A month ago, I wrote that winter had lasted forever. There have been several forevers in the interim, and still there are shoulder-high snowbanks, and just today flakes flew across the street in front of us, like a veil of winter. You can’t walk along the sidewalks. You can’t really go hiking. The world seems to close in on itself. I’m sick of every single room in my house. (Which – hey! April 3 is THE DATE for demo to begin on the attic project! We have a backup plan of if the snow is still so heavy we can’t park on the street.)
The last two weeks or so, my brain has started playing some tricks on me. As I walk through my day to day, my mind will flash a quick scene in front of me. There’s that stretch of Hwy 16 in New Hampshire near Ossippee where a lazy river runs under a steel bridge with an expansiveness of space and time my busy life can barely imagine. The beeches, with their course green and gold leaves, in the campgrounds of White Lake and Covered Bridge, flicker in a remembered sunlight. The vast fields of milkweed, in the shadow of Mt. Whittier. The loon on the lake. The mists settling across marshes at sunset near Tamworth on 25. The crackle of the fire, springing sparks up to a warm night sky.
These visions come unbidden. Some of these things I can’t even believe I remember. Many of the scenes that show up are ones from the road – and I’m almost always going about 55 through those zones, after 3 hours of driving. How can my memory so perfectly lay out not just the field, but the shape of the milkweed across it. The shadows on the east side of Whittier. The music on the radio. The warmth of the air. I do not think I could have voluntarily pulled that image – that memory – from my mind. But without summoning it, there it is.
I think I find these even more precious when I discovered they are not universal. I know and love some folks with aphantasia. Not everyone can close their eyes and be back in a moment they loved, or see from afar the fields and forests where their heart lives.
I wonder what my subconscious is telling me? It feels like a hopeful message. “Wait”, it seems to say, “This too will pass. It will not be winter forever. There is such a thing as summer, and you will know it again.” In these moments, my heart is filled with longing for what I saw – but also for hope. I will see it again. Soon. This summer. In two months, I’ll be wending my way up Hwy 16, past the lazy river and milkweed fields once more. Be patient.
There is another gift in this. It is remarkable to discover what treasures your mind has stored up for you, all unknown to you. I did not stare hard at those moments, willing them to remain in my memory forever. They just passed past my eyes and stuck there, like gold in the bottom of a pan. How many beautiful moments lurk behind my eyes, waiting until I need comfort or consolation to appear? When my eyes darken with age and my limbs will no longer take me to the woods, will these all be waiting for me? A treasure trove of beauty I didn’t even know I was remembering?
I hope so. And I look forward, with joy, to adding to that trove again this summer.
After a long, cold spring, the summer has finally arrive with heat and humidity. The daylight lingers so long that you forget it’s time for your kids to be asleep. This last week was a week of closings.
School ended on Friday. Today we’ve spent time spelunking through backpacks, throwing away pencils stubs and uncappered markers, while saving previous mementos and projects in folders marked “Thane – Second Grade” and “Grey – Fifth Grade”. Those folders will get no more entries. Monday they begin the adventures of summer camp, and kick off what will be an extremely busy summer for them. (Actually rather more relaxed for Adam and me!)
It was a very good school year for both boys. Thane is desperately in love with his teacher. He learned sign language from her, and felt valued and respected by her. He asked me a few weeks ago if he could fail second grade so he could do it all over again with her. (Sorry kiddo. Your grades are way too good!) I’d definitely been worried about sending Grey to Middle School. But he thrived in his classroom. He loved his teachers, learned a lot and has continued to grow in maturity and capability. Also, I think 5th grade is a fantastic time to learn what a 0 for not turning in your homework does to the ol’ GPA.
I’m always jealous at the end of the school year. The nature of my work is seasonless – the tropics of effort. I can’t help but thinking how lovely it would be to do work which both begins and ends.
This Saturday was also the last day of the soccer season. We require our kids to play at least one sport, and we can’t make baseball work. So that one sport has been soccer since Grey was wee. There have been quite a few years where one pondered whether it was a good idea. Grey used to have to be cajoled onto the field. Thane was apparently working on his PhD in falling down and didn’t like to get sweaty (sorry kid – it’s a requirement!)
