by James Heaton
The old days of surfing on Tybee Island were over. I watched the years pass by and saw this quiet beach town fall to commercialism. What was once a community that was lost in the 60’s, now has stores like the big beach cities up the coast. Parking is almost non-existent, and the family atmosphere was lost to an influx of new tourist and people who have never experienced the true side that I fell in love with years before. But you can’t fight change and all you can do is hold onto the memories that you make. I’ve made a lifetime of memories in this little island town.
Over the years Tybee has been a secret location for a handful of people who loved nostalgia and quiet beaches. Sure, the summer months were busy, but the small city could only hold so many people and it was mostly locals. But just like every small town on the East Coast, people flocked from far and wide to enjoy what we loved most about our little city. Most of the cars display license plates from all over the country. The old days of eating at the Sugar Shack after a full day of surfing and watching the grease drip off your cheeseburger were a thing of the past. I loved those days almost as much as I loved the quiet Sundays on the beach with my family.
But this isn’t as much my story as it is the story of Margaret and John.
I lived on 18th Street, just a few houses down from the beach access. My neighbours were a charming little couple named Margaret and John. I bought my house twenty-seven years ago, but Margaret and John were already living up the street when I moved in. I really don’t know exactly what year they moved in, but they had been there long enough to see the change that was to come.
John was a tall man with a build of a line-backer, Margaret was much shorter and a little chubby. When we first met, they had the early signs of aging, the salt and pepper hair and few wrinkles on their faces. Their house had all the signs of island locals, from the beach towels hanging over the porch rails to the sign by the door with their names and a lighthouse. John had an old Lincoln Town Car that he kept covered under the car port and Margaret drove a small Ford Escort that I would see zipping up and down the street whenever she would go shopping for groceries.
The first time I ever saw the couple was a few months after I moved in. I wanted a house close enough to the beach that I could walk down to the jetty to surf whenever the tides would come in, and the moment I found it, I snatched it up. It was just a short drive to work in Savannah and I cherished the slow pace that the island life offered. I remember walking down the street and down the little path to the beach. That first day the waves were four to five feet, and the tide was just coming in. Margaret and John were down the beach in a small spot near the dunes with their matching metal detectors and little wagon. I didn’t pay too much attention to them as I sat my board down on the sand and took a seat to watch the waves.
My focus was on the break of the waves, where the channel was and the best place to catch a ride. I loved studying the waves before I headed out into the water, it gave me an advantage over the young surfers who would just run to the water and paddle out. But the little couple with their metal detectors drew my attention away from the waves. They seemed to be focused on one area, walking back and forth, they waved their metal detectors over the sand. Occasionally they would hear something and kneel to dig. But they never appeared to find much at least while I watched them. As the tide came in, they put their detectors in their little wagon and walked my way. I watched as they made their way to the path that led to the road. John caught my stare and waved, I waved back and smiled at Margaret. I didn’t think much about it and grabbed my board to paddle out.
A few hours of surfing and I was spent, tired and hungry. I headed back to my little beach house for left over pizza and a beer. As I made my way down the street, I saw John standing at his mailbox, gathering the days mail. I offered a warm greeting as I passed him, and he asked about the waves. I told him they were decent, and I inquired about his search for buried treasure. He laughed and said, “nothing today, but there is always tomorrow.”
Over the next couple of years, I passed the couple many times. We eventually talked long enough to learn each other’s names and exchange pleasantries. They realized I lived a few houses down and, on a few occasions, I would catch them out walking the street to head down to the little restaurant on the corner. They always held hands and seemed so happy together. Those first years were filled with admiration at their love for each other, leaving me longing for that same type of relationship.
The years went by, and they grew older, but so did I. I had only been on the island five years when I met Irene. We were introduced to each other by a mutual friend. She was a new professor at the art school and had never been to Tybee. I invited her out for a day on the beach, she accepted, and we had our first official date sitting on the sand eating burgers from the Sugar Shack. She was perfect in every way and within a year we decided to move in together. She brought her things from her tiny apartment in the city to my house and just like that, we were a younger version of John and Margaret. It didn’t take long before she came to know the infamous metal detector couple like I did. One evening Margaret stopped us and invited us to dinner. We graciously accepted and had our first of many evenings sitting in their little dining room eating Margaret’s shepherd’s pie. They would sometimes come to our place and have dinner with us, and they loved hearing about our lives. But their story was more of a mystery.
I learned that John had retired from the Army and Margaret was a nurse at the VA hospital, that’s where they met. They never had kids, nor did they want too. They enjoyed their peaceful life with their little white poodle, Precious. Many dinners and a few years later Irene and I were expecting our first born. Our neighbours couldn’t be more excited for us. Margaret and Irene would chat regularly while John sat on his porch smoking a cigar, with Precious by his side. We had been neighbours for ten years when Irene became pregnant. Even though I never asked, I assumed that Margaret and John were in their late fifties. Irene and I were both in our early thirties and looked at them as our family.
