The lake in our town is a mile wide, surrounded by a mix of conifer and deciduous forest, shaped like a speech bubble tipped on its side. The public beach, with its three, towering white guard stands, occupies a stretch of what would be the top, or unbroken part of the bubble; directly across the way there is another, private beach, narrower and slightly shorter, from which, as a child, I would launch myself to the lake’s other points of interest: the occasional, unmoored dock the lifeguards mysteriously, laughingly referred to as “the love shack,” a narrow, red-brick goose house (or, a pump house reclaimed by geese), and a small, humpbacked island.
Everything that the lake was, the island was in concentrate. Forested, generously canopied, bouncily carpeted in princess moss and many inches of pine needles, encircled by a lone, narrow footpath that widened at the shoreline’s clasp. Heady, resin-green smell of pine and low-bush blueberry. My pulse took on the grandfather clock’s booming consistency; my footfalls, though hushed, reverberated down to the lake’s bottom.
Its diminutive scale and placement, virtually equidistant from the two beaches, such that it was always there, always beckoning – had some long-ago spirit, watching the meteor’s depression begin to fill, cut a circle from the untouched forest and nudged it in, purely to further the imaginations of future children?
In my earliest memories of the island, I am alone. When I was a little older, eleven, twelve, my friend Maria and I would canoe to the island; once, we took the ancient, ridiculous paddle boat. The paddleboat, oblong, aqua and white like a chiclet, made us a spectacle – a fate I dreaded, at that time, above all others.
When I was a little older still, I would swim to the island from the public beach, as part of the swim team’s training for the Mile Swim. The island was the build-up to the full out and back. Whatever qualms we had about swimming in open water – and we did, or I did, have qualms – we were lake swimmers, yes, but we were used to seeing the lake’s sandy bottom, or gestures towards it–we were meant to use the island swims to work them out.
The point was not to do anything on the island, there being not much to do. The point was to get to someplace only accessible by unusual means. You had to be a decent swimmer to get to the island, or you needed a boat.
It occurs to me now that only those training swims were sanctioned; the island, the goose house, the love shack – all private; yet I considered them part of the lake. The goose house, in particular, struck me as a romantic place, like a lighthouse, or Rapunzel’s tower, and I would often hoist myself in through its open windows. There were never any geese around, but their remembrances, that ethereal down and bedraggled feathers, their many white-green droppings, were there, and these bothered me not at all.
This is how children think, what’s yours is mine, what’s there is mine, what here is mine there is also mine (my children do not think this in reverse).
This is how children think and how I think of my childhood places. The red canoe bumped along the island’s pebbled inlet. “Land ahoy,” Perry said, as I had taught him.
He was in the bow; he had taken the role of captain. (Coxswain, I offered, and he angered – he is quick to anger, these days. Okay, I said. I like the right words, when I know them)
I secured the canoe to a branch that seemed to be there for this specific purpose. One by one, the boys clambered out. Irving’s neck re-emerged from the turtle shell of the lifejacket; he tossed aside his hat, declaiming “Ahoy, ahoy.”
“Owl Island!” “Ahoy!” (Perry, crestfallen by the lack of title, approved the proposal to name it after the island where Squirrel Nutkin tries Old Brown’s last nerve, and loses his tail.)
I climbed the footpath first, on the lookout for signs instructing us to LEAVE, YE TRESPASSERS. But there was only one, small, handwritten sign, requesting we “enjoy, but don’t destroy.”
The boys scrabbled up and down the island, collecting pine cones and acorns, in the mode of Nutkin’s industrious relatives. I sat crosslegged on the hilltop (if I sat on the small bench, the boys would quit their industry and squabble over who might sit beside me), awash in thought and reverie. Through the trees, the sunlight trilled the water – a snapping turtle, I thought, or a very large fish – but it was a swimmer, breastroking in a black cap.
“We went to Owl Island!” my son announced to young docksman who cleated our canoe. The docksman, no more than fourteen, looked for a moment like he might say something, then nodded in the way you do when a child says something you’d rather not engage with: acknowledging, swiftly ushering to safer topics. “See any turtles?”
On our way out, I scanned the large white sign of rules and regulations. The island is out of bounds to yacht club boats and their passengers.
Pang of regret, but also: joy at having the foresight to read the sign only after.