Because of church commitments, I haven’t seen my kids play much this year. It feels like I’ve spent six months in non-stop committee meetings trying to find a pastor we want to hire. But I made it to all of this tournament. It’s really Stoneham at it’s best and brightest. The field is covered with children and parents. There’s a vast melting pot of colors, accents and levels of skill. Children in blue jersey as young as four to the teenage refs showcase sportsmanship and teamwork.
Best of all, though, was watching how much my kids have grown and flourished. Grey, the once reluctant player, was masterful in his defense. It was such a joy to watch him stretch his long legs, find his spots, challenge for the ball – and come away with it. In the tournament, he took two hard-hit balls to the his face. Where in prior years this might have been enough to keep him off the pitch entirely, this year he picked himself up and got right back into the scrum. I was incredibly proud of him, and grateful to his coaches.
Thane was equally wonderfully transformed. His team only had one sub, and was missing some of it’s skilled players, but managed to fight their way to the championship. They played back to back games. I couldn’t believe how well Thane read the field repositioning himself to be in just the right defensive spot. He did a great job stopping attacks and clearing the ball. He was focused, fast and good. I’ve never seen such a look of concentration and passion on his face. They ended up coming up short in the final game with a late goal by the other team. Instead of falling into sorrow, Thane cheerfully pointed out how fantastic it was that they got to play in a championship at all. I was delighted at the attitude!
It’s not only the school year that is coming to a close. It’s also a chapter of our life on our street. We have an incredible neighborhood, where many of the families know each other very well. We have meals together, our kids play together all the time. We are deeply connected. This has been true for years now. But the time has come when our dearly beloved friend is being transferred to DC. We’ve known this was coming for years, but we’ve all been in denial. It’s getting harder and harder to deny, though, since they leave next week. Nothing will ever be quite the same – it never is. But this will leave a big hole in my life and community.
We mark the beginning and ending of summer the same way: with a camping trip. Although with the same cast of characters, and often in the same location, the two trips feel radically different. The one opens and discovers – checking to see where we are in this stage of our lifes. The other closes and revels – sure-footed patterns and a long lingering last kiss of summer.
I dallied this year when it came to booking the last trip of the year. I wanted to go back to Covered Bridge, which we’d enjoyed last year. Last year I hadn’t been early to book, but there had been many good sites available. But by the time I went to book this year, there were none. Hardly any spots were open in the entire White Mountains. Thus we are forced into innovation. We find ourselves at Campton Camground this time. It is much, much nicer than the execrable Wolfe Point campground in New Brunswick was, but not so nice as Covered Bridge. It’s scenically located between a major road – the noises of which never cease – and a power line clearing. But the sites themselves are quite nice. (The firewood is overpriced, scanty and wet. The bathrooms are ok.)
We found, setting up the tent, that New Brunswick had left quite an impression. Mildew was growing where none had ever grown before, on things that had not ostensibly gotten wet (like our air mattress). It’s a good thing that was not the last camping trip of the year, or some of our gear might have become entirely unusable!
Of note so far:
Grey is reading The Hobbit. He is nine, and in fourth grade, and he is reading the author with whom I fell life-changingly in love when I was nine and in fourth grade. I can’t tell you how my heart thrills to watch my son follow the adventures of Bilbo and the dwarves. Tolkien is not so action packed, nor is he always easy. But Grey has embarked on the journey anyway.
Thane is also reading constantly. He’s currently on Book 51 of The Magic Treehouse. He’s read every single one, in order, starting from the first one on our vacation in Cozumel this April. If my math stands, that’s an average of two Magic Treehouse books a week (although he usually goes on binges). The big question, with the end of the series looming, is what to give him next. He’s a good reader, but he’s only going into first grade so probably isn’t ready for, well, Tolkien.
I’m attempting to read the Silmarillion for about the sixth time. I’ve gotten farther than usual, which is a scanty accomplishment. I swear the intro is dryer than the Old Testament, or anything by Chaucer. Adam is reading and thoroughly enjoying Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Two of our air mattresses went flat last night. We have three – two twins and a queen. Without probable cause, the queen and one twin went phllmph last night. There’s nothing quite like waking in a divot with your spouse falling into the gravitational black hole with you, and your hip on the cold, cold ground to interrupt a night’s sleep. I threw the long-serving air mattresses away. They have done yeomen duty on many a camping trip, but their work was done.
