All That Washes Ashore

Sep 11, 2018

Mary Bergman writes about what she finds on the beaches of Provincetown.
Credit Mary Bergman

I spent most of my summers learning to sail at the West End Racing Club in Provincetown. The other kids were all natives of this sandy spit, and they all took to sailing like they had salt water in their veins. Most were the children of fishermen or  the great-granddaughters of whalers who overwintered in the Arctic.

I was a washashore, and I always  will be. I guess it’s why I’ve always had an affinity for beachcombing, for rescuing other things that the tide had dropped here, in this strange thin place.

During dead low tides at the Racing Club, when Sunfishes listed at odd angles in the sand, when kids wandered into town in search of pizza or foot-longs,  or when there were no more knots for Flyer Santos, to teach me (Flyer was the old salt who ran the club), I’d walk the beach,  never in search of anything in particular, just  whatever the tide chose to reveal.

I’d walk along the beach to the breakwater, and look across the harbor to Long Point and Wood End Light. I wondered, actually, I still wonder, about the 200 or so people who once lived there in the mid-19th century, when their houses were floated over from the tip of Cape Cod to the village of Provincetown after the fishing grounds were exhausted and the settlement abandoned. The crossing was so smooth, the story goes, that a woman continued cooking breakfast as her house made its way from The Point to the West End. I’ve been told this story so many times, I can hear the sizzle of bacon, the cracking of eggs, the rattling of dishes in the cupboard as the house floated along.

I wondered, Were these houses, these Long Point settlers, washsashores, too?

It was on one of these walks that a bunch of us kids found dozens of pieces of white tile, cut into tiny squares. The tile kept washing up all summer long, and we all believed them to be pieces of pottery from the Long Point settlement. We collected them like they were Wampum, little pieces with immense value.

I hadn’t thought of those tiles in many years, until a walk along the flats one fall - back down in the West End, right near where we kids had  discovered the tile trove. Nearby, a house had been gutted and jacked up, waiting to be transformed for the new owners. It hit me--those tiles we’d coveted were really just the remains of somebody’s bathroom remodel, improperly disposed of in a tidal pool.

I made my way out to the Point on the pontoon boat shuttle Flyer’s Boatyard runs on the half-hour. Flyer is gone now, but the boats that bear his name live on. It was strange to stand in the place I had spent so many years looking at only from a distance.

I walked towards Wood End Light, where dozens of seals were sunning on the sand bar. Their barking, and the way the wind carried it, sounded almost like the cooing of a flock of mourning doves, or the toll of a bell somewhere offshore.

There, among the sand and the hundreds of smooth, flat rocks near the old oil works, a piece of pottery, part of an old plate, leapt out at me. I picked it up and held it to the light. I rubbed my hands over its time-worn edges, still wishing… I wondered if it could possibly be a remnant from the old settlement. I tucked it into my pocket and figured it was unlikely. Maybe it belonged to the houseboats that take up residence in this neighborhood, or came from somebody’s clambake here a few summers ago.

Still, it had somehow ended up here, just as I had.