Watch how fast I can go, watch how fast, watch how fast

_MG_5199
It’s been a summer of new experiences for the boys. They spent a week taking care of a sweet Maine coon cat. Wally learned how to make an eager dog drop a tennis ball and how to jump from a boat. Jay learned how to swim and ride a bike and also that learning curves sometimes run into hard objects.

Tuesday afternoon while running I passed a house with a small bike for sale, $5. I finished my run and went back for it. Jay has had limited practice riding a bike- probably ten hours on a balance bike and a few more on one with training wheels. He took to this new bike quickly, though, which is the way he seems to prefer to learn things, at a slight delay, then all at once.

The road by the house we’re renting this summer runs slightly downhill to a wide cul-de-sac. It’s the perfect place to learn to ride a bike, with a downgrade to get you started, a place to turn around at the end, and it’s not so steep coming back that little legs can’t make it. Jay wobbled when he first got on the bike and I ran alongside to break any falls. He peddled down the road, turned around in the cul-de-sac, and peddled back to our house without any help from me. He did it a few more times Tuesday night, then dozens Wednesday and Thursday. I couldn’t believe it. Soon he was cutting smooth arcs across the blacktop.

_MG_5198

Last night, Wally and I were down at the bottom of the cul-de-sac and Jay was up above us, by our driveway. He’d been making noise all evening about how fast he could go and he wanted us to watch him make his fastest run yet. He came down the hill toward us. We were kind of in the center of the cul-de-sac, which forced Jay to take a route a little more to the left than he had been. I could see the problem developing: As he approached the bottom, he wasn’t slowing down enough, and didn’t seem to realize he had less space to make the turn than usual. About two seconds before it happened, Jay’s fate was as clear as day: He started to turn, head down, intent on his peddling, and plowed directly into a mailbox. I thought for sure he’d led with his face and expected to see a lot of blood and missing teeth. Thankfully, thankfully, he somehow only bruised his arm. He cried for a while, a long while. We left his bike on the ground, completely indicative of the accident that had taken place, and I carried him back to the house for dinner.

Afterward, when he’d finished his food and been convinced that the bruise on his arm wasn’t much to worry about, I asked him if he wanted to go back outside for a few more runs. I didn’t want him to go to sleep with nothing but the memory of the crash to dwell on. He said no initially, then yes. We walked outside and he strapped on his helmet. He walked the bike down the driveway to the road, mounted the seat, then turned downhill. He went slowly at first, peddling easily, riding the break. At the bottom he made a real wide, long turn, then peddled up to me. Good boy, I thought, now you really know something about riding a bike.

The vacuum cleaner test

IMG_5186
After a month of beach trips, the inside of our car had started to look like a sandbox. On Sunday afternoon we called off the fun and sent the boys out to the driveway with a vacuum and an extension cord. They fought over who got to vacuum first, but Jay prevailed. He spent 15 minutes on the trunk alone, and left it spotless.

Wally went next. We assigned him the middle row of seats, but within a few minutes, he went back to his dump truck. Jay took over, and spent another half-hour vacuuming the seats, the floors, the cup holders, the little sandy compartments on the insides of the doors. When he was done, I had an actual visceral flashback to the giddy way I’d felt when we first drove that pristine car off the lot back in October.

Caroline and I had a quick conversation about whether to reward Jay with something sweet, or just to praise him excessively for his work. We settled on the praise, because it’s cheap, doesn’t cause cavities, and in theory will make Jay more likely to do the right things for the right reasons in the future.

After the car was clean, Jay moved on to bike riding, and Wally circled back to the vacuum. He did not attempt to clean with it, though. First he suctioned his fingers, then his hair, then his ear, then his stomach, howling with delight the whole time. Two years ago I wrote about the dangers of getting attached to simplistic narratives about who your kids are. Still, their contrasting approaches were too indicative: Jay is meticulous, loves doing a job well, and doesn’t like chaotic physical intrusions like a 120 volt Dirt Devil going at his navel; Wally thrives on delight and enjoyment, isn’t keen on tasks, is always finding secondary uses for familiar objects, and likes a good thrill. They both, however, will be getting the same thing for Christmas this year.

On Nantucket, where a summer dream disappeared

On the topic of longing for childhood summers, last week the New York Times ran a very affecting essay about what it’s like to have, and lose, a special summer place. The writer, Caroline Hamilton, spent the first 11 summers of her life on Nantucket, where her father was a seasonal tennis pro at one of the island’s yacht clubs. As a child she ran with the children of the well-heeled families that belonged to the club, largely oblivious to the social class dynamics between them, and only gradually came to realize the insecurity of her position.

For 13 summers, my father worked as the tennis pro at a yacht club on Nantucket.

During the school year, Dad coached varsity tennis for a university in Boston, and we lived in nearby Belmont, an intellectual suburb peppered with hockey heroes and Mormons. I rode the school bus with a family of blue-eyed angels who wouldn’t play spin the bottle. Our life was comfortable and ordinary, filled with sports practices and brown-bag lunches. The only thing special about me was that I had red hair. And that I went to Nantucket.

Every summer, my older brother, Jeffrey, and I woke in our staff cottage to the whistle of ferries and the scent of honeysuckle. In the mornings, while Dad was teaching lessons, we sailed dinghies in the harbor and played badminton in the clubhouse. In the afternoons, we navigated riptides and wandered the wharves. “I’m going to have one like that,” Jeffrey would say, pointing to a houseboat where crystal glasses sparkled on a wet bar.

I recommend the rest of the essay, which you can read here. Her themes, about how money and social class mediate our relationship to a place, reminded me of my post from last summer, “Social class and memories at a lemonade stand.” One point Hamilton makes that I particularly like is about how money shapes our sense of what it means to belong to a place. Her family couldn’t afford to spend summers on Nantucket, but on a deeper level, she felt that real, authentic participation in the island required a sailboat and a cedar-shingled spread.

We do this all the time, mistake the material trappings of a thing for the thing itself, as though there’s much of a relationship between a pair of shoes and being a runner, or anything you can buy in the world and being a parent. It’s a hard impulse to resist, and sometimes it takes serious displacement, as it did in Hamilton’s case, to realize you’re missing the mark. That said, we’re off to L.L. Bean in a few minutes to get flip-flops for Jay and a water bottle for Wally. They’ll be useful things to