Odessa’s children will have no sea to play in this summer because of waste from the destruction of the Kakhkovka Dam. The sea is a nourishing supplement to the mind as well as the body. So much has been taken from the children by this gruesome war. I grew up in Atlantic City, known then as the “playground of the world” as Odessa is known as the “pearl of the beach,” where I’ve never been, but feel the children’s loss of this summer’s treasures. I look at pictures, seemingly at ease compared to Atlantic City’s boardwalk hotels, our playground with the thousands of tourists who flocked each summer.
Every good weather day was a blessing to go to the beach and ocean. I remember sitting at the breakfast table on days my parents weren’t working in their kosher meat market, usually Saturdays, our Shabbos, guessing the temperature of the water. It was never too cold for the three of us, my two brothers and me. Sand between my toes, saltwater soothing my sun-tanned body, fresh smell of the sea, a heavenly breeze were joyous to feel, to breathe. We didn’t know land mines, sharks, toxic algae, only sandcastles, sand crabs, lifeguard stands, mothers gathered on folding beach chairs in circles with Acme paper bags full of supplies.
So safe, our parents left us on beach as they worked hard, hacking meat, grinding it for hamburger, gutting chickens, haggling with customers. Growing up in the apartment above the market, the beach and ocean cared for us as did the ice cream men carrying huge containers of delicious treats, yelling, “Give your tongue a sleigh ride!” Occasionally we were given change to buy a Dreamsicle, orange ice surrounding vanilla ice cream, a Fudgecicle, chocolate magic, twin ice pops, attached to one another, or a cone with a dollop of ice cream, jimmies atop. Not frequently. One had to eat them fast before they melted in the glaring sun. More often, Mom would come to the head of the boardwalk stairs with bologna sandwiches, egg salad, chicken, whatever was on hand with juice or Kool-Aid, an apple or peach.
One day I didn’t come off the beach. Often my older brother by six years was given the task of watching over me and my younger brother, three years younger. My parents, alarmed, of course, sent Dudka, the gimpy Russian butcher, hollering for me. Oh, did I get a yelling that day. Never mind, my scorched feet, my fear of being lost, simply running as far as I could on the beach. At what age? Not old enough to talk to the lifeguard. What was going through my head? My older brother had put a mesh trash can over me? What had I done? Or was it just a cruel antic?
In the early 1900s my father’s parents came from Russia and Poland to escape the cruelty of the pogroms and poverty, my mother’s from Russia. My non-English-speaking Polish grandmother owned three kosher meat markets, placing her sons in them as butchers. And that’s how I came to be on the Atlantic City beach with my brothers.
Now history has thrown this terror onto the laps of the Ukrainian people. Oh, children of Odessa, I wish I could give it all back to you, saltwater sea and sand.
* * *
Writer Paula Goldman is a published poet with two books, a former reporter for The Milwaukee Journal, and a docent and lecturer of 25 years with the Milwaukee Art Museum. A recipient of national writing awards, she lives in Shorewood.