Yesterday’s big adventure was a 4.8 mile hike of Dickey and Welch Mountains. The first twenty minutes were full of complaining, and I was afraid we might not make it this time. We hit a rocky slope with signs that pointed out that we were surrounded by rare and precious plants whick had started their growth as the first colonists landed on Plymouth Rock – and to tread carefully accordingly. About that time, the going got really rocky (ha ha! New Hampshire joke there!) as we scrambled up cliff faces and through precipices. The worse the footing, the more cheerful and enthusiastic the kids were. As we were about to summit Welch Mountain, I was really struggling and the kids were powering on. Thane practically ran down Dickey Mountain – held back only by his parents. Could this perhaps be the last year the hiking will be easier for me than for my young sons?
Today (after a quick detour to Walmart to buy new air mattresses) we lounged in the Mad River. Last year the boys and I had built castles in the river rocks and searched for buried treasure in the mica and quartz that richly line the precious waterways of the Whites. They longed to repeat the adventure, and Adam (who had chosen to take an epic nap instead last year) I think felt a little left out of the fun. So we found a good place to park and a section of the Mad River in full sun to counteract the chill of the running waters, and we built a castle in the creek, destined to last for eternity – or until the spring floods. Injuries being the price you must pay for such adventures, I waited to see who would bear the burden on their flesh. Smart money was on Thane, who can’t walk across a room without tripping. Tragically, it was I who fell before Neptune and paid the toll. I suspect it will be quite a lurid bruise.
If I had to say what I love most about camping, I think it is that it is about the only time in my life when I shouldn’t be doing something else. Right now, at this moment I write, there is nothing more pressing I should be doing than what I am doing: writing to you. There are moments when I can be quiet and look at this glorious nature that finds its way in the small spaces between the road and the electric lines in which to be lovely. I can deeply contemplate the glint of mica in a river rock as I chill my bruised shin in the fast currents of the river. I can stop on my way to the bathrooms at night and look up at the stars as long as my screen-crimped neck will tolerate. I can gaze into the mesmeric flames of the evening campfire and find in it remnants of my wild ancestors’ visions, and pause. And I can give one last deep thought to summer.
For this is high summer for me. It’s not just the meteorological summer of 2015, or the astrological summer. It is the summer of my life. I have grown to full growth. I have planted my own seeds, and am watching them germinate in the lazy warmth of my 30s. In the calendar of my life this is July, not September. But already the days shorten. It requires less imagination to picture dropping Grey off at college, say. I look in the mirror and the effulgence of youth is missing (or requires very flattering lighting).
It is the memory of these days that will warm my winter, when Adam and I have safely brought home the harvest to which we have been entrusted. I will see these moments most clearly, I suspect, when the present day grows dimmer and I begin to live more in memory than in hope. And so I linger in these sun-flocked forests, in the quiet of a warm Sunday afternoon, and drink deeply of the woodsmoke and freely-given snuggles. I take pictures, both on my camera in the camera of my memory. I write the story of those moments here, engraving them in my heart by sharing them. And I savor the sense of warmth, love and joy that sinks into my skin in this September sunset.
My husband was raised in Saudi Arabia, and I am a product of the great Northwest. We met in college in Connecticut. But by the time we settled into the Philadelphia duplex on a busy Roslindale street that was our home together, we were in no way New Englanders. I dragged him to church that Sunday in mid August. The attendance that morning was sparse for a bright bride with a shiningly obvious and unscratched ring on her left finger. At some point during the coffee hours that followed, I learned that maybe thirty years ago the church had shut down for the summer. Then they started doing a round-robin with other community churches. Vestigial remnants of this arrangement still remain, as we swap combine with our UCC brethren once a year.
I was boggled. The attendance of Mineral Presbyterian Church was practically unwavering, unless the roads were tricky. But this much larger church just plain shut down over the summer, as though it was a school? That was a head-scratcher for me, filed away with other cultural oddities like why everyone seems to like Italian desserts (ugh!) and how any reasonable human being could prefer Dunkin’ Donuts to Starbucks.
Fast forward a decade and change, and here I am, on a sacred Sunday morning, not in church. In an extremely unusual move for my family, I’m going to fail to be at my home church for four consecutive weekends (I did attend worship at my brother’s church, so please don’t start the paperwork to excommunicate me.) And now I understand.
