For quite some time, I took considerable offense whenever Grandmother referred to me as “Ocean Eyes.” She said it with such a warm, endearing smile on her face, and yet her comment essentially boiled down to calling my lenses a dilapidated brown, when in fact they were a vibrant blue.
Each time I rushed to the closest mirror to confirm that my orbs had not changed colors, and each time they returned their own brilliant reflection back to me. I was so fond of them, yet Grandmother was so committed to this senseless, hurtful joke.
It was not until my 13th birthday that I finally stood up for myself against the taunt. As me, my optometric tormentor, and Mother sat around the kitchen table, Grandmother revived her favorite jeer-- in between bites of cake that she said was dry, but that I thought tasted perfectly normal.
“Have you enjoyed your birthday, Ocean Eyes?” she asked fondly.
“Why do you always say that!?” I snapped. “My eyes look nothing like the ocean! The ocean is dirty and brown and gross! My eyes are blue!”
“Oh honey,” she said quietly, trailing off as her own eyes softened. “I’m so sorry. I had no idea you thought I was insulting you.”
“You ARE insulting me!” I insisted. What could she mean?
“No, dear, I’m paying you a compliment,” she explained, her tone dripping with dolefulness. “Years before you were born, the ocean was a beautiful blue, just like your eyes. To compare something to it was to affirm that object’s beauty. But man has taken its toll. You’re very right, the ocean you know does not resemble your eyes in the slightest. It is dirty and pitiful, and in some areas completely dried up. But when I call you ‘Ocean Eyes’ I am referring not to the fossil of today, but to the spirited creature of the past.”
“Oh…” I said shamefully. “I’m sorry, I had no idea.”
“It’s no problem,” Grandmother assured. “After all, we only have ourselves to blame. In my time, humans abused the ocean so mercilessly, filling it with garbage and disregarding its importance, that it became uninhabitable and unusable. Now we’re left with a pitiful remnant of what once was, and a constant reminder of our failure.”
I was taken aback by Grandmother’s recount. I had some recollection of hearing about the way the ocean used to be, but I had never heard it described so vividly, so violently. I wanted to learn more-- to do more.
“I want to go,” I said forcefully. “I want to see the ocean.”
“Well, I don’t know if that’s such a good idea, dear,” Grandmother rejected. “It smells dreadful, and there’s nothing much to do once you arrive.”
“But you just told me how important it is!” I lashed back. “I want to see it and encounter it for myself!”
“I just don’t think-”
“We’ll go,” Mother interjected. “We’ll go, honey.”
Over the next few days, the three of us planned our trip with varying levels of anticipation. I was ecstatic, Mother was indifferent, and Grandmother was incredulous. She refused to even discuss the idea of seeing her fabled ocean again.
When we finally departed, Grandmother continued her silent protest, uttering zero words throughout the multiple-hour road trip. She wore a wide hat, citing her worry that it would rain, but that only happened a few times a year. There were seldom any clouds in the sky.
As we neared, my excitement only increased, but it was dampened by Grandmother’s disdain. What could she be so worried about?
Finally, we approached the fateful destination, the amount of discourse within the car failing to match the ceremony of the situation. Mother parked with a sigh, and I sprinted out to the deserted sand, ready to experience the remarkable creature for the first time.
And yet, like Grandmother said, the creature had perished long ago.
The odor overpowered me. The sound disgusted me. And the sight, the sight devastated me beyond repair.
I was frozen in place as I looked out on the waves on brown sludge. I had seen it in pictures, sure, but to be placed face to face with its vitriol was another ordeal entirely. It seemed endless, no inch or corner of the vast plain unsullied. I began to feel physically sick.
Suddenly Grandmother was by my side. But the strong, comforting presence she had so frequently been in my life was absent. I pried my eyes away from the abomination to look at her.
“Are you alright, Grandmother?” I asked ignorantly.
“No, sweetie, I’m not quite alright,” she answered. “But I’ll be fine. Don’t you… don’t you worry about me.”
We stood there for a moment, me and her, a woman reflecting on the chaos her society had unleashed upon the world and a girl who had only ever known it as chaotic. We silently embraced.
On the way home, through fits of tears, Grandmother told stories of boats and beaches, foreign words that she spoke with such familiarity. Mother responded receptively, though I am unsure how many of the words she knew herself.
Grandmother still calls me Ocean Eyes. But now, I understand it is no insult. It is a fond comparison, a warm memory, and the most loving honor she can bestow.