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Summertime

July 14, 2011

I keep wondering how the hell it got to be July.  We had a terrible spring–cold, rainy, most un-springlike–and then, while I was nodding off post tonsillectomy (I remember reading an interview with David Bowie in which he said he has absolutely no memory of 1975–which is how I feel about June) summer came with a vengeance.  My boyfriend’s kids are staying with me, and I seem to spend most of my time vainly fighting squalor and going to the grocery store.  Meanwhile, the four children toggle between adorable and feral.  They play cards all day long–my kids taught his kids to play hearts–and chatter and bicker and tease. When I walk out on the porch, bearing a tray of sandwiches, they fall silent, looking up at me with beady eyes, like a pack of raccoons.  God knows what they get up to behind my back.

They ride their bikes all over town (leaving them, unlocked, by the pool or the ice cream store or the library) and loll barefoot in their bathing suits all day.  They spent part of an afternoon reading each other their diaries aloud, shooing me from the room when I poked my head in to see what was going on.  They squabble and reconcile, and treat each other to endless ice cream cones at the pool, where they play tetherball and basketball and foursquare and Marco Polo and sharks and minnows and “peer pressure” (which involves walking to the very edge of the water and trying not to be the only one who falls in or stays out, depending on what the others do).  My boyfriend’s younger daughter learned to dive off the board.  His older daughter does flips and twists and cannonballs, and leaps into the lap pool beside me, intent on correcting my stroke.  My older son’s hand-me-down bathing suit is too big, so he dives clutching his waistband, and comes up laughing hysterically, saying, “I hope no one had goggles on for THAT!”  My younger son blends in so perfectly and completely that I don’t think we’ve even spoken to each other in days.

My rôle is to issue orders ex cathedra, to which the kids roll their eyes good-naturedly and comply.  I’m a benign but necessary presence–equal parts chef, chauffeur, and chargé d’affaires.

When I was a kid, I spent many summers on an island in South Carolina, running wild with a pack of assorted siblings, cousins and friends. Every morning we’d gravitate to someone’s porch–our houses were, in our minds, completely interchangeable–and squabble over who got the hammock until, suddenly, we all took off for the beach.  At low tide we waded in the gully and built drip castles.  At high tide we swam out past the break and let the current carry us parallel to the beach, while the younger kids jumped up and down and screamed in frustration on the shore.  If the waves were big enough, we rode them for hours, getting salt in our eyes and sand in our bathing suits.

The little kids, whom we bossed and babied according to whim, were much more crucial to our lives than the grown ups were. Grown ups were vague, peripheral beings, appearing only to scold us, send us home or (if we were lucky) offer food.  But the little kids were our dupes and foils and sidekicks.  We bribed them to keep quiet (or, more likely, sneakily implicated them in our plots, thereby guaranteeing complicity) when we broke the rules; we sent them to fetch popsicles from the big deep freezer under the house; we wrote them into the skits we performed, casting them as the undesirable or ludicrous characters while we played the heroes and heroines.  If they complained, we’d shrug and agree–fine, they could be the kidnappers this time.  (Suddenly, the play’s ideology would radically shift.  Oh, the poor brave captives and their cruel guardians!)

We were tyrants, but we were (we thought) fair; after all, the little kids needed us. What would they do all day if we didn’t take them to the beach, let them tag along when we spent our allowance at the tiny grocery store by the post office, trust them to hand out programs and tickets to the grownups for the skits themselves?  Sometimes a baby sister or brother would rebel and slink off in a sullen funk.  It never lasted.

We tried to sell lemonade, but the ice melted too fast and we gave up, limp and discouraged and sticky.  Everything was hot: the shade, the buckets of water on everyone’s back steps where you had to dip your feet before you went inside, the ocean.  The sand was so hot it killed, but we never wore shoes.  We ran down to the beach as fast as we could after lunch, sprinting to land on the few patches of shade from the scrub along the path, where enormous banana spiders swayed in their webs between branches. The spiders were huge, bigger than our hands. My cousin liked to touch their hideous abdomens.

We crabbed at low tide and caught minnows and baitfish in the gullies.  We dug around with our toes to find live sand dollars–they turned our fingers yellow–which we’d skip way out over the ocean, counting the times they bounced over the waves before they sliced into the water. On the porch and under the house, we caught the little lizards we called chameleons–they changed from brown to green, and the males could inflate their red throats–and held them up to bite our earlobes, where they’d hang in lizard rictus for as long as we could stand it.  Jellyfish stung us, mosquitoes bit us, crabs pinched us; we got prickly heat and pinworms and poison ivy and stickers in our feet and terrible sunburns that blistered and peeled. We played cards on the porch, endless tournaments of spit and poker and hearts, with a deck that was sticky and swollen.  We spat watermelon seeds, tried in vain to catch ghost crabs, swam out past where we were supposed to swim, threatened to tell, threw sea weed, ran up the tallest dunes and skidded down in avalanches of fine white sand.  At night, we jockeyed for position in front of the oscillating fan, wide awake and sweating on our sandy sheets.  We terrified the little children with ghost stories, then dared each other to sneak outside.

