In one drop of water are found all the secrets of the oceans. ~Khalil Gibran
When Liza was a baby and a toddler, heck even a ‘kid’, I knew that best way to fix any situation where emotions were running higher than normal and all seemed bleak was to dunk her in some water. Oh not literally DUNK her but on more times than I can count I wrestled her into a tub or a shower or sat in the shallow end of our condo pool while she splashed. Her mood was always instantly better after the addition of water to the mix and we would emerge from whatever crisis had enveloped us with renewed spirits and clearer eyes. Water fixed everything. Water has always fixed everything.
When I was little I lived surrounded by water on our island home. The sound of waves sang me to sleep and the smell of salt water was everywhere even on the coldest winter mornings. My father and I would walk the beach barefoot because to be near the water was not enough, we had to be in it in some small way even if it was only up to the ankles. And in the depths of our local country club pool the fat kid in the stars and stripes racing suit found summer solace away from the playground taunts about “Elephant Youngs.” In the water everyone was equal. In the water I was weightless, I could dive to the depths of the pool and pretend to be a mermaid. I could float lazily. I could swim lap after endless lap and lose myself in the rhythm of stroke, stroke, stroke, turn. In the water I felt strong. In the water I could do all the things my size and anxiety prevented me from doing on land – somersaults, handstands, flips. In the deep end I would dive down as far as possible and flip onto my back watching the clouds through the water. Under the water sounds went away, so if anyone was making fun of the fat kid I sure couldn’t hear them. Underwater was my private escape within the world of the pool, or the waves of the beach, or the darkness of a lake. My parents grew to choosing every hotel on every family road trip based solely on whether or not there was a pool or if it was on or near the ocean. A three-week beach rental when I was 8 gave me twenty-one straight days in the ocean and to this day they remain some of the happiest three weeks of my life. My cash-strapped parents sacrificed so much for my love of water. They knew by the time I was six that if Katie could swim, Katie was happy.
If Katie could swim, Katie was happy. Ten years ago the deciding factor on purchasing my condo was the presence of a pool. And that first terrified summer of single parenting I spent more time at the pool sitting bundled in a sweatshirt at the side of the pool while Liza splashed with floaties on her arms, I’d contemplate this new life, alternating between euphoria and flat-out utter panic and terror. Then inevitably my five year old’s pleas would win out and I would join her in the water for endless games of Little Mermaid or water ballet. During the four long years my mother battled her breast cancer, I would promise Liza on the rides to Maine, “After we visit grandma we can go swimming.” We’d slip into the cold water of the Portland Embassy Suites pool (which was supposed to be heated but rarely was) and I’d wash off another day of the pressing in my chest that accompanied my mom’s slow decline. The year after my mom’s death, when Liza was 9 and I was floundering as a parent in every way possible, feeling untethered by the loss of my mom and my sister before her, we returned to the same beach where I had spent that three-week vacation in my youth. In the waves of Higgins beach our family began to rebuild itself as a family of three now with Kelly in our midst, and we found our smiles again. Water. Water fixed everything.
I turned 48 years old this year and nothing has changed as far as my lifelong love affair with water. I still choose hotels based on their pools. (Seriously, the glee with which I am anticipating our February vacation to a resort with TWO “lazy rivers” is epic indeed). And any kind of get away without the prospect of swimming leaves me baffled. This past weekend after a wonderful, but “water-free,” two-day trip to Vermont I insisted on a family day trip to a nearby lake that had been recommended by a friend. Liza, in all her 15-year old glory, is that that blessed stage in life when friends always trump the dreaded “family time” and she was less than thrilled with the prospect. But off we went. At one point late in the day, after the millionth sigh from the beach chair next to me, I was ready to throw in the towel literally and metaphorically and send her off to her friends until she turned 18. But something in me said “water,” and I grabbed her hand and said ‘swim with me one more time.” The water at this lake was crystal clear and shallow for yards and yards, but eventually we were floating and it was as if ten years had been stripped away as we splashed, tried to see if she could stand on my knees, as I carried her and threatened her with dunking. Finally, clinging to each other in a sort of human raft, we had the kind of mother/daughter talk I never seem to be able to manage on dry land. Kelly soon joined us and our silliness increased exponentially and by the time we returned to our chairs all was right with the world.
