I write a lot about the passage of time, about how life is measured in the cycles of every day-ness: dance recitals, Christmas decorating, book reports, filing taxes, oil changes, vacations, and trips to the mall. As I age I find more and more I’m faced with the need to mark things in time. Tonight I spent several minutes looking at a trio of photographs in our bedroom – all taken in front of the same house in Provincetown on three separate occasions. “Three years ago,” I think, looking at the photo of Liza and I decked out in strand upon strand of Carnival beads. “Six years ago,” I muse looking at a photo of (a much thinner) me taken on the first trip Kelly and I took there as a couple. “Two years ago,” marks the photo of Kelly during a particularly tequila-infused trip to ‘Girl Splash,’ one July. I do this a lot. I can’t seem to shake this tendency I have to time and date-stamp everything. It feeds a need in me to hold on to moments that I don’t want to forget, moments that pass too quickly.
One photo brings this out in me more than any other –me and Liza walking along the beach, heading away from the camera on a perfect, cloudless day, our steps in perfect harmony, her little girl curls bleached nearly blonde by the sun, her hand in my hand, her head barely as tall as my elbow. I know exactly when this was: Labor Day weekend, 2005, right before Liza entered first grade. I remember every minute of that day. The way the beach was nearly deserted, the way we watched the park personnel haul away the lifeguard stand for the season. The way that even our traditional post-beach ice cream stop at the Ice House felt…sad. Sometimes I linger in front of that photo and marvel at how Liza’s hair hasn’t bleached blonde in the summer in years, and how now, at five-foot-eight she’s no longer the little girl at my elbow. But lately that photo has mocked me, like a whisper in my ear telling me “it’s almost over, you know….it’s August.”
August. When I start to notice the sky darkening earlier. When backpacks, pencils, and notebooks replace the citronella candles and brightly colored plastic tableware in Target. When the mornings feel chilly enough for a sweatshirt, and a late summer shopping excursion for a replacement bathing suit is impossible because the racks are crowded with hoodies and jeans. I know I’m not alone in this. Everywhere I go lately I hear the same refrains: “I hate to see summer end!” or, “there’s so much we didn’t do this summer that we wanted to!” or, “oh boy here comes winter!” (as if on September first we go immediately from blue skies and warm temps to a blizzard). And yes, I get it. But when people around me start down the path of ‘summer’s over’, I get quiet. I don’t join in. I smile and change the subject. For knowing that this summer… this summer, is ending. Well, that pulls at my heart in a way it never has before.
When Liza was a baby and a toddler, the seasons blended together in blurs of playground trips and popsicles and snowsuits and trips to urgent care for the latest ear infection, so the transition from summer to fall didn’t even seem to register. When Liza started kindergarten, I was a new single mom, unsure of the rhythms of a new life and an anxious, jittery parent even on the best of days. As the years wore on and life settled down I found my groove but even then summers meant figuring out a complex schedule of day camps and working vacations into the time when no other childcare was possible. Oh how I envied my friends who didn’t work (and secretly hated them every time one of them would say “Oh my goodness you’re so busy in the summer! We like to be lazy!” As if I had that choice.) Usually I greeted the end of summer with relief, happy to get back to a routine we knew even if it meant saying goodbye to our evening swims and weekly ice cream trips.
But this summer… oh this summer was different. Thanks to the quirk that comes with Liza finishing the year in parochial school (which got out a week earlier than public school) but starting this fall in public school (which goes back a week later than parochial school) , we were gifted nearly two full extra weeks of summer. And now, nearly a year into our life as a proper family of three, we’ve settled into life together in a way that made this summer nearly perfect. Liza was busy and challenged in an exciting theater program that was a step up from ‘camp,’ we had time to vacation in the mountains, take trips to the beach, see lots of summer theater, go for swims, stop for ice cream, get together with friends and take long walks. True our activities were not really that different from other summers, but the time seemed sweeter, our laughs seemed louder, and life seemed … calmer. The young woman that had taken the place of the high maintenance toddler delighted me with her company, tickled me with her humor, and touched me with the depths of her twelve-year old feelings. My wife treated me to delicious grilled dinners, thoughtful gestures, and her inescapable wit and heart and I spent every day at work eager to return to their company. I wanted to freeze this time forever, never recalling a moment when my life seemed so harmonious, so right.