It was February when the twins were born, Emma and Daniel were quite the surprise. We had no idea that Irene was going to have twins, we expected to come home with one baby but returned with two. Our first visit was from John and Margaret, and they loved our kids. It was almost as if they were the grandparents that we both dreamed of. My parents had passed away when I was only twenty-five, leaving me an inheritance that bought our house. Irene’s parents were hours away in Chicago, and they waited until the summer to visit. By that time the twins knew John and Margaret as familiar faces, and eventually as their surrogate grandparents. I like to think that they replaced my parents place as grandparents.
Up until that point I had never inquired as to why they always searched the beach in the same spot. I just never felt comfortable enough to ask, but more so, it felt like their time searching on the beach had an air of mystery and privacy. I wasn’t one to pry and be nosey, I respected their solitude. But they were more like family now. They watched the twins grow and always brought them birthday gifts and something at Christmas.
I never saw them take a vacation, but every Sunday John would uncover the Lincoln and they would ride into Savannah for a lunch date. The two of them in that big black car, enjoying their weekly date. I loved seeing them riding down the street, John with a cigar in his mouth and Margaret talking his ear off.
It was so common to see them at the beach with those metal detectors that we just always assumed they just enjoyed their hobby. Surfing was my hobby and Irene loved to paint, and we raised the twins to enjoy our hobbies too. Emma and Daniel both started surfing by the time they were five and Emma took after her mother with art. She was quite the talent in the family. It helped that her mother was a professor at the biggest art school on the East Coast. And as much as I loved having the twins surfing with me, I enjoyed the days when I could just sit out in the water and enjoy the peace and tranquillity the ocean offered me. Even on the days when the waves were too small to ride, I still paddled out and sat staring out to the horizon.
As the twins got older, they would come out with me on the bigger days. Mostly in the winter when the swells were bigger. All three of us wearing wetsuits and shivering in the cold air as we took turns catching the waves. It was truly my happy place; nothing had ever compared to it. I raised my kids to love the ocean and it brought me so much joy to see them riding the waves with me. Some days they would ask why Margaret and John were always searching that little bit of the beach, I always told them that if they wanted us to know they would tell us. I respected the couple’s privacy and they respected ours.
I remember the big swell of ’92, it was in December and Daniel and I headed down to the beach. Emma had lost interest in the winter surfing; she was so caught up in creating her artwork. That day the tide was all the way up to the dunes and every surfer in the city was there to catch a wave. I was a little cautious with Daniel, but he was fifteen going on sixteen and he knew what he was doing. I had taught him about the currents and how to paddle out in the channel and work your way to the line-up. We made our way down the street and saw John sitting on the porch smoking his cigar. He was pushing seventy by that time and mostly stayed inside during the cold months. He waved and told us to be safe, just like he always did.
Daniel and I paddled out into the frigid waters, the waves crashing as we dove under the water to avoid being battered by the breaking waves. We surfed until the sun had started to set and the tide had started to turn. We were both exhausted when we got out of the water, stopping to rest a few minutes on the beach to catch our breath. Daniel confessed that he loved surfing with me and that he hoped we would always surf together. I felt a bond with him that was unlike any feeling in the world. I had told Irene many times how much I loved that our son had taken after me and had a heart full of sand and salt water. It was something I had shared with my own father before he died. As a matter of fact, my father was the one who first introduced me to Tybee. We would come down on summer vacation and surf everyday while mom sat on the beach. When my old man died, I lost a part of myself, but having a son that looked at me the way I looked at him was worth every moment.
Daniel told me he was famished from all the activity and wanted to head back to the house for dinner. Irene was making a casserole and told us to be back before sundown, and as much as I was relishing the moment with my son, I didn’t dare upset my wife. I brushed Daniels hair out of his eyes and smiled, satisfied deep inside, and told him that today was a good day. We headed back to the house, through the pathway in between the dunes. As we neared the road, I could see lights flashing. I picked up the pace and ran to the edge of the road and saw that an ambulance and fire truck were outside of Johns place. By the time we reached their house, the paramedics were coming out of the home with Margaret on a stretcher. I quickly asked John what had happened, and he explained that Margaret was talking to him from the other room and then she went silent, and he heard a thud on the floor. In a panic he tried to help her, but she was unconscious. He told us he was going to the hospital with her in the ambulance and I quickly headed home to change and meet them there.