The promise of water and the memory of floating weightless in its depths stay with me on even the driest of land-locked days. Water fixes everything, occasionally for good, but more often, only for a moment. But sometimes, that moment is all that is needed.
If it could only be like this always – always summer, always alone, the fruit always ripe…” -Evelyn Waugh
I write about summer a great deal. I think about summer even more. A love of summer is as much a part of me as my love for good cheeseburgers, the original Star Trek series, and the music of the Indigo Girls. It lives in me all year long in a place I visit when the snows of January and February descend up us and dim the twinkling lights of the holidays. It waits for me through the muddy cruel days of April and early May which tease, but never quite deliver on the promise of spring. And I watch it fade in my rearview mirror as we drive headlong into the busy-ness of autumn, school, and life. When I was little my father lived for those three glorious months to visit our island home in Maine. A lifelong sun worshipper (whose life predictably was cut short by malignant melanoma), he suffered bravely through winters with kids who dragged him out for sledding and snowball fights. I never understood then why he was so anxious for summer all year long when winter was one big playground, and fall meant pumpkins and Halloween and the quick approach of Christmas. I get it now.
Too often I hear from my friends that they “wish” they could enjoy summer like my family does but (and this is often accompanied by a shake of the head, a tsking of the voice and the underlying implication that their lives are far too busy and important for such shenanigans) it ‘just isn’t possible.’ I don’t understand a world where summer isn’t possible. Last weekend my wife and I embarked on a three-day blitz of summer’s best, dubbing our impromptu holiday – “a lake, a beach, and a pool.” We lived in bathing suits and baseball hats and subsisted on goldfish crackers and chips and ice cream. I read an entire book from the comfy confines of my extra wide beach chair. ( Remind me to send the maker of said chair a thank you note… my hips appreciate it). We drank wine on the deck and played Skeeball in a beachside arcade. We held on to each other’s hands to see if the powerful Atlantic waves could topple us (they did) and we marveled at how much sand could hide within one middle aged woman’s bathing suit. As we sat with our toes in the damp sand of our favorite beach gauging how long we had until the incoming tide would force us to move our chairs, I felt, as I always do, that tightening in my chest and the whisper in my ears reminding me that this was fleeting. That urge to bottle the sound of the waves, the smell of the salt and the warm feel of Kelly’s hand resting on my arm overtook me. “If it could always be like this,” I thought to myself. I thought of the excursions we still had planned for the summer, a trip to Vermont, a trip to Provincetown, more time on our favorite beach in Ogunquit, and the challenge we had set ourselves, as we do each summer, to find a new swimming hole or lake to explore. I counted the summer weeks ahead of us as if to reassure myself that it was still only July with nearly half the season to savor. But I’ve lived 48 summers in New England I know that August brings with it the looming start of ‘real life.’ Meetings will begin to dot my calendar with alarming frequency and Liza will soon be buried under the weight of finishing all the summer assignments for her honors classes. Darkness will take over the sky earlier and earlier each night, and humidity will give way to the cooler mornings of early autumn. Yet I cling to the sweetness of August, summer’s final gift to me, determined to squeeze every last moment from its days.
I’m adult enough to recognize that I probably need the hard days of chopping ice off the front stairs or warming up the car for 20 minutes in the morning to appreciate days when the woods behind my house seem to reflect every shade of green on the Pantone wheel. I know I need those nights of burrowing under a fleece blanket while the snow piles up on our deck in order to appreciate nights in our Adironack chairs waiting for the fireflies to put on their nightly show. I’m also old enough now to realize what my father was feeling all those years ago when he would talk longingly of living someplace where it would be summer all the time. My father gave me many gifts in the short 23 years I had him in my life, but chief among them he was this understanding of summer. This year on a typically chilly Memorial Day weekend I stood on the beach of my island home for the first time in years, struggling to handle the flood of memories and emotions that threatened to overtake me. Stealing a moment away from Kelly and Liza, I contemplated the salt flats, sea grass and gentle sloshing of Casco Bay and breathed in the summer of my youth. For the first time in over twenty years I shed a tear for my father and whispered to myself “I get it, Daddy. I get it now.”
