Summer memories

When our sons were young we had a tradition of spending a week each summer on Monhegan Island, eleven miles off the coast of Maine. For quite a few years we managed to get there right after school let out. Carrying coolers packed with food and bags full of books and sketchpads and crayons, we’d arrive on the ferry and then find our way on foot to some bare-bones rented cottage, a place I’d secured sight unseen the moment the year’s rental properties were offered, at nine a.m. each New Year’s Day. Sitting at my desk in the midst of winter, waiting for the phone line to clear, it was always a thrill to make that leap of faith into our future, conjuring boat rides and summer days on an island.

We always went with another family, good friends whose three children loved Monhegan as much as ours did. In later years, we would all pile into one rambling house for the week, having realized that what we lacked in privacy was more than made up for by the fun of sharing the cooking, eating together, staying up late playing raucous games of Slap and Spoons, lounging over coffee in the morning, and watching our children roll out of their sleeping bags to begin another day. The routine was minimal: long hikes around the island in the morning and lazy hours with books on the porch all afternoon.

It was the perfect vacation for children still too young to be independent at home but eager to assert themselves and longing for some space in which to roam. There are no cars on Monhegan, hardly any commerce. Short of jumping off a cliff, there really isn’t much opportunity for a kid to get into trouble. And so, to their delight, we turned ours loose and left them to their own devices. They read, they played ball, explored, made up games, and scrounged for change to spend on ice cream sandwiches at the store.

It didn’t take long, that first year, for the slow, unscheduled days to inspire an entrepreneurial spirit. The kids watched boat loads of day hikers come and go and quickly realized that all of the travelers and cottage dwellers passed at one time or another through the main corner — a dirt-path intersection where the small grocery store and art gallery are located. People arrive on this quiet, idyllic outcropping of rock and forest and quickly shed their real-world defenses. There is no place to go and not much to do, other than inhale the fresh air, wander along the foot paths, admire the flowers and the weathered seaside cottages, most of them faded to a soft silvery gray. It is hard not to smile. It is easy to imagine staying for weeks. It is lovely to realize that such special places still exist in the world, places where children and dogs and chickens are free to do as they please, donuts are baked fresh each morning, and the leisurely journey from point A to point B is always more important than the destination itself.

Our children spent a morning that first year scavenging the beach for smooth rocks and bits of beach glass. By the afternoon, they’d spotted a potential market for their wares, had priced their treasures, lugged a card table and a blanket down the trail, and set up shop under a shade tree near the general store. The beach glass venture expanded over the years, growing to include lemonade, homemade Rice Krispie treats, watercolor paintings, painted rocks. The kids negotiated with one another, learned to make change, and realized that, when the baking supplies ran out, they had little choice but to invest a portion of their earnings back into the business. They made a little money but most of all they had a wonderful time painting, cooking, shop-tending, and keeping themselves entertained for hours each day on an island far from all the ready-made distractions of their daily lives. Now, years later, all five of them look back on our Monhegan holidays as some of the best times of their lives.

I feel the same way. The island cast its spell on us all, became a touchstone, our idea of “the good life.” I’m not sure why we stopped going, but I do know that’s how life is: a son signs up for summer baseball, a work deadline looms, priorities shift, and suddenly a sacred tradition becomes the stuff of reminiscence.

This week, after a hiatus of seven years, my husband and I brought some visiting Midwestern friends out to Monhegan for two nights at the inn. It was a relief, getting off the ferry and looking around, to see how little has changed in the years since we last visited; even the long-haired collie Jack fell in love with as a little boy was still there, lounging in the sunshine outside the coffee shop as always. We bought lattes from Pam, who remembered our names, and visited the lighthouse, with it’s serene, timeless view of the village below. Every turn brought back a memory. Wonderful as it was to introduce dear friends to one of our favorite places, it was bittersweet, too — a reminder of how much time has passed since the days of Harry Potter books, beach glass, and Rice Krispie treats.

On our second morning, we got an early start for our long hike around the perimeter. It was early afternoon when we made our way back to the village. There, beneath the old shade tree, a group of children were selling painted shells, necklaces, and signed watercolors. They had a card table set up in the very same spot our own kids once claimed, and they were eager to give us their sales pitch. We bought necklaces and oyster shells, snapped photos, and chatted up the affable merchants, delighted to see that this lucrative location was bringing good fortune to a new generation of entrepreneurs. For twenty-five more cents I purchased a drawing of a pirate that bore an uncanny resemblance to my son Jack’s early work — how could I resist?