As I drove to the hospital I was overcome by the thought that one day this could be me and Irene, I thought how horrible it would be to lose her. We loved and adored John and Margaret and it felt like the time I lost my parents. It was as if I was transported back to that day when I got a call from the Highway Patrol Officer who broke the news to me that my parents had been killed by a drunk driver. They were on their way home from a Christmas party and a guy crossed the lane and hit them. They both died instantly in the wreck. I was left an orphan of sorts at the age of twenty-five. I remembered the emptiness and anger I felt when I had to bury both of them three days before Christmas. It was then that I decided to leave home and return to the one place I cherished the most in the world. I had such wonderful memories of my parents at the beach and the only way I could cope was to move to the one place that I felt their presence.
When I arrived at the hospital the doctors were working with Margaret and John was alone in the waiting room. Seeing him from across the room it was obvious he was crushed. He didn’t have that spark that he had when they were together. I pulled up a chair beside him and he told me that they believed that she had a stroke. He said that he couldn’t go back until she was stabilized. I was bound to stay all night if that’s what he needed, but it wasn’t more than an hour after I arrived that we received the heartbreaking news that Margaret had passed away. It was in fact a stroke and there was nothing that anyone could have done to save her. John was utterly broken, and it was the first time I had ever seen him cry. I put my arm around him, and he sank into my chest, sobbing like a child. I tried to refrain from crying myself, but the emotions were too much. I took him home that night and over the next week we made all the arrangements.
Margaret had a small service and so many people showed up, I had no idea that she had so many friends. But it turned out she was a much-loved nurse at a pediatric doctor’s office, after leaving the VA hospital. Over the years many of the children she cared for were now adults. It was a small island and word traveled quickly that she had passed. John picked out a simple urn for her ashes, he said that it was just something to hold her until he could spread her ashes in the ocean. And in fact, we did just that, on a quiet Saturday morning at low tide, my family and John stood on the beach as he said goodbye one last time to his wife. He waited until the water came up to his feet and then he spread her ashes into the sea, just like she had asked. It was the third hardest goodbye I had ever said, the first two times were with my parents and now I was bidding farewell to a woman that I had looked to as a mother.
We worried about John a lot after that. He spent Christmas with us, and I made it a point to check on him every day after her death. After a month or so he told me that he appreciated my checking on him, but he just needed a little more time to mourn. I feared the worst, I was terrified that he was going to do something to himself. That was the longest winter since my parents died, and spring could not come soon enough. Regardless of what he said I still made it a point to visit John at least once a week to make sure he was eating and taking care of himself. We would see him out on his porch smoking a cigar every now and again.
And then the warm weather began to come, a little bit more each day until April when some of the spring tourist began to visit. The island was a little busier than usual and we took full advantage and went back to our visits to the beach, just Irene and me. She would sit on the blanket in the sand and paint while I caught wave after wave. It was a Sunday and the after-church crowd had begun to swarm the beach as the tide went out. I had been surfing most of the morning and came in when the waves died down. As I made my way through the shore break and up to the blanket where Irene was sitting, she motioned for me to look to her right, in John and Margaret’s spot.
It was John, and he was out with his metal detector in his old familiar spot. Irene said that he had been there for the last thirty minutes. She was as surprised as I was to see him out and about. I yelled out to John, and he waved when he saw me swinging my hands in the air. He had his headphones on and couldn’t hear me, he was busy with his old hobby or so I thought.
As Irene and I sat talking about how many people were on the beach, I saw John kneel and using his little scoop he sifted through the sand. He was really digging deep for whatever set off the metal detector. Over and over, he scanned the area and then dug a little deeper. I had my eyes locked on him; I was enthralled at the idea that he might have actually found what he had been searching for over all these years. Then he stopped, just dropped his sifter and with both hands holding himself up as he peered into the hole he had dug, he shouted, “Thank God!” and then reached in the hole and pulled out a small object. I stood up and ran to his side. He was holding a diamond ring in his hands and tears were streaming down his tanned cheeks.
When I asked him if he was okay, he smiled and simply said, “I finally found it.” Holding up the ring I could see that it was a woman’s engagement ring. I had to know, I had been watching him for over twenty years searching that same spot and now he had finally found what he was looking for. I sat down beside him and waited until he composed himself enough to tell me the story that I had longed to hear all those years.
Forty-five years ago, John and Margaret had moved to the island and began their new journey together on Tybee. They had lived in Savannah before that, and he was stationed at the base just outside of the city. Margaret had been working in the VA hospital when they first met, and they decided to both settle down on the island. It had been the place of their first date and like me they sought to connect with the one place they were genuinely happy. Shortly after they moved into the house they were taking a nighttime walk on the beach. John explained that they had a disagreement and for the life of him, he could not remember what it was. He said that for forty-five years they both tried to remember what sparked the argument but neither could recall. In the heat of the moment, Margaret pulled off her rings and threw them at John. Realizing what she had done she immediately dropped to her knees and began searching the sand for the rings. They looked all night and only found the wedding band. The diamond was his grandmothers ring and was irreplaceable. Margaret was so angry at herself that the very next day she had gone to the city and bought a metal detector at Sears. John had felt horrible for the argument, but even worse that Margaret was so upset. She became obsessed with finding the ring. Every day after work she would walk up to the beach and search over and over in the very spot that she threw the ring. Eventually John went to the city and bought a second metal detector, and they began looking for the ring together.