In a few weeks things will change. Liza will begin school as a seventh grader in a new junior high. Kelly will go back to school to advance her nursing career, and life at the theater I work at will kick into high gear. Never good with change I find myself battling my old anxieties at what life will be like for Liza in her new setting, at what Kelly’s schedule will mean for her, and as always how I’m going to balance a job that demands I work evening after evening and weekend after weekend with a family and a life 20 miles down the road. My chest clenches and my heart pounds and I feel my anxiety creeping at the edges of my day whispering “it’s ending… it’s ending..” . Now I know I’m not alone, I know all around me parents are sending kids to college or kindergarten, while other families are cramming in those last summer flings to amusement parks and lakes amidst back-to-school shopping.
Now, I know that Liza will be just fine and find her path in her new surroundings, and I know Kelly will be a great success in her studies and that I’ll somehow figure out how to be three places at once. This isn’t about any of that. What this is about is August, this August. this summer. And how during the dead of winter, or three years hence, I will look at photos of Liza at our condo in the mountains, or posing by the pool, or photos of Kelly on the deck of Barnacle Billy’s in Ogunquit, and I will feel a tug at my heart remembering this summer. This summer that was perfect. The summer that I finally understood what August means.
Anyone who has ever attempted a family vacation with a twelve-year old girl knows they are not for the faint of heart. In my earlier piece Mama Who Bore Me I wrote of weathering the storms of Liza’s moods on our trip to New York (culminating in the now famous “even the way you STAND makes me hate you..” moment in Times Square). And I recognize that asking an adolescent girl to be excited about a week in the mountains (where there is spotty cell phone reception at best and no cable) with her mom and step mom, when she could be home ensconced in her room with her iPod and phone is asking a great deal. But still, I had high hopes for this vacation. I envisioned us lying on lounge chairs reading our books by the pool, sitting on the deck in the morning sunshine or laughing over ice cream at a roadside stand. (You’ll notice not once did I envision us doing anything remotely athletic or outdoorsy. Hey, you can lead a horse to water..yadda yadda yadda…). And for the most part I have to say that this vacation delivered what I had hoped in terms of mother/daughter time, but on Liza’s terms not mine. I learned quickly that I couldn’t manufacture the perfect setting for the kind of Gilmore Girls bonding I had envisioned, but that I had to be ready to seize those moments when they were offered. But more on that later.
Entering this vacation I wasn’t sure what to expect and braced myself for pre-teen moodiness set on “high.” My calls up to the loft space she had taken over were met equally with sullen “WHAT?”s , as they were with upbeat “yeah mom?”s. The little girl who it seemed just a minute ago needed me to fix ponytails, and pick out her clothes and hold her hand had been replaced by a young woman who shooed me away, walked paces ahead of me, and effortlessly twisted her hair into complicated up-dos. She hung out on her own while Kelly and I took an evening walk (or truth be told darted into the village for a margarita), she stayed up after we went to bed and slept later. Memories of vacations with Liza as a toddler and little girl flooded me: getting up at 6am with her on a Cape Cod trip when she was two and walking bleary-eyed on the beach as the sun came up; returning to our room each afternoon on a Disney trip when she was four so she could nap; her nine-year old hand clutching mine as waited out a thunderstorm in a wigwam at Plimoth plantation. She seemed suddenly older than even the girl we had brought to New York City two months earlier. I simultaneously rejoiced in the new freedoms this trip brought me while wishing just once for that little girl to need me once more.
Early in our trip I tried to broach the subjects of her upcoming transition to a new junior high, or the exciting challenges and opportunities that would face her in the summer teen theater program she had been admitted to. But she shut me down, blocked me out, dove underwater, or walked away, wanting none of my good intentions. On a trip to a local water park she insisted on placing her beach chair two chairs away from ours. She alternately reveled in our company, her ‘in-jokes’ with Kelly (oh how they love to gang up on me!), and laughed at our adventures in navigating the back roads of Sugar Hill looking for a local cheese shop (it’s all about the food people, all about the food). Looking at her across the dinner table one night I remarked that she was so much more confident and so much prettier and pulled together than I was at twelve (with my toughskin jeans, bad Dorothy Hamill haircut and acne). I should have known better. “Stop it momma, stop it, you have to say that you’re my mom,” was the reply. But later that same night she asked if we could go for a walk, and by now I had learned enough to just shut up and listen while she talked. And talk she did, of fears and worries, of triumphs and failures. When we returned to the condo she asked if we could “keep talking” out on the porch. Kelly had long since gone to sleep. We covered boys and grades, her feelings of shyness around the girls at the resort pool who wore teeny binkinis on their skeletal bodies, we even covered Method acting versus Meisner techniques. “Careful what you wish for,” I thought to myself as I envisioned the sun coming up in the morning while Liza continued talking. But you couldn’t have dynamited me off of that porch that night. She asked questions, I answered, she challenged, I countered, and while I’d love to say the evening ended like a very special episode of Blossom, there was no grand lesson, no resolution, for how can there ever be resolution in the world of a twelve year old girl standing on the threshold of a new beginning. There will always be new questions, new fears, new worries. But as we made our way inside to finally go to sleep I wrapped Liza in a hug so fierce it scared me. I expected her to squirm away with her trademark “MOM!” but she didn’t. For one second her head (on top of her 5’6” frame!) rested on my shoulder the same way that two-year old head had done our mornings on the beach a decade ago, and from deep within the folds of my sweatshirt she muttered ‘thanks mom.’ And then she was gone upstairs to her dvds and cell phone once again.