Meanwhile, our own boys were elsewhere, living their own independent, grown-up lives without us. Once back on the mainland, I called them both to check in. It was nearly 9:30 p.m. when I reached Jack, who is house-sitting for our old neighbors this week and taking the train in to Boston each morning for his job. He was at Stop & Shop when I called, tired, hungry, and mulling his options for dinner. He had a few questions. “I couldn’t afford to go to Whole Foods,” he said, “and I’m not sure what to buy.” He told me had a box of pasta and six eggs in his cart and was debating some chicken; at seventy-nine cents a pound, he was worried that the chicken probably hadn’t had a very good life. He decided to pass, and to make zucchini instead. “The stuff they have looks exactly like zucchini,” he reported from the vegetable aisle, “but they are calling it green squash. Do you think it’s the same thing?” I said it probably was and wished him luck with his dinner preparations. It was a sweet, rite-of-passage kind of conversation; my son on his own for the first time, trying to figure out how to make his money stretch at the grocery store. But I hung up the phone feeling a little sad.

It seemed, once upon a time, that those childhood days would simply go on and on, that we would always board a ferry for Monhegan to celebrate summer, that our boys would be ten and seven forever, selling beach glass and lemonade and then falling into bed in an adjoining room, instead of negotiating the world miles away from us. I don’t even remember our last time on Monhegan; in memory the years all blend together — the card games, the fireflies, the solstice cake with yellow icing, the sea gull with the broken wing, the hikes to the cliffs, the candlelit dinners with all the kids and adults crammed around the table, holding hands and saying grace.

“No one knew that ordinary breakfast would be their last,” writes Annie Dillard in her novel “The Maytrees.” “Why not memorize everything, just in case?” I read that line this morning and put the book down, to let it soak in. How I wish it were possible. Because the truth of it is, lovely as this summer has been, I yearn for the summers that used to be. No one knew, the last time we all did the dinner dishes in our shared summer cottage, that our two families would not return the next year, or indeed, ever again. How I wish I had memorized it.

My sons are doing exactly what they should be doing at eighteen and twenty-one. Working, learning about life, figuring out how to survive on their own in the world. I’m proud of them, so it’s hard to admit just how much I miss them. But I do. What I wouldn’t give right now for a baggie of beach glass, a Rice Krispie treat, and a beach house full of happy, tired kids counting quarters into piles.

Boys

They grow up.  They leave home.  And then, of course, they come back.  They  return bearing bags of dirty laundry, stray socks, T-shirts you’ve never seen before, strange cords for charging various digital devices.  They are different, in a way you can’t put your finger on.  Taller, yes, but that’s not quite it.  Bigger in some other way; deeper, with knowledge that won’t be shared with you. They are clean shaven (because they know you love that).  They wear their hair short by choice — now that you’re no longer the one saying, “You need a haircut.”  They use words like “fundamentalist” and “metaphorical” and are eager to test your knowledge on constitutional amendments and C.S. Lewis.  They want to know your thoughts about original sin, and whether you can still scan a line of poetry.  They realize that you will be of no help on the paper they have to write analyzing the thematic and rhythmic structure of Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.”  They are hungry.  Really, really hungry.  You go through a dozen eggs a day, a gallon of orange juice, a gallon of milk.  They spend hours on Facebook.  Their rooms, pristinely vacant these last months, are instantly in shambles.  You are not the least bit tempted to pick their jeans up off the floor.  They want you to watch clips of the Daily Show at midnight, and you do, even though your bedtime lately has been closer to 10:30 than 12. (Well, admit it, you’re often in bed even earlier than that.)  They ask for the car keys, and you’re happy to hand them over.  When you say, “Be home for dinner,” they don’t even protest.  (They appreciate your cooking!)  When they’re running late, they text, to let you know.  Their friends come over. . .and seem genuinely happy to see you — eager to talk, hang around in the kitchen, tell you about their lives as they eat your food. They say “thank you” for the meal and put their dishes into the dishwasher without being asked. You hear the thwack of ping pong balls in the basement, cries of victory, deep laughter.  You don’t tell anyone what time to go to bed, or worry about what they’re doing down there after you’re asleep.  You wake up at four, in a dark and silent house, and allow your thoughts to drift.  The very thing you once took for granted — two boys asleep in their own beds down the hall — has become rare.  You used to think that you would never get “your” life back, the one where you got to choose how to spend your own time, or what to watch on TV, or how loud the music in the car should be.  But of course, it’s been your life all along, and those little boys were always on their way out the door, growing up and growing away from you, even as they were pressing your buttons and driving you nuts and forgetting their homework and not brushing their teeth.  You wonder if you paid enough attention, if you cherished those days enough, if you ever really grasped the fact that your life was always in the process of turning into something else.  You don’t want to be too hard on that younger, more impatient self.  But you are perhaps a little wiser now, more attuned to the moment, how precious it is.  And so you don’t mind being awake, listening to your husband’s gentle breath rising and falling beside you, the dog’s soft snore, the wind tossing the bare branches outside the window.  Everyone is home, glad to be here. You give thanks for that.

