Anneli Tostar on her time spent on the coasts of Oregon, and the innate strength of womankind.
Out on the wild, wide sands of the Oregon coast is where I found my peace. Far from the lazy palm trees and white sand beaches of the southern west coast, the landscape in Oregon spoke of moodiness and resilience. There, the twisting and knobby, grey trees bent over backwards from years of fighting the ever-present wind. The sand was dark and marbled, like chewy rye bread. It stretched a flat, broad canvas for morning runs. Tide gathered in pools, sometimes perfect oblique mirrors, other times resembling reverse zebra stripes, jagged silver against the sand.
As a child, the beach was a place for make-believe. The wet sand from the creek that ran into the ocean was perfect for making drippy fortresses, by the end of the day every crevice in our body filled with the stuff. Gangly and overly confident in spite of myself, my one-piece was always too short and the rubber bands on my braces, when I got them, had to match. I would act out silly stories with my best childhood friend—who is still my best friend—even when it became “uncool” to play make-believe and we were supposed to start talking about boys.
In the roar that came from the Pacific, you could scream and cry and laugh and no one would hear you, even if they were standing just a few yards away (which they usually weren’t—this coast wasn’t one for loitering). I did all of these things while going for runs, always alone, in my teenage years and early twenties. It was at the beach that I found my most sincere creative inspiration, that I worked through a troubled relationship with food, that I reconnected with and questioned my faith, that I began to teach myself French, that I put an end to a long-time love. The beach has never failed to heal all of my broken bits. For two summers I worked at a bakery on the coast, which I later wrote about in my college essay—the essay that got me into Harvard.
Our beach house was inherited from my great grandmother, and then passed down to my grandmother. It was built in the 1970s, back when Cannon Beach was no more than a small artist’s haunt and you could buy a loaf of bread for 25 cents. My great grandmother, a schoolteacher, was left by her husband and had two consecutive houses in Portland taken by freeways. Her second daughter died at seven months from spina bifida. Her life had been one of constant change, so she bought the plot of land at the beach, and made it her mooring point, for $4,000. Things weren’t simpler back then—everyone still smoked and drank and nobody talked about mental illness. My great grandmother was a Norwegian Lutheran, and the house filled up with traditional Norse folktales, embroidery, and painted woodwork. A surprisingly modern home for its time, you can see the ocean from the living room.
My grandmother was raised to be a good Christian, but things don’t always work out as planned. She became pregnant at 17 and dropped out of college to have my uncle. Being out of wedlock, she got married in a blue wedding dress and a hidden church, at the insistence of her mother. My mother shortly followed (my aunt several years later), and while my grandparents spent much of their time as a young couple being parents, the rest was spent being the kids they were. Though my grandmother had an incredible historical memory and eye for design, she never went back to school, never had a career. My mother was taken to the beach every summer by her grandmother, running after their dog in her coke bottle glasses.
My father, for his part, is from Sweden, and for a man who moved halfway around the world he found himself in a place that was remarkably similar to home. The coast of Sweden, while on the rockier Baltic Sea, is similar to the Oregon coast in its wildness. There, the pine trees withstand not only wind but snow, and the sea never warms even in the endless summer sun. Trees twist in similar ways, the leaves on the deciduous ones not poking out until late April. One wonders if it was the same stubbornness and austerity of the landscape that made so many Scandinavians move to the Northwest.
Last year I lived my first winter in Sweden. While the idea of long, Nordic winters has become hip in recent years, what these articles don’t tell you is that as the light disappears the people turn into themselves, making the experience of 2:30pm sunsets and heavy wool coats a largely solitary one. I began to understand my family in a way I never had, empathizing in particular with the women who zipped up their children’s snow suits every morning and fed them split pea soup for months on end. My Swedish grandmother was a calculus teacher, a pragmatic woman who made ends meet while raising six children—two adopted, four biological—and also divorced many years ago. She has been living alone in Stockholm for forty years.
My own mother put her heart and soul into being a mom. We had a garden filled with magic, murals on our bedroom walls, and always, always, trips to the beach. Our childhoods were innocent, leaving us somewhat unprepared for the real world, but my brother and I gained a spirit of possibility that makes us audacious, unafraid. Perhaps because we spent so much time in such close proximity to the frigid Pacific Ocean, we know we are no match for the strong current, but we still crave the sensation of dipping our feet in.
Last year, my mother’s mother was diagnosed with early onset pancreatic cancer. It was early enough to try and fight it, but pancreatic cancer is a mean one and, much like the trees, my grandmother was set in her ways. She went through several rounds of chemotherapy, but her body was failing and the tumors were spreading. This August, her stubborn body and mind gave in. She passed away surrounded by family, at her home surrounded by forest. Because of a variety of factors, including high medical bills, my grandpa has no choice but to sell our dear beach house. Of course, it is an incredible privilege to have had access to a beach house, to begin with. But the thought of seeing another family living in the home my grandmother built breaks my heart. It is another big loss to accompany an already painful one.
Like the tide and the wind, we watch the world around us change. An elderly neighbor down the street stands at the edge of the beach and takes a picture of the sunset every night, sending it to his daughter so that she knows he’s okay. One night we stop seeing him at the top of the hill. The corner store, with its overpriced ice cream and “s’more kits,” threatened by a big supermarket across the street that has a much better produce selection. Kids turning into teenagers. A year without starfish.
As I’ve grown older, like everyone around me, I’ve come to expect the change of the tides. As the youngest of generations of strong, Scandinavian women, I’m the softest of the bunch. I wear my heart on my sleeve, tucked in a fold by my gratitude. I bruise easily. But perhaps also because I’ve held the stories of these women in my hand, unfolding them like paper cranes, I’ve also become more resilient. I know how to fold and unfold my story.
Because the big secret here is that those trees, on the coasts of Sweden and Oregon, aren’t brittle—they’re flexible. They’re soft. This is how they manage to withstand the wind without breaking. We women bend, we adapt, we unfold. And though there is more mourning in store, there is also more of what we came here for: the beach runs, the games, the tide pools. And yes, the peace.
Illustration: Anneli Tostar
Follow Anneli on Instagram: @anneli.lucia