You can tell your New England friends of a particular vintage by whether or not they have – or had – a summer house. During the post war boom, as far as I can tell, most of the middle class of New England had enough spare cash to engage in a universally sought after accomplishment – the summer cottage. (Please note: I have done no research on this other than my own observations.) For a few months salary, an aspiring worker could get a place to spend weekends with his family. The richer folks had high-gabled houses on Cape Code. Medium income folks chose short houses – deceptively bigger on the inside than the outside – on other stretches of water, or Lake Winnepasaukee. Lowest on the totem pole were remoter houses, blocks away from any lakefront.
I have a few friends of sufficient age to have bought their summer cottage themselves. Most of my friends with summer homes, though, are of modest means themselves and inherited the houses – or are part of large families with shared ownership. One of the true old New Englanders I know is bitter because one side of the family (his mom’s) sold their summer family home, which he preferred to his dad’s side of the family.
In that quintessential youth of America, the children of New England were taken to the water to tiny cottages by their parents. Perhaps their father left them there with there mother all summer, returning on weekends once freed from work. The cities and towns of New England were depopulated during the hot months of summer.
As I have come to make friends with Old New Englanders, I’ve personally met more than a handful of these cottages. I am right now writing from West Island, just off the mainland from Buzzards Bay. It’s my third summer weekend here, and my third cottage. (Long story – we come with good friend.) I’ve seen the classic small cape house, decorated with field stone, natural wood and a nautical theme. (Have you ever wondered at the preponderance of sailboat themed decorations? It’s because an entire region has a second home decorated in nothing else!) The kitchens bear a striking resemblance to a ship’s galley in size and compact storage. The two lake houses I’ve seen have been grander, and both are now occupied near full time. I’ve visited a lovely little cabin on York Beach in Maine. Friends I know travel all the way to Nova Scotia for their lake house.
The economy of these houses has greatly changed in the last twenty years. The boom of the middle class second house ended abruptly in the 80s when real estate prices soared. They have not returned. Those still in possession of ancestral cape houses use them differently. No longer do they leave for the summer. Instead, the extended family may carefully parcel out the schedule of summer weekends in return for maintenance costs. Unclaimed weekends are sold to outsiders like me at a cost per day that exceeds New York hotel rooms. Often, they are only let in blocks of a week so that the houses do not stand vacant. Come Columbus Day, or earlier, the hurricane shutters are drawn and the linens are stored and the house stands cold and silent through the long New England winter – snow falling unseen from overlooking windows into the choppy gray waters.
To bring it back full circle, of course, this is why there was no service in my church during the summers. Literally everyone in the mildly affluent community was gone – to summer houses, beach houses, capes, lake houses, summer camps. There was no one left in the steepled town to worship.
The house whose weathered porch hosts me as I write is actually for sale for $280k. That’s rather less than I thought it would be, but rather more than I would be able to afford for a vacation house.
If I ever form a rock band – which is less preposterous now than it once was – I think I will name it Imperative Basil.
My farm share pick up is on Fridays. In theory, this is a great idea. I’ll have all weekend – luxurious laid-out hours – to process mother nature’s bounty. A few weeks ago a note came through from our CSA saying that extra bundles of basil were for sale! $14 for 10 bundles. I thought about my great success canning pepperonata last year, and my favorite pesto/mozzarella/pepperonata sandwiches, and thought… pesto! I’ll make pesto! And I signed up for ten bunches.
A week passed.
Then I went to pick up my ten bunches. They were not ten REGULAR sized bunches. Oh no. There were ten VAST bunches. And the temperature was over 90 in my kitchen. The delicate basil had a life-span measured in hours, not days.
I managed to clear out enough room in the ‘fridge for the yards of basil. But I didn’t have lemon juice, nor did I have enough parmesan. Saturday morning, I slept in. When I got up, I had just enough time to get to the grocery store before Adam had to leave for aikido… if I didn’t stop for coffee or breakfast.
You have never in your life seen such a grumpy grocerier than I was that morning.
