The salt-air antidote

The Annual Fall Frolic Road Race sounds like a happy event. Frolic, after all, means cheerful and playful. Merry, even. At the 2 1/2-mile point of this lovely community event held on a recent Sunday morning,  I wasn’t feeling so cheerful. I was fading, pretty fast.

My 14-year-old daughter/coach Elizabeth, sensing my slowing speed and hearing my heavy breathing, delivered a perfectly timed pep talk. “Mom, right up here, you will be able to see the ocean for a little bit. Take in the view. You got this.”

I am not sure my pace increased, but I smiled. All my life my mother has advocated the restorative powers of the ocean, for the body and the mind. Now Elizabeth preached it too.

Smiling with Elizabeth, before the race. Photo by Mary Muckenhoupt Roy.

My mother is right that most problems seem smaller, or at least more manageable, after a long walk on the beach. Some of the more challenging conversations I have tackled with my husband have occurred with the ocean as the backdrop. Many more times, though, we look at the ocean and hardly talk at all. We grab a coffee, the newspaper and park our car near the water. Together we are momentarily humbled/quieted/comforted/inspired (sometimes even all four).

I consider myself very lucky to live near the ocean. To and from work every day, I drive across the Beverly-Salem Bridge and I’m greeted by this view. Most days I try to take the time to look at it.


Sometimes I spot a brightly colored lobster boat on route to check traps, or a snowy white egret. In those moments, I feel calmer, even if it’s fleeting.

My mother Alice grew up one block away from the ocean. Hingham Harbor was her neighborhood playground. She swam between the boats, skipped rocks from the beach and fished for smelt with her father. To this day, she loves the tingling feel of salt water on her skin. She regularly takes walks along the beach, bending over to pick up shells and pieces of interesting driftwood. Practically every day on Cape Cod, my parents take a drive to look at the water.

“The ocean soothes me. It always has,” my mother said the other day. “There is something about the sound of the waves and the seagulls and the smell of salt air. It’s a calming thing.”

And since we can’t always be at the ocean, the women in our family line our kitchen window sills with found sea shells and sea glass and hang paintings of sand dunes on our walls, or we fall asleep to the rhythmic sounds of crashing waves emitting from plastic noise machines.

On a recent visit to New Hampshire, I bought a stack of four coasters a high school boy made from pieces of driftwood that he had found on beaches in Maine. Alice always recognized the many uses of driftwood, and I thought she would appreciate this boy’s creativity and entrepreneurship.

The sign placed next to the driftwood coasters.
The coasters in use at home.

I think we are genetically drawn to driftwood in this family. Two years ago, as a Christmas gift, my niece Mary-Kate gave us a piece of found driftwood that she turned into a candle with the help of three shells from Prudence Island. It rests on our fireplace mantle.



Against our side yard fence is a giant L-shaped piece of driftwood that Elizabeth found on Crane Beach in Ipswich many years ago. I think she was 8 years old at the time. The driftwood was big and heavy and wet and I thought we should leave it there. She disagreed: The Leighton family should, of course, keep a piece of driftwood shaped like the letter “L.” Elizabeth, I learned many years ago, is hard to talk out of ideas she thinks are good ones. This is one example but I could produce dozens more.

With her typical (at times maddening) combination or determination and stubbornness, she dragged the thing almost a mile back to our car. She propped the driftwood up against our fence, where it has remained ever since.

Testimony to the powerful pull of the ocean is found a few steps outside our side door.