I hope you find your summer today. And I hope you never ever let it go.
“Fifteen, dear God fifteen,” was my friend R.’s response to my daughter’s last birthday. And her reaction wasn’t in a “wow I can’t believe she’s already fifteen” kind of a way it was in a “oh my God fifteen was the worst,” kind of a way. Fifteen. When, as that modern day troubadour Taylor Swift once wrote “all you wanted to be was wanted.” (Oh Taylor. Can we just stop pretending you were ever that 15 year old?) .
I expected having a fifteen-year-old would make me feel a lot of things: old, certainly, proud for sure, sentimental, definitely, even slightly relaxed as the light at the end of the adolescent tunnel was finally in sight. I thought I was prepared for some teenage angst over finals and friends that I would navigate by engineering Hallmark Channel worthy moments of motherly wisdom dispensed over coffee shop lattes after a girls day of shopping. As I’ve written before, I didn’t handle the baby or toddler years well at all, and the ‘kid’ and ‘tween’ years were equally challenging. But I HAD this “parent of a teenager” thing. “Bring it on, fifteen,” I thought. I GOT this. Ha. That’s cute that I thought I was prepared.
I turned 15 in 1981. I often joke that there wasn’t an episode of Love Boat that I missed that year or the three years that followed, because I spent every Saturday night in my parent’s living room watching TV with them until my father fell asleep after the opening credits of Fantasy Island and my mother would nudge and nudge him until he went up to bed. Oh I had occasional exceptions to the rule but for the most part my teenage years were spent with my TV, my books, and my ever-present variety of comfort food. School provided the comfortable framework for life. At school I knew who I was supposed to be, where I was supposed to go and how to behave. Drop me in the middle of a slew of classes and non-athletic extra curricular activities like yearbook or drama club and I was your gal. Plunk me down at a Friday night soccer or basketball game and you would have thought I had landed on Mars. School gave me my identity. Out of school I was just another fat girl who couldn’t find clothes to fit her and had no idea what to do with her hair. So I clung to the familiar: my parents, my home, my favorite TV shows that ran on syndication every day, and endless re-readings of Gone with the Wind and Little Women. And I waited: For fifteen to be over. For high school to be over. For life to start happening.
When I was fifteen (or sixteen or seventeen for that matter). I would arrive at school on a Monday morning, having spent my weekend in the cocoon of my room and my family, to find the hallways and homerooms would be filled with gossip about the weekend. Who was at what party. Who went out to the Pit to go drinking. (If you’re from a small town you had a Pit. You may not have called it that but you had one. How telling is it that I’m 48 years old and to this day I have no idea where this infamous Pit is located in my hometown. Now that’s nerd status for you.) Who went to the movies. Who went into Portland. Who kissed whom. And so on, and so on. I’d listen and smile and nod as though I had even one clue what anyone was talking about and on the inside I’d wonder what forces of nature decreed that girls like me never were included in weekend revelry. Yeah, I know, the fact that I used words like “revelry” should have clued me in. Now I don’t want to give you the impression that I was bullied or teased in anyway. Oh I was in my youth, but that ended long before high school. In high school I might as well have been one of the teachers for all that my classmates cared. I was just… overlooked. I compensated by excelling in all things nerdy – editing the yearbook, serving as President of the National Honor Society and Secretary of the Student Council– and trying to pretend it didn’t matter.