Parenting an adolescent girl is not for the faint of heart and I have failed more times than I can count – sometimes multiple times in one day – to rise to the occasion. But in that moment on the porch I was given the gift of being assured that every once in a while I can get it right.
My family loves to vacation. Well more accurately, Kelly loves to research vacations and read “Budget Travel”, I love to read guidebooks so I can plan where we’ll eat (oh like this is a surprise) and Liza loves anything that comes with a pool. In the past several years my little family of three has had some great trips (the kind that chirpy mommy magazines love to say are all about ‘making memories!’ Wheeee!). There was our whirlwind trip to “Carnival” in Provincetown when Liza was only 9. We spent three nights in a one-bedroom efficiency on the bay in Truro at an establishment run by a kooky ,caftan-wearing woman who was accompanied by her mangy dog as she rattled her keys and checked in on her guests exclaiming “oh love, you look so much more relaxed!” (Come to think of it she always had a tall plastic orange tumbler in her hand, which may be why she was so relaxed.) It was a quiet refuge from the boys and bars in town where Kelly and I could drink wine on the slab of concrete that passed for a deck while Liza watched TV inside, recovering from a full day of drag queen-spotting and bead collecting at the parade on Commercial Street. There was the week we rented a friend’s beach house in Maine, where days lost all meaning and ran together in a blur of body surfing, novel reading, sunblock applying, and rinsing off sand in the outdoor shower. That was the trip where the three of us found our vacation routines – the arrival-day expedition to the local grocery store to stock up on provisions, the mornings of mom getting up early to make coffee and write, Kelly sleeping in and Liza emerging from her room like some exotic creature made completely of tousled hair and squinty eyes. There was our mega trip to Disney where we went through an entire stick of Dr. Scholl’s blister relief, where Kelly and I drank margaritas by the pool while Liza got a groovy hair wrap, and where for the first time I looked at my daughter and didn’t see a little girl any more. Most recently there was our big city tour of New York, where Liza learned to move with the rhythms of the throngs on the sidewalks, where Kelly, (who normally loathes musicals) got teary during the finale of “Wicked,” and where I spent four straight days feeling like a gargantuan Gulliver who had landed among the size zero, stiletto heel-wearing, black-clad women of a strange and foreign land. But no matter the destination or the accommodations, vacations with my family are part adventure and part sloth with a healthy dose of compromise and conspiracy and I love them.
This week finds us vacationing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, less then two hours from our home. A trip planned to take advantage of Kelly’s timeshare trade, and give us time to explore one of the most beautiful parts of the state. Now I must admit we are a bit spoiled by our recent timeshare excursions to Florida and New York, where remodeled units, upscale amenities and doormen made us feel like royalty. Our current digs are um, not so much about the fancy, tending rather toward “early rustic” with a slightly musty smell emanating from the plaid sofas and a chair whose springs gave up the ghost long ago. Upon turning the key in the lock we all sigh a bit and Kelly speaks what we each are thinking “well….it is a bit rundown.” But by the end of our second full day we find our vacation groove. The kitchen bears wine and chips, milk and poptarts, brie and bagels, our beach towels hang on the dilapidated narrow porch (which holds the promised ‘stunning mountain views’) and our books and iPods litter the dining room and coffee tables. Liza has commandeered the entire “loft” space and frankly I’m slightly afraid to venture up there lest I start madly cleaning up the tossed clothes and soda cans. We’ve explored the “resort,” and in the evening Kelly and I squeeze ourselves into the teeny plastic chairs on the porch with our glasses of wine while Liza communes with a dvd she rented at the ‘rec center’ (how seventies) and all seems right in vacation land. On our first night here I relax thinking that while I felt out of place and self conscious in New York, it will be nice to spend a vacation in my home state where I’m just like everyone else. I fit in here right?