Present Moment

They are home at last, both sons.  And I’m perched here at the kitchen table, for about two brief minutes before the potatoes boil (three men in the house–grilled steaks and mashed potatoes for dinner).  All afternoon, I thought there would be an hour or so to sit down and write my weekly blog post, but I’d forgotten how quickly a day flies by when there is no time to gaze out the window, daydreaming sentences.  I can tell already that the rhythms are going to be different around here this summer; it may take me a while to adjust.  My yoga mat sits untouched on the floor between the living room and the kitchen.  I haven’t answered a single email, or meditated, or gotten back to the guy who wants to schedule a reading, or glanced at the front page of The New York Times.

But I’ve made several rounds of breakfast, taken a run with Henry, done a huge load of grocery shopping, washed lots of sheets and soggy towels, heard detailed synopses of the latest episodes of “The Office,” bought two quarts of freshly picked strawberries at the farmer’s market, cut peonies and irises from the garden, set the porch table, cooked a welcome-home feast for Jack.  I can’t quite believe that it’s dinner time already, that I feel this tired, and that I never got any “real” work done today, let alone a downward dog or a long deep breath.  And I feel renewed admiration for every woman who manages a busy household, and still finds time to write and read and think.  For every woman who works outside the home, and manages to take care of the people in the home as well.  For all the women who juggle way more than I do — raising children and earning a living and tending to those in need — and who nevertheless also honor their commitments to themselves and their inner lives.

The soul work we do is so subtle, so easily postponed to another day, so low, sometimes, on the list of priorities.  There is always so much that must be done, that we tend to let go of those things that feel like self-indulgent extras.  It seems impossible, at times, to find room in our busy, demanding lives to allow for silence and solitude and regeneration.  Today, there’s been more hustle and bustle and conversation going on in these rooms than we’ve seen in months.  There are piles everywhere.  Plans being made, tennis rackets and shoes proliferating, dirty glasses filling the sink.  I’m sort of amazed at how much sheer space they take up, these grown boys of mine.

And yet, tonight feels like a party. My three favorite people in the world are right here:  husband, two sons.  At least I have the presence of mind to pay attention, to be grateful, to remember that this really is IT:  the life I have, the best life there is, the present moment.

Spring break

Every year since our sons were very young, our family has come to Florida for a week of visits with the grandparents and a welcome respite from the back side of winter.

Yesterday morning, we stepped out our back door at 4:30 am, into a torrent of freezing rain, gusting wind, slush.  In darkness, eyes still sleep-sandy, we made our way along the empty, icy roads to the airport — bright lights, security lines, hot Starbucks coffee.

As always, the contrasts of the day astonished me.  It is surreal, to wake up in one familiar place and go to sleep hours later in another.  My parents’ airy, modern home  on a densely populated saltwater canal couldn’t be more different than our own rustic wooden house in New Hampshire.  In the course of one day we exchange dirty snow and still-bare trees for lush green lawn, bougainvillea, and rustling palms; fleeces and boots and gloves for shorts and sunglasses and bare feet.  Drum fish commence their percussive mating call in the water beyond the open bedroom windows, the temperature is a mild sixty-eight degrees, the kitchen fruit bowl overflows with strawberries, avocados, cantaloupe.

There isn’t much to do here — no beach nearby, no cool sights to see or touristy events to attend.  When the boys were little we would treat them to a Little Rascals video, go out for a pancake breaksfast, set up coloring books outdoors, play games of Clue.  A trip to the Dairy Queen or a round of miniature golf might be the focus of the day.  Yet, year after year, we’ve come back, to do pretty much the same things we did the year before — spending a few days with Steve’s parents three hours north of my folks, visiting my aunt and uncle, relaxing with my mom.  Meanwhile, our sons grew up.  Over time, Netflix movies replaced the Little Rascals, video games edged out board games (though Scrabble and Bananagrams have brought us back together around the table), laptops have taken the place of coloring books and crayons. Pancakes and Dairy Queen are still part of the agenda, though they don’t elicit the excitement they once did.