But for all that my teenage years were frustrating and lonely there is one thing that I didn’t have to contend with – social media. Now I love social media as much as the next person for a variety of things- it’s connected me to long-lost friends, brought me three amazing, funny and supportive on-line communities of mom-friends, and of course provided entertainment in the form of finding out what song is about me or what kind of sunbeam I am. (Ok granted, I could live without knowing how far someone ran, how many yoga classes they go to, or how “totally awesome’ crossfit is but that’s my own fat-girl baggage.) But I’m not fifteen. And when I was, I didn’t have the ability to sit home by myself on a Saturday night and scroll through an Instagram feed chockablock full of my high school peers at bonfires, on beaches, at pool parties, or shopping. I wasn’t confronted by endless selfies of girls in identical bikinis talking about thigh-gaps. I didn’t have photographic evidence of all the things that were happening when I was home by myself watching Carol Burnett and Friends.
I occasionally scroll through Liza’s Instagram feed just to make sure there’s nothing objectionable and what I see often makes me shudder. Oh there’s no violence or bad language or sexual content- but there is photo after photo after photo of teenage girls in more makeup than a toddlers and tiara contestant, pouting at herself in a mirror or posing for a friends camera on what apparently teen girls now dub “photoshoots.” Ah yes, Instagram, where everyone is a celebrity. Where white suburban girls in shorts tinier than my dad’s old pocket handkerchiefs and bikini tops throw gang signs and hashtag #gangsta as if they have one clue what that even means. Where, you can with the aid of filters, airbrush yourself to the point that you appear to not even have a nose, as did one young lady whose photo I came across. Where everyone is a celebrity for the sheer achievement of being born beautiful. Where teenage girls engage in this bizarre ritual of insisting they are ugly while their friends clamor to be the first to tell them they are “perf! Totally perf!” The existence of one airbrushed beauty can convince even the most hardy of girls they are ugly. A casual glance at her feed leaves me wanting to shout at every golden princess in size 00 bikinis “you think you hit a home run when you were born on third base.” And then I realize I’m a 48 year old woman getting unreasonably angry at a teenager I don’t know for the very fact that she exists. But more than all this, a teenagers Instagram is where you can get instant, undeniable, photographic proof of the parties you miss, the trips to lake house or beach houses you’re not invited to, the impromptu outings that bring your peers together for that inevitable hashtag #bestniteever ! I may have had a ‘sense’ I was missing out on a lot of life in high school but these kids have proof every time they’re not invited to the party.
I remind myself over and over that Liza is not me. That her fifteen is not my fifteen. She is blessed beyond belief to have the friends she does, especially her close knit community of theater friends. And to be fair she has a pretty lively Instagram feed herself although blessedly it’s mostly rehearsal photos or cast party photos and she has refrained from airbrushing and filtering herself out of existence or overdoing the eye shadow and lipstick. But I was unexpected for how it would feel to see her go through the normal ups and downs of being this awful wonderful age. A recent bout of feeling lonely and blue had me telling her rather harshly “step away from the Instagram.” (I know, hypocritical coming from someone with as active a social media life as I have. I never said I made sense). Fifteen is hard enough (right Taylor Swift?) without the pressure to provide constant photographic evidence of your existence and your worth.
Fifteen years ago when I was handed that red-faced screaming ball of a baby that grew into my 5’11 beautiful talented smart girl, I couldn’t conceive of a day when the things that upset her would be any more serious than an ear infection or a missing pacifier. Those situations were easily remedied. The complicated minefield of emotions and hurts that is being a fifteen year old girl presents me with challenges I have no idea how to tackle. When she hurts, I hurt. And, without sounding like some new age guru, the ghost of my 15 year old self hurts as well. I want to tell her life is more than this and there is a world past the walls of her high school and the city limits. My late sister used to reassure me of that very fact and it got me through more than one lonely weekend. So this weekend I’ll arrange some mom and me time, perhaps spend more than I should at the mall, and try to sneak in those same words of reassurance over an iced coffee, and remind her that life gets so very much better after fifteen. Dear God fifteen.