by Edwin Neely
It was a warm, late autumn’s morning on the glassy blue ocean just off the sands of Capistrano Beach. Occasionally a light zephyr of wind moved across the sea’s smooth surface, leaving a bristle of wavelets to show where it had been. My friend Sue and I were on our somewhat regular Saturday morning kayak paddle, this time from the harbor down to Poche Beach and back. The sky was a clear deep blue; San Mateo Point to the south, Santa Catalina Island to the west and Saddleback Mountain to the northeast stood clearly on the horizons. It was one of those days when you have no doubt as to why you live along the Southern California coast. Although still too early in the season for gray whales to join us, a few inquisitive dolphins had already sped by, giving us a quick checkout before heading on their way.
We passed offshore of Sparky’s house, the last house on Beach Road, and turned back toward the harbor planning to stay just beyond the surf line as we paddled along to the buoys outside of Doheny Beach. It was then that a few yards seaward, I spotted something green bobbing on the surface; a distraction that attracted me like a squirrel attracts a dog. With a few short paddle strokes, I was plucking a large green German beer bottle out of the sea, but not just any beer bottle. It had a stopper in the neck held in place by a metal clasp—and a note inside.
Having lived along the San Clemente / Dana Point coast for most of my 61 years, I’ve found a number of messages in bottles. Sometimes they’re silly, sometimes romantic, sometimes from someone asking for a letter back letting them know where you found their castaway message. No matter what, such writings are always a treasure, and if asked, I will always write to them. Once I responded to a bottled note tossed overboard from a cruise ship outside of San Francisco Bay; once it was a request from students in a school near Ventura doing an ocean current tracking experiment off Santa Cruz Island. Once I learned that Larry pledged his undying love to Lila; and once it was purported to be from someone named Gilligan stranded on an unmapped island with his captain and the passengers from their shipwrecked “three-hour tour” boat. Today, however, was different.
I called to Sue to show her my find when I spotted another similar bottle not far away, and soon after that, a third. I scooped them up too. We decided not to uncork them where we were since floating around in an open kayak would leave our treasured messages vulnerable to splashing waves. Instead, we paddled along our planned watery path, enjoying the clear water view into the depths, the beach homes along the shore, and of course, the anticipation of what we would find when we did open our bottles.
We paddled up the inner channel of the harbor, landed at Baby Beach and secured our kayaks before opening the first bottle to learn the true value of what I had pulled from the ocean’s current. It was not just one note, but five rolled up together. I carefully unrolled the first and began to read what had been written by a loving adult hand: “Dear Mom…” I knew at once what I had found, and as my eyes moved down the words written with love and loss, my heart broke with the tender message written by a daughter to her newly departed mother. The other notes confirmed my initial realization. One began, “I love you, Grandma”; another was to “Dear Aunt Annabelle.” The last two were crayon drawings created by hands too young to possess the skills for printing or writing, but not for expressing love for their grandmother.
I opened the second bottle to find another set of letters, which by then I could not bring myself to read. I left the third bottle unopened. Uninvited, I had intruded on a grieving family’s time of sorrow and loss, of love and celebration for a revered member of their clan now gone forever. Clouds of guilt formed as I had taken special thoughts directed to beloved Annabelle and pulled them away from her resting place in the sea. What was I to do with them? I now had the responsibility of protecting the honor of this most loved woman and the grieving family she had left behind.
These thoughts were with me for the next few days, lurking in the back of my mind or in the forefront of my thoughts. If I had not taken the bottles from the sea in the first place, I reasoned, they would have washed up along Capistrano Beach or the San Clemente shore and quite probably ended up in a trashcan. I thought of placing the letters back in their bottles, re-corking them, paddling out to sea again and dropping them back into the ocean. Their future, however, would be the same, into a trashcan and off to the San Juan dump. No, Annabelle and her family deserved better, and that’s when I thought of the buoy.
My sister lost her only child, a son just entering his adulthood, about a dozen years ago. As I write this, we are just a few days away from another devastating anniversary of his passing. Joe was an adventurer, full of unbridled energy. Together we had surfed breaks in Mexico, and he had just become addicted to the sport of jumping out of perfectly good airplanes for the sake of a free fall adrenaline rush through space. In honor of his love of surfing and skydiving, his ashes were scattered from an airplane into the sea, and although there are no regrets of this tribute, it does not give my sister a “place” to go now to be with her thoughts of him. I have learned from this. I know where I want my ashes scattered, and although I’ll be with Joe in the sea, there will be a quiet, lovely little beach for my family and friends to trek to if they wish to think of me in a special place.
The following Saturday was another near perfect fall morning, another glorious day for being out on the calm ocean waters. Sue and I launched our kayaks from Baby Beach, paddled down the outer channel of the harbor, and turned into the open ocean heading west over gentle incoming swells toward the waters off the headlands.
A few hundred yards offshore is a large red buoy, its purpose to mark for sailors a separation between safe deep water and rocky reefs. Local sea lions have adopted it as their “haul out”; a place they can rest and sun themselves during the day, replenishing energy for their nighttime hunting. On top of the buoy is a green light, and as it bobs up and down in the swells, it makes the traditional mournful whistle/moan listened for on foggy nights by sailors unsure of their bearings. “Big Red,” as Sue named it, was easily seen from the shoreline, the harbor and from the path through the native wildflowers on the topside of the Dana Headlands.
We reached Big Red, and as we drifted on the outside of the buoy, I pulled Annabelle’s three message bottles from my dry sack. I told her I was sorry for taking the bottles the previous week and how moved I was by her family’s love for her expressed in each of their messages. I was sure their tremendous sense of pain and loss would soften over time into treasured and beloved memories. With that, I pulled the stoppers from the bottles, filled each with seawater and gently placed them into the ocean. Sue and I watched them drop swiftly out of sight into the depths below the buoy, down to Annabelle.
As we paddled back toward the harbor, we felt good about what we had done, in our minds, rectifying my unintended mistake with a meaningful act. Every time I see the buoy now, either from the shore or out in my kayak, I think about Annabelle and how much her family loves her. I hope my family will feel that way about me when I pass to the other side.
I call the buoy Annabelle now and refer to it as such whenever I talk about her, which is often. I am a tide pool docent, and Annabelle is just offshore of where I work. It would really be nice if somehow, someway, Annabelle’s family found out about Sue’s and my little ceremony. Maybe it would give them a place to go to be with their loving memories of her. There is a nice rest area out on the Dana Headlands that looks out toward Santa Catalina Island, and there, just offshore, is the buoy; Annabelle.
Dolphin Boating, Ray Cole, http://ray-cole.fineartamerica.com/
Morning Twilight Kayak, Ray Cole, http://ray-cole.fineartamerica.com/
Dana Point Headland’s Tide Pools, Unknown
Heading Out, Thomas Haight, http://www.oceanimages.com/
Clouds Over the Headlands, Donna Drysdale, http://www.drysdaleimagery.com/
The Bouy, Cliff Wassmann, http://artseek.com/2006/2006_html/wassmann-paintings.html