John said that he eventually bought her a new ring and surprised her with it, but she carried the guilt of throwing his grandmother’s ring. Over the years they eventually gave up hope, but still enjoyed searching with each other for the ring. Toward the end, Margaret had developed arthritis and could no longer use the metal detector without pain, but she would push herself to continue their long tradition. All those years John had searched and searched. As he sat there clutching that ring and the tears rolled down his face, he told me that the best times of his life were being on the beach with her. And the only thing he regretted was that they had never found the ring together. He had fantasized about finding it with her for so long, he envisioned the joy she would have had if only she had lived long enough to see him pull it from the sand.
John passed in his sleep two years later. It was exactly two years to the date of Margaret’s passing. He must have died of a broken heart, but at least he died in his sleep. He was probably dreaming of Margaret, at least I like to think that. A month after he died we got a call from an attorney in Savannah, he told us that John had left something for us in his will and that we needed to meet him in his office.
The attorney told us that the house had been willed to Margaret’s niece from North Carolina, and that she would be coming down to move in. We were excited that we would have some sort of connection to our neighbor’s family. We could only hope that she was as kind as her aunt had been. But the attorney had a small box for us, with a note from John. The attorney explained that shortly after Margaret’s passing John came in to change the will. He had promised Margaret if anything ever happened to her that the niece would get the house, but the ring, the ring was to come to us. There was a little note in an envelope with the ring. Both Irene and I decided to wait to read the note in private. I think she was just too embarrassed to cry at the attorney’s office.
So, we waited until the next day and walked down to the beach, we sat in the spot where John had found the ring and opened the letter.
To my favorite neighbors, Margaret and I loved you two just like you were our very own kids. We never had children and watching you two with your own over the years meant more to us than anything else. We thought of your kids as our grandchildren, and we never felt so loved as we did when we met you. I feel like you watched us from a distance always wondering what those two crazy people were up to. You were the only ones to ever know the story of the ring, and I wanted to pass it down to the two of you. Do with it what you want, but just know that we both adored you two and the kids. Thank you for taking care of us all those years.
Irene broke down and cried, and I just sat looking out at the ocean. I had never had the chance to find closure with my parent’s death and I thought it would be the same with John and Margaret. But the peace that I felt at that moment was overwhelming. In the box was the ring, a beautiful antique heirloom that had found its way into our hearts. We sat holding each other looking out at the full moon that hovered just above the water. Some say that the moon and the ocean have a love affair unlike any other, but I knew that nobody could have ever loved anyone like John loved Margaret.
Three years after John passed, Daniel came home with his girlfriend. They had moved to Florida for his job, and this was the first time we had met her. She was a beautiful young lady, and we were happy that our son had found someone to share his life with. That weekend Daniel and I went out surfing and as we sat in the water watching for that next big wave, he told me that he wanted to ask his girlfriend to marry him. We talked about responsibility and what marriage would entail, but he had watched Irene and me and knew what true love was. He told me he had called Chloe’s father and asked him if he could marry his daughter. The father was happy to say yes, he knew what a fine man Daniel had become. But Daniel wanted me to help him pick out a ring, he said he wanted to buy her something special. And he wanted to do it while they were visiting because he wanted to propose to her on the beach.
That night I spoke to Irene, and we agreed that Margaret’s ring would have no better home than on Chloe’s finger. I gave Daniel the ring under the condition that it stay in the family, he agreed and the next day he proposed on the beach under a full moon. Irene and I waited up for them to return to the house so they could share the news. We pretended to be surprised but Daniel had told her the story behind the ring. Chloe thanked us for the gift and told us that she understood the importance of that beautiful diamond on her finger.
Six months later we all gathered on the beach and watched as Daniel and Chloe became husband and wife. Emma was of course her brothers only choice for best man, and she was happy to be at her brothers’ side. The ring looked beautiful on Chloe’s finger, and they made a beautiful family. That was three years ago and so much has changed on the island.
As I sit here on my surfboard, feet dangling in the water, I look back on the beach as the sun is starting to set and I can see the spot where John found the ring. Sometimes I think I can see the two of them walking down the beach together. I had been privileged to be part of their lives, but now as the sun is dropping down on the horizon, I paddled into shore. I need to rest tonight because Daniel and Chloe are arriving tomorrow with my new grandson. I can’t wait to take him surfing.
The island has changed so much over the years, but the burgers at the Sugar Shack are still just as greasy and the ocean will never change. The older I get the more I realize that family is everything and home is the best place to be.
Tybee was always home and there is no place like home.
Copyright 2022 All Rights Reserved James Heaton