Waking up this morning on the fold-out couch in the den, to the smell of fresh coffee and the low coo of mourning doves,  I was overcome with a sense of the long, slow passage of time.  How much has changed in our lives, even as this one annual ritual has held.  The privilege of being both mother and daughter in this house will come to an end, I know.  The day will arrive when our boys will no longer choose a visit to grandma as a spring-break destination.  My parents, in their seventies, cannot be our hosts forever. There are plenty more changes in store.

And so I am grateful for every morning that we find ourselves here, in any family combination, waking to birdsong and the sound of my mom making coffee in the kitchen.  In recent years, Steve’s father has passed away, and his mother has declined into the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s.  My aunt, sick for several years, passed in December.  Our sons, at different schools, have different vacation schedules now, without even a single day of overlap.  The family vacation of old has been transformed this year into a new, staggered arrangement of comings and goings.  Everyone will get here, but not at the same time.  This week, Jack is with us.  Henry will arrive for his own spring break soon after his dad and brother head back north.  For a few days in between boys’ visits,  my mom and I will be all alone together — rarely possible when my two sons were both at home, but a special perk of this new life chapter.

Slowly, I’m learning to accept — no, appreciate — the possibilities of our new reality.  Needed less by my own children these days, I am free to create new, closer relationships with my parents.  At seventeen, the age my son Jack is now, I considered an evening spent home alone with my mom and dad as some kind of social failure on my part.  Now, at fifty-one, it is a rare treat.

Last summer, my feelings were often bruised by the sight of my son pacing the house, cell phone pressed to his ear, trying to make a plan, any plan, that would get him out of the house for the night.  What I should have remembered, of course, is that life is transformation.  The present moment is always in the process of becoming something else, just as our children are always growing and changing, becoming fuller expressions of themselves.  They flee our presence as if pre-programmed to do so, and then they return, in time, by their own volition.  Tonight, the old cribbage board has been taken out of the closet.  As I sit here typing, Jack and Steve are side by side on the couch, shuffling cards, laughing, relaxed, talking in their own peculiar shorthand.  We are three generations here under one roof, not quite a complete family, but content with one another’s company.  Sort of like old times, but different.

 

Seventeen

My baby turned seventeen yesterday.  Of course, he hasn’t been a baby for a very long time, and yet, because he is my youngest, I can’t help but think of him that way.  Even now.  Even though he is six feet tall, doing math that is far beyond my comprehension, and creating a life in which he is increasingly, and appropriately, independent.  Sometimes it’s hard for me to know exactly where my sphere of influence ends these days, when to speak up, when to be quiet and remember that it’s time for him to be making his own choices.
 Yesterday morning, Jack drove his dad and me to our favorite breakfast spot.  The sun poured in, onto our favorite table.  We ordered coffees all around (he’s drinking coffee; I’m saying nothing), and talk turned to nationalism and liberalism and conservatism, monarchies and democracies (he’s taking European History). His grasp of these concepts was solid, and he was eager to share his new knowledge of how the past has come to inform our present (he’s got some pretty well-informed opinions).  I found myself listening carefully, learning things I hadn’t known.  Over pancakes and omelets, we asked questions (but not too many), had some laughs, got a pretty good glimpse of what’s going on in our younger son’s mind these days.
I’d written him a long birthday letter, for which I’d been mercilessly teased (I’m accused of going on and on in these annual missives), and so I’d already said how proud I am to be his mom, how glad I am that he’s happy, thriving, working hard in school.  So we didn’t talk about any of that stuff at breakfast, or make much of the fact that his sixteenth year has been a rather wild ride.  A year ago, his dad and I were really worried about him, and he was really mad at us.  He spent his birthday weekend at a friend’s house.  That weekend, I was half relieved to get a break from the fighting and half heartbroken that, for the first time ever,  we weren’t together on his birthday, blowing out candles and offering him our wishes for the year to come.  I did make a wish of my own, though.
What I yearned for a year ago was exactly what we had yesterday–togetherness, love, laughter, a solid sense of connection in the present and faith in the future.  In the afternoon, Steve and Jack hit some tennis balls–it was 70 degrees outside, tee-shirt weather–while I sat on the grass by the courts and read a book.  The two of them are well matched, but yesterday wasn’t about who could beat who, it was just two guys who love to play and who enjoy one another’s company.  I got to watch, and listen as they complimented each other’s best shots.  The sun shone.  My husband and my son played with the grace and good humor you’d expect from two good friends, but not necessarily from a teenaged boy and his father.  They whacked the ball hard, returned it again and again, reveled in their dance.  I lay my book down, kicked back, and closed my eyes, listening to the sound of the ball, the laughter.  Sometimes, wishes do come true.