LONG BEACH — They say that this tree with massive, ground-dragging limbs is 500 years old or older, and, as some brochure writer romantically put it, "... was a sapling when Christopher Columbus sailed the Caribbean."
It's called the Friendship Oak, and legend has it if you sit beneath its branches with another, the two of you will be friends for life.
Odd place to bring my sister. Or, maybe not. We come to the Friendship Oak with a head start on friendship of 55 years.
We ask someone to take our photograph and seal the deal that began on a February day in Florida when I was 6 years old and she was born. Yes, she was but a sapling when I sailed Pensacola Bay. Some of my first memories involved that beautiful water and the homecoming of a baby.
Katrina devastated much of the college campus around the giant live oak, but the tree stood and stands. Actually, it props itself up like an old woman, using those octopus-like limbs as crutches. Unlike so many of the buildings, this oak was designed to wink at storms.
We laugh for no reason as our likenesses are struck, smiling faces in a tangle of live oak.
From the campus, we head to the beach because, for both of us, it beckons.
I love sea lore. I love the odd piece of wood that eddies up to the shoreline and wears its barnacle bracelet. I love the fishing lure that comes back from the deep, business finished, to the shore again. I like the idea that you can wade into the Mississippi Sound and feel a pulse.
My sister, landlocked for many decades now in Kentucky, remembers it all, too. "Oh, that wonderful smell," she says, and I know what she means. Standing there, we suddenly are smaller, insignificant. But so are our problems.
"We do not like to awaken far from the fringe of the sea ...," wrote the poet A.L. Hendriks.
Yet most days we do. The sea is our savings account of inspiration and well-being, and we draw from it only on special occasions. It accrues interest.
I envy and admire those who finagle a way to make a living on the sea or by the sea. I trust they never take for granted the smells or the view or the flotsam. If they do, their permanent status should be revoked.
We eat in a little raised restaurant at the shrimp boat harbor, a lot like having a salad in a garden. The tables are moist with the salt air that comes through the open windows. The boats in the harbor rock like babies in cradles, and lines slap the masts and make music.
I want to put down deep roots, like the oak that sponsors friendship.
To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.