A nest on the beach

PAWLEYS ISLAND, S.C. – A pair of doves are building a nest in the eaves of our front porch. They picked a good view, looking straight out to the ocean. And they are very industrious, hauling twigs in their beaks and then working as a team to fit the pieces of their new home together. They work hard and with a sense of urgency. Spring is coming fast, and so are the chicks.

We know how those doves must feel. Of course our twigs come from Wal-Mart and K-Mart and all the other marts, not the scrub-covered dunes that separate our house from the beach. And we haul them back home in our truck, not our mouths. But the urgency is the same. The seasons are changing and the grandkids are on their way.

Despite our advanced years – Steve is 64, Cokie, 63 – buying a house and filling it with furniture is a totally new experience for us. Early in our marriage we moved often and lived in rented dwellings. Almost 30 years ago, when we returned from a tour in Europe, we bought Cokie’s girlhood home near Washington from her mother and have lived there ever since. So we don’t make changes easily or rashly.

But the timing of this decision feels right. The doves are not the only local denizens responding to the season. One neighbor is putting down new sod in the front yard. Another headed hopefully to the inlet early in the morning, hip waders on and fishing gear ready. This week, the local dolphin-watching boat took its first trip of the year.

This springtime also marks a significant turning point in our lives, a longer and larger rhythm than simply seasonal change. At our age, buying a new house is a bit like planting a tree. It’s an act of faith, performed in the firm belief that others will sit on the porch – or under the branches – long after we’re gone.

This is not a gloomy thought but a hopeful, life-affirming one. People, like doves, build nests not just for themselves, but to shield and shelter the next generation. Steve’s great mentor, the late Scotty Reston, a long-time columnist for the New York Times, used to say that land is one of the greatest gifts you can give your children. And now we know what he was talking about.

He did not mean land as a sound financial investment (although it is certainly that), but as an anchor for the family, a sacred place where generations of the tribe gather together, sharing meals and memories (and tracking sand all over the new carpet).

We considered buying a house closer to Washington, but we have been coming here for many years, and long ago, when our own kids were still small, we imagined seeing our grandchildren playing on these beaches. So the pull of Pawleys is very strong. It’s not really an island at all, just a sandbar separated from the mainland by a small creek, but in terms of psychological distance that creek could be miles wide.

When you cross the causeway you immediately unplug and unwind. Life slows down and fills up: with sunrises over the ocean that stain the sky pink and purple; with sandpipers scurrying through light-dappled tide pools; with storm clouds so close you can almost touch them. We spent half an hour with two grandchildren just watching a squadron of small brown birds perch on a phone wire, fly off, and return.

The island was settled as a beach resort almost 200 years ago by rice farmers, who sent their families here in the summer to escape the heat and the bugs that infested their inland plantations. And that long history gives us hope that we’re not completely crazy to be buying oceanfront property. This little island has weathered a lot of storms.

And we know about storms. Cokie’s extended family lost 14 houses to Katrina on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (their sacred place), and if that experience did not remind us of the risks we are running, the skyrocketing insurance rates certainly did.

But some risks are worth it. This morning we packed up the car and planned to drive back to Washington, but the light was so sharp and clear and clean it almost hurt to look. So we turned around and stayed another day.

That’s why this column is about beaches not politics. Now we have to check on the doves. And go for a walk.

Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Copyright 2007, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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