The next four hours of my life were spent in pesto making. There were three double batches. Twelve cups of pressed basil needed to be washed and stemmed. Pecans roasted. Jars readied. I stewed in the 90 degree heat. Adding insult to injury, I misread the pesto recipe for the first batch and added the amount of salt that was supposed to go into the WATER for the PASTA to the pesto. Doubled. Still, I labored on.
At about 2:30, the final jar of pesto was put into the freezer. Twenty one jars comprised 84 ounces. I had saved the basil. Alleluia.
Now, to save the afternoon. My plan had been to go to the beach after aikido, which I reckoned to last until 3. But at 1, my husband limped home. And by limped, I mean, limped. With only two weeks left to his aikido career, my husband managed to do something to his hamstring that involved horrible popping sounds. So there we had the oppressive heat, the imperative basil, the injured husband and the beach plans.
I corralled my children. I packed the fun bag. My husband limped around packing the food bag. I cajoled and threatened until people were covered in sunscreen – hard to rub in through the sheen of sweat. I put my children in the car. As I closed the door, I heard the rumble of thunder.
“By JOVE!” I exclaimed in fury!
My husband, bless him, pointed out it might be fun to watch the thunderstorms roll into the Atlantic from Gloucester, so we went North anyway. We drove through a deluge, with waves parting in front of the wheels of the car and lightening strikes to the East and West – the sun dimmed to twilight under the heavy burden of the falling rain. When we pulled into Good Harbor beach, they waved us through without payment. We’d driven past the bulk of the storm – assuming it to be hard on our heels – but the beachgoers were flocking out as the first drops fell.
We sprinted to the beach and tossed the children in the water, the cold and hot air like layers on a cake, the winds picking up. And we danced in the water, jumped through the waves, dove in, sluiced off, and laughed – knowing at any moment the storm would come.
Then we made the most awesome set of sand castles across a rill trickling through the saturated sand. Grey worked on the Fortress of Europe. Adam – across the channel – constructed the Fortress of Asia. I played Venetian and provided buildings to both sides, counting my profit. Thane dug holes and chased seagulls.
Then we had some lunch. I sat on a beach chair, cool winds to my back and warm sands underfoot, eating a salami sandwich on homemade bread when I was viciously, viciously attached by a seagull with bad aim. I retained my sandwich, but incurred an injury on my pointer finger. So far, I am happy to report, I have not died of mysterious seagull diseases, but in case my life is actually a Chekhov novel, beware.
The rain? It never came. The band of storms passed to the south. We stayed until we were played out, and headed home sandy and tired. When we got home, the breezes were cool and bracing.
We made it.
And in the winter I will remember – as I taste the oh-so-salty tang of farm-share, home made pesto – the heat and the joy and the luck of my summer.
I’ve been enjoying myself quite a lot lately. Other than the breathless busy-ness that is the inevitable outcome of trying to DO ALL THE THINGS, we’ve been having a lot of fun. This past weekend we spent at the beach, my children increasingly fearlessly ducking through waves. We’ve been hiking and camping and beaching and farmer’s marketing. I walked through London.
I was thinking, the other day, how much more pleasant this summer seemed than last. Of course there’s a lot that goes into that. I’m in a different job, which plays a role. My sons are 6 and 3 instead of 5 and 2, which also plays a role. But one of the most critical factors to my family’s happiness has to be the condition of my left knee.
As you all well remember, last May I epically blew it out. Or rather, I prosaically finished a long slow decade of disintigration with two major tears of my meniscus, precipitated by the fact that I had no ACL to protect those secondary tissues. I spent last summer in physical therapy, in my doctor’s office and in constant pain and fear. Pain obviously, but fear that I would step wrong or it would hurt worse. Fear that was, I should say, regularly reinforced by coming true.
Camping ended up being brutal. The shifting sands and rolling rocks of a beach, plus the fear that my then two year old would attempt to swim his way to France, meant that we entirely avoided the beach the entire summer. Last summer vacation, right after the MRI revealed the massive extent of the internal damage, I spent my summer vacation processing the reality that I would need my first ever major surgery. Mt. Rainier’s shoulders went unmolested by my feet – except for the tamest trails. I did PT in the hotel room and packed a large bottle of extra strength Ibuprofen. I planned ahead for my next “vacation”, quickly exhausting my paid time off and attempting to work through the sheer exhaustion of a healing body and pain-ridden system.