My quaint town is no substitute for a barrier island, though the lightning bugs do put on a good show, and I daresay my porch rivals that of any beachhouse.  But when the kids started arranging chairs and passing out hand-lettered programs for a talent show one night, I could hardly suppress my glee. My beach idylls ended long ago, but kids, apparently, don’t change.  I wonder if this is the last year my son and my boyfriend’s daughter, both of whom start tenth grade in the fall, will happily regress a bit in the name of summertime? We’re going to New Hampshire again–the six of us, the same lake cabin we rented last year–in August, and I expect they’ll fixate on replicating last year’s vacation.  After all, summer routines are sacred, and all four children have a very strong sense of ritual.  Do something once and it becomes “but we ALWAYS!” right away.  So we’ll go swimming and canoeing and fishing and blueberry picking and birdwatching in New Hampshire, like last year.  At night we’ll play cards and bingo and charades and read stories out loud. We’ll watch the ospreys and herons, swim out to the floating dock, catch turtles.  The same things we did last year–the same things kids have done for ever and ever.

It’s time to read E. B. White’s “Once More to the Lake” again, to remind myself that there’s a beauty in the passage of time, before I get too hung up on it.  Even now, at the dead center of the season, there’s a bittersweetness–summer’s days are numbered.  As are the days of childhood, of course.  But I’ll keep my melancholy adult musings to myself, and surreptitiously snap a picture of the bedraggled, popsicle-stained foursome on my porch. My boyfriend’s younger daughter just threw my older son the queen of spades. She’s laughing so hard she can’t sit up, and my younger son is trying to sneak a look at her cards. He’s the only one of them who’s managed, so far, to shoot the moon.

May their games go on forever.

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27 Comments leave one →
  1. almostclouds permalink
    July 14, 2011 10:50 am

    wow. just. perfect.

  2. Terry Ballon permalink
    July 14, 2011 10:58 am

    My goodness, but you write well. Thank you.

  3. July 14, 2011 11:01 am

    It’s so great to have you back and writing. This was wonderful. Just what this mama needed.

  4. July 14, 2011 11:02 am

    And here I was thinking my coastal summers were unique. Beautiful

  5. July 14, 2011 11:03 am

    That’s lovely.

    My kids are having that kind of summer too, full of games and projects and coming home when the fireflies come out.

    I feel like I read so many complaints about ‘kids these days’ and their screen time and lack of creativity, as if old fashioned summers are gone. And they aren’t! They never left. Thanks for the peek onto your porch and into your summer.

  6. July 14, 2011 11:06 am

    That was wonderful to read 🙂 ….

  7. Jen permalink
    July 14, 2011 1:03 pm

    That was gorgeous. Thank you.

  8. July 14, 2011 1:40 pm

    This made me all weepy and wistful, damn you.

  9. PinkieBling permalink
    July 14, 2011 2:18 pm

    I missed you! This post was worth the wait.

  10. July 14, 2011 2:19 pm

    I’ve missed your posts and this one reminded me why. What a lovely read. We just got back from Hilton Head, SC where our kids caught anoles (the lizards with the red throats), tree frogs and sand dollars (turning their hands yellow too:)) I think I’ll have to read it again…

  11. July 15, 2011 12:15 am

    Wow.

    Partly I’m caught up on the spiders as big as your hand. But mostly, just loving the way your words flow up and around the page and drop me down on the beach again.

  12. July 15, 2011 1:19 am

    Wow. You guys. Seriously. That was just amazing to read.

    I had no idea you could get a lizard to hang from your ear.

  13. July 15, 2011 7:15 am

    Ahhhh. Exactly what I needed to read to keep from biting off the heads of my children. A thousand thank yous. My kids thank you, too.

  14. Johnners permalink
    July 15, 2011 3:12 pm

    What a wonderful piece – so evocative! Thanks!

  15. July 15, 2011 5:27 pm

    Lovely. Just lovely.

  16. July 15, 2011 5:59 pm

    Beautiful! Ahhh, childhood.

  17. banshee permalink
    July 16, 2011 9:58 am

    That was lovely. Thank you

  18. Jay Cee permalink
    July 16, 2011 10:13 am

    Enjoyed that so much. Thank you for bringing back the innocence of youth….in today’s climate such a needed and peaceful respite.

  19. July 17, 2011 6:22 pm

    Lovely, lovely post.
    It made me re-read Once More to the Lake, but even without that it was marvelous. The glimpses of the children in their just-about-to-disappear-into-adolescence sweetness and familiarity, the echoes of lake-ness (I grew up next to a lake which was not a vacation magic spot but a private nature wonderland) Also just the sense of summer and time passing us all by, both the adults who notice and the children who have better things to live and do. . .

  20. July 17, 2011 8:53 pm

    Welcome back. Thank you. This was lovely.

  21. kath permalink
    July 18, 2011 11:33 am

    wonderful post! just beautiful…i live in nh…many beautiful lakes – hope you have lots of fun making great memories! xo

  22. Maureen permalink
    July 20, 2011 7:29 am

    What a beautiful post…wonderful way to start my day!

  23. July 20, 2011 4:56 pm

    It’s very unprofessional for the boss to cry at work. I never got to take my baby girl to the beach…

  24. Jennifer permalink
    July 21, 2011 11:42 am

    You are a very gifted writer. Thank you for taking me back to my childhood summers; if only they had never ended. When everyone I loved was still alive, and I was young and naive with a whole bright future ahead of me.

  25. July 22, 2011 12:37 am

    aww really, so sweet!

  26. August 15, 2011 9:15 am

    Will you be my best friend (not really kidding) (also not meant in a creepy way) (but sorry if it’s still creepy)?

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