Here’s what I’d forgotten about the North Country denizens of New Hampshire. They LOVE them the outdoors something fierce. (Ok, for that sentence to work you have to do it in a Shirley Hemphill voice. Shirley Hemphill. She was the waitress on “What’s Happening!” I’ll stay here while you go to Wikipedia) Anyway, why shouldn’t they be in love with the outdoors up here? The White Mountains are full of stunning views, natural swimming holes, walking trails, biking trails, hiking trails, pretty much every conceivable kind of trail one would want. The whole atmosphere up here just screams LOOK AT US WE’RE SO HEALTHY! You can’t go two feet without passing a store catering to outdoor enthusiasts. Our porch overlooks tennis courts where even the tiniest vacationers take part in clinics with the pros. Even the people in line at the ice cream stands have that smug “we can get ice cream, we just biked 100 miles and rappelled down that cliff over there ” look about them. When I told friends we were planning this trip more than one person (usually a thin, healthy looking person) exclaimed “oh! Are you going to do the zip lines? I LOVE the zip lines. Oh. My. God. You HAVE to do the zip lines!” Zip lines. Really. Spoken like someone who never had to check the weight limit on any given attraction. Are you kidding me? Strap this gargantuan frame into a belt suspended by a wire and shoot myself across a river? No thank you. Let’s just say I’m uncomfortably close to being that “Hoo boy Jim, we lost a fatty in the river” zip-liner. No thanks, I think I’ll clap from the sideline .
On a journey to North Conway we stopped at various points along the Kancamagus Highway, spending time at scenic overlooks and even splashing a bit in the river at Lower Falls. Yet at each of our stops we were surrounded by hiking boot-clad families, their babies strapped into backpack carriers, their organic lunches snugly packed in eco friendly coolers. One family even had one of those annoying family stick figure stickers on their van – WITH EVERY MEMBER OF THE FAMILY depicted doing some kind of sporting activity – soccer, baseball, field hockey etc. The most energetic our vacation has been so far is when we traversed the entire length of the world’s longest candy counter (at Chutter’s in Littleton). What? The Bit-o-Honeys were wayyyy down at the end it was rough but we did it. (Cue Kelly chiming in “um actually they were in the middle of the counter,” and me explaining literary license ..) Look, don’t get me wrong, I love how beautiful it is up here. I loved watching Liza sit on the rocks of the river watching the rushing water go by, I loved the breathtaking views from the overlooks but I couldn’t help shaking the feeling that we were interlopers. We weren’t there to camp, we weren’t there to hike, we frankly were there on our way to have lunch in North Conway. It was as if our passive appreciation of the natural world wasn’t enough. Every cyclist we passed seemed to mock my former days of clipping into my bike and taking off on 20 or 30 miles rides. True, I was a fairly serious cyclist for several years but I’ll let you in on a little secret: I was never that good and frankly I didn’t so much enjoy the cycling as I did how good it felt to take a shower after I was done and have a burger. I have to admit when I sold my bike to a friend I felt a pang of sadness, but mostly I felt a sense of relief that I wouldn’t feel that pressure to ‘get out there’ anymore and I would no longer have to fight the losing battle with my bike jersey to stay down over my huge belly.
But in spite of all this let’s make one thing clear. This piece is not an invitation for my nature/organic loving friends to tell me that I should “totally try hiking” or “get back on that bike girlfriend! You can DO it! ” or “ I bet if you just tried the zip line once you’d love it!” (Please. PLEASE.) Nor is it an invitation to tell me that eating healthy is fun and easy when you try it whee! (Cue the sunshiny chorus of vegetables dancing in the back ground) Friends, I know all that. And those of you who know me well know that my discomfort with my size has been there since the first time Derek S. called me Elephant Youngs on the playground of Houston School in 1975. I’m an enormous person who hates exercise living in a thin-obsessed world, the fact that I hate my body is not breaking news. But I’m on vacation, the sun is shining and rumor has it there’s a water park a few miles from here. I think I’ll go lie in the sun in my new super lycra-ed bathing suit that sucks in my stomach, and I’ll laugh at the cyclists speeding past. While I eat my chips. Ah. Vacation.