmingham, England, and now lives outside Boston, Massachusetts. Her writing has previously appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review and Philadelphia Review of Books.
© 2014, Donna Luff