For years, my mom tried to get me to come to the beach with her. I finally made it this week.
Located on the coast of North Carolina, Topsail got its name from the pirate ships the anchored just far enough off the coast that you could just see the tops of the ships’ sails. Years later, it gained infamy again, this time as a post-World War II testing ground for top-secret military rockets. In 1948, the government deserted the island, selling the land to the public.
Topsail was a sleepy fishing village in the early 1960s when Vera and Jesse Arnold, my mom’s aunt and uncle, plunked down $500 for a trailer-sized lot near the ocean. Over the next 50 years, the island became my extended family’s respite from the stresses of work and real life. “There’s nothing fancy” about the beach bragged my Aunt Teresa, and not much to do save for fish, swim and drink – luckily the three needed ingredients for relaxation.
Not as popular as other Tarheel beaches like the Outer Banks and the Wrightsville Beach, the area remains a more blue-collar destination. It has its share of expensive beachfront homes, but beyond them lies more affordable housing for the 5,000 or so residents who live on the island full time. Topsail remains a working fishermen’s hub, with the shrimp boats selling their freshly caught wares on the pier nearby in Sneads Ferry.
What doesn’t get sold to the public, often makes its way into the Riverview Café, which serves some of the freshest seafood in the state, judging by the number of stray cats lounging around the front entrance. On our second night on the beach, we piled into the restaurant, gorging ourselves on clams, shrimp and fish that had been in the ocean just hours before.
Teresa owns a trailer about two miles from the beach, but with a half-dozen or so family members making the trip this time, we decided to chip in for a larger, beachfront property. I’d barely set my bags down when Teresa corrected me about the island’s pronunciation.
“It’s actually pronounced Top-sul by all the locals (and long-time visitors),” Teresa said. “It’s easy to tell who’s not from around here” just by hearing them pronounce the town’s name.
Driving up Highway 210 over the bridge and onto the island, visitors pass the requisite cheesy T-shirt stores, karaoke bars and fudge shops. Vinyl-clad homes rise up from the gray sand on stilts, lining the beach as far as the eye can see in both directions.
Teresa points out where the Scotch Bonnet Pier used to stand before hurricanes washed it and several other warfs away years ago. There’s a reluctance to rebuild the piers, with weather forecasts predicting increasingly stronger storms in the coming years. Residents and visitors alike know the beach’s days are numbered.
My mom had moved away from North Carolina and weekends at Topsail years before, following my grandfather to Air Force bases in Mississippi and Indiana. It was in the latter, landlocked state where she would meet my dad and get married, bringing two kids into a mostly beach-less existence. I made it to Topsail once on a family vacation while I was still in elementary school. Unfortunately, I don’t remember much; my memories are less of a snapshot and more of a rough, hand-drawn sketch.
After her divorce, mom moved back to North Carolina to be closer to Teresa and the rest of her family. Just like in her youth, the beach became a near weekly custom. During our weekly phone conversations, she spoke of her last adventure at the beach – collecting seashells with the kids, fishing with my Uncle Steve or just wading around in the ocean. While she didn’t have much money, she was always sure to bring something – a freshly baked cake, some lighthouse art she found at a thrift shop – to earn her keep.
The few times my wife and I visited her in North Carolina, mom would not-so-casually mention that we should head to the beach, but I always refused, preferring not to add a couple of extra hours to our cumulative driving time.
One cold January morning, I got the call I’d been dreading for years. Mom’s final days were in the intensive care ward of a Raleigh hospital, hooked up to multiple machines, drifting in and out of consciousness.
Now that she’s gone, I’ll never be able to experience her favorite place through her eyes, to see her in her element, truly happy. I’ll always regret that.
Just before high tide, we gathered on the beach. My sister etched our mother’s name in the gray sand, each of us taking turns spreading her ashes in the indentations as the tides inched closer and closer. Surrounded by family, she was soon enveloped by the waves, becoming a part of the ocean she loved.