For the first decade and a half of my life, I spent a week of every summer at my grandparents’ house in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. It was an old house, the doors still off-kilter from when a hurricane knocked the whole thing over long before I was born, and it sat right on the sand dunes the town had built after that storm. The repetitive sloshing of the ocean, mere yards away from the back porch, was constant background noise, and every breath I took brought its salty taste to my tongue. I spent countless hours at that beach building drip-castles with my sister, playing paddleball with my mother, chasing seagulls and digging up coquinas with my brother, splashing through the waves with my father, and taking long walks to collect seashells with my grandparents.
After Grandma died, almost four years ago now, her side of the family sold off the beach house and those trips came to an end. As I entered college and started going on new, exciting trips of my own – a road trip with friends to Chicago, a semester working in Disney World – those days at Wrightsville Beach, no longer a regular part of my life, faded to the back of my memory.
Though Pixar has found success and acclaim in feature-length productions, their roots are in short films. Every Pixar film is still accompanied by one of these animated “shorts”, so when I went to see Pixar’s “Finding Dory” with my cousin over Independence Day weekend, we first saw Pixar’s latest short, “Piper.”
First I heard and saw the waves, splashing on the sand. Then I giggled at the flock of sandpipers, noting to my cousin that the way they ran back and forth, away from and back towards the ocean, was exactly how they behaved in real life. I cooed over the baby bird, the eponymous Piper, a ball of feathers reluctantly learning to leave the nest and feed itself. I leaned forward as I realized that the little shellfish the sandpipers were digging up to eat were coquinas, hunted by their bubbles, just like my father taught my brother and I to look for. And when little Piper failed to notice the wave bearing down at her until the last second, I gasped as the memories hit me with equal force. Once, when I was little, I was swamped by a wave in the exact same way. There in the movie theatre, I saw the water bearing down on me. I felt the salt and sand rushing into my face and my father’s arms lifting me up and dunking me in the water again and again to clean me off before he finally carried me back to shore, where I sat huddled in a towel for a long time, wary of the sea – just like Piper sat shivering in her nest, refusing to go anywhere near the water.
But just as I eventually returned to swim in the ocean again, over the course of the short Piper returned to the shore. She realized that the ocean, though scary and powerful, wouldn’t hurt her if she was smart about how she approached it. And the pure joy in Piper’s eyes – the one part of her body that revealed her to be an animated creation in this photorealistic film – as she finally conquered her fear of the waves and discovered the fun of jumping around in the water brought tears to my own eyes.
My cousin can attest that I spent the short’s credits with my hand over my heart, saying “Oh my goodness!” over and over. Pixar’s “Piper” touched me, but not because the short was adorable, which it was, nor because it was a fantastic portrayal of the trauma that creates fear in addition to the commonly-portrayed process of getting over a fear, which it also was. “Piper” took me on one more trip to Wrightsville Beach, to stay at my Grandma's house and play in the sand and the sea, four years after I had to leave it behind.