Summer’s ebb. Dark, now, when I creep down the stairs at five thirty. The tail end of nautical twilight, according to our local meteorologist, who has assumed, during this drought, a messiah-like status. The driest summer on record; the second-hottest. Grass like fried shallots, lily of the valley like corn husks. Herbs, lettuces in short supply. Though a good summer for thunderstorms, and tomatoes. Ottelie learned to walk; she takes the careful, staggering steps of the very drunk, and waits for us to clap. Both boys learned to swim.
I had been feeling guilty about Perry’s slow progression from something mostly vertical and not too indistinguishable from drowning to what you or I would consider swimming, knowing this was entirely to do with the ever-present entourage of younger siblings. If I could take him alone–he really only needed an hour’s attention, and he’d be set, I thought. In mid July, my husband brought him to Iowa, and in the pool of the house they’d rented, yes, in less than an hour he was properly swimming.
Irving learned this past Sunday, quite unexpectedly. His eyes were bothering him; I gave him my goggles, tightening and tightening the straps until I was sure they would not leak. I gave him a diving ring, thinking he’d hold it. Perry, in a different pair of my googles, began diving for his own ring, successfully, triumphantly. Many such dives passed before my periphery registered that Irv was swimming – wriggling really, but wriggling horizontally, with little effort – above the ring. Within minutes, he was able to dive for it. I shared my astonishment with Ottelie, who sat above me on the stairs, investigating the tail joint of a small plastic fish. She smiled and removed my sunglasses.
Chalk that up as a win, even if all I had to do with it was to do, essentially nothing, and to be generous with my googles.
The things I know that are useful in parenting: how to cook (though not quickly, not ahead of time), how to make a salad sing, how read aloud, how to move on from a particular phase (swiftly), how to supervise three small children in a body of water without floatation devices (triage, peripheral vision, my own comfort in water), how to enjoy being outside in all sorts of weather.
These are vastly outnumbered by what I don’t know. Which, on any given day might include: the title to a song on the radio | how geodes form | how to explain that while we are glad Ben Franklin flew a kite with a key on it during a thunderstorm, it is important to stay inside when there is lightening nearby | whether it is more dangerous to make chocolate or rock candy | how engines work | what this plant is| the name of Spiderman’s nemesis | how to nicely say that over my dead body are you watching Pokemon | what a petrochemical is | where the ratchet kit is | how many hours it takes to fly to Madagascar.
Since moving into our house, the large screened in porch was a glowering place, a thorn in the side of the back field. Some prior owner had covered its boards in thick, puce-colored indoor-outdoor carpet. This, combined with the black mesh of the screens, the unpainted ceiling against the white walls, and the inexplicable decision to have the dryer’s lint trap empty out into the porch’s rear corner, contributed to an atmosphere of near-overwhelming gloom and damp and dank. When my cousin, who’d grown up with the boy who’d lived in this house, mentioned, fondly, that the boy’s mother spent every summer afternoon on the porch, listening to Red Sox games on the radio, I was filled with equal parts disbelief and wistfulness. I wanted the porch he described, but how? Many times I inspected, dolefully, the lip of carpet, gave it a feeble pluck, concluded its removal constituted a BIG PROJECT achievable through mysterious means.
And then, last weekend, in the span of a few hours, my husband ripped out the carpet and sanded away the binder and I saw, right away, that I’d been wrong. The carpet was not a mere contributor to the gloom; it was the gloom. Without it, the porch revealed itself to be a pleasant, airy place where I now sit, watery-eyed from the pollen, enveloped in the inquisitive chak chak of the grackles, the high-pitched thrum of the peepers.
The porch is now nice | it could have been nice all along | but not by my hand.
How does one learn about ripping out carpets? When my husband cleans the kitchen, the surfaces gleam – how has he learned the bit about using hot water first, and then spray? Or that the water ought to be running when you turn the disposal on?
My stepmother folds so neatly, turning blankets, toddler tee-shirts, stray socks into tidy, symmetrical envelopes. I fold constantly, yet not once am I pleased, aesthetically, by the result.
Are these skills intuitive, generally self-evident? Must I watch dozens of youtube videos to acquire them?
I tell myself that it is important for my children not to see me as all-knowing.
In truth, I lack the wherewithal to guess, and am unwilling to lie.
I do have one trick for neat results:
When cutting corn off the cob, put a smaller, upturned bowl inside a larger bowl. Stand the cob upright on the platform you’ve created. Cut. The kernels will fall into the big bowl.
That and: if your child is not quite swimming, get her a good pair of googles. These are the only kind I’ve ever used, and they come in junior sizes.
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