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Pick a memory from your childhood that stands out as defining and write about it.

Oh, there are so many!

I was three when my youngest brother was born. I can remember my great-grandmother holding him while smoking. Ash from the cigarette fell onto his head and I decided then I would never smoke.

My paternal grandfather was a hog farmer. I can still remember the sounds and smells on slaughter day and the pieces of meat hanging in the smokehouse. I don’t eat pork – and if there had been an Oscar Meyer label on it, I wouldn’t eat bacon.

The memory that truly defined me was seeing the ocean for the first time. I grew up in Arkansas and while we had beautiful lakes and rivers, they were not an ocean. My dad and some of his buddies decided one night over a poker table and, I’m sure, more than one adult beverage, that our families should take a trip to the sea. One of them owned a produce company and it was decided we would all go to the Florida panhandle to the beach, an 8-hour drive away….and we did….in the back of a refrigerated delivery truck!

I was only 7, but I will never forget those doors opening to the sunrise over the Gulf and the smell of the salty air. It was love at first sight. The water wasn’t blue, like I had seen in movies, but was a beautiful emerald green. There were waves, but not the ones I had imagined. These were small waves breaking against the shoreline with just a little white foam. The beach was covered with shells, and I filled my sand bucket in no time. We saw hermit crabs and watched one who had grown too large for his shell make the move into another.

In the distance, we could see boats with nets and were told those were shrimp boats and to watch the water behind them. Soon we could see fins in their wake. I was afraid, but rather than the vicious sharks I’d read about in the encyclopedia, these fins belonged to dolphins who were following the shrimpers looking for a tasty snack. We waited for them to breach the surface, water running down their backs.

We waded in the surf – the water was clear, and I could see little fish and crabs when they tickled my feet as they gently nibbled my toes. We rode the waves on air mattresses and spent hours building sandcastles.

We never left the shore. There were coolers filled with sandwiches and drinks and we camped in a tent that night, sleeping bags on the sand.

There were storm clouds covering the sun when we woke, and the decision was made to start the 8-hour drive home rather than spending the day as planned. Mother and I took one last walk on the beach before the rains came and found a shark that had washed up on the sand. I went as close as my 7-year-old bravery would take me and remember the sadness I felt that it was dead.

I cried as we left, knowing I was leaving a piece of my heart.

That love affair has lasted a lifetime! When he was young, my son – Trailer Swift – asked me why we didn’t live by the ocean since we had saltwater in our veins. I promised him someday we would….and we have, since 2003. My house is less than seven blocks from the Gulf and while I don’t see it every day, I feel the ocean breeze, smell the Gulf air and hear the waves and know that I am home.

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