It’s amazing how much more fun it is to be out of pain and relatively healthy.
That’s where this post was intended to end two weeks ago, when I first thought it up. (What can I say, I’ve been too busy having fun to actually write about it!) My knee had finally reach all better, about the time I went to London. Look ma! I can kneel!
And then something went oogly. I’m kind of so used to limited motion and pain that it took me a bit to notice my knee hurt and I was favoring it again – limping a bit. I know it’s not the ACL, but I have to wonder if there’s still a tear in the mensicus, or even a new one. I think the way I was sitting might have “caught” it.Or maybe it’s the new normal – I have very little cushioning my knee now, with the meniscal tears removed. Maybe running for a bus one day is an action I pay for over the course of the next few weeks. I realize that the right thing to do is to call my dear Orthopedist and ask to be reviewed.
The idea of initiating anything like that is appalling. So instead I’m ignoring it for now. If it is a really remote meniscal tear that only gets activated when I sit a particular way, well. I can learn not to sit that way.
My husband and I were commisserating the other day. He was going through his extensive nightly ritual of caring for his hands and feet. When not attended to with slavish devotion, the skin on both tends to crack and not heal, which is just as painful as it sounds. This accumulation of familiar aches and chronic (minor) issues is almost like a rite of passage itself. It marks – as if our increasingly gigantic and independent children did not – our transition from the flower of youth to the fruit of middle age. You notice you’re walking with a limp – after 26 sessions of PT and two hours of surgery – and you kind of wonder if you will ever spend a full year in which you do not limp, and what it might mean to be the Mom that Limps a Little. (Of course, putting it that way almost resolves me to call my orthopedist. After vacation.)
What about you? What aches and pains have you accumulated, that have become as familiar as your own face in the mirror? Or tell me about ones you have resigned yourself to, only to be unexpectedly and permanently freed from them.
This much credit I deserve: I applied and reapplied sunscreen for what seemed like all weekend. But I confess, I’m finding it hard to regret the sunsoaked, warm-to-the touch, reddish-brown tinged skin currently covering my arms, legs and face.
I am not a native New Englander. I have never pretended to be. I don’t drink Dunkin’ Donuts. I only use terminal “R”s in words that actually include the letter “R”. And until this weekend, I had never spent a summer weekend at someone’s family beach house. But a couple weeks ago, some friends of ours asked if we’d like to join them at an ancestral beach house over the weekend. I was figuring it would be about the same degree of luxury as camping, but why not! Sign me up! I mean, I’ve wanted to go camping with friends for years!
Oh, how low were my expectations. How high were they exceeded! It felt wonderfully New England, as though I might finally starting to be more than a tourist of unusually long duration, to be headed South towards the Cape on a Saturday morning. Of course, in true New England style, there was terrible traffic on 93. We did not finish the typical route, eschewing the Bourne Bridge and Sagamore Rotary to head further South, to Buzzard’s Bay. Specifically, to the West Island State Reservation.
The Reservation is, more or less, an island connected to the mainland by a brief and sandy causeway. There are a few streets worth of small houses – cottages – on the reservation on the West side. The East side is, well, reserved. The house in question was right up against a private beach, in the first row of houses. Back in the 50s, after a major hurricane (Edna, perhaps?), a long-sighted ancestor of our friends purchased the house for a very low price. Of course, the price was so low since the house was in the middle of the road. But he was, quite obviously, a skilled mason. He returned it to the correct location, and built it up with thick stones so it seems unlikely to move again. It was a very cozy, friendly, three bedroom cabin with a superb view of the water, a long lawn and steps down to a shallow pebbly cove with extremely warm water.
There are some moments that are just perfect. Neck deep in warm salty water, surrounded by friends and laughing children, watching sailing ships on the horizon… that counts as perfect. The sea breezes through the cabin were perfect for sleeping. The friends and conversations were a delight. Late on a summer night, I sat at a table with my husband, my son and my friends and we played a board game.
There were rematches of Trollhalla, shared cups of coffee on breezy back porches overlooking sparkling waters, conversations in bouyant warm waters, the delight of children playing, swimming and laughing, and home made Whoopie Pies. (You’re missing out.) And at the end of it, there was the kiss of sunshine on my cheeks and shoulders.
It was absolutely everything I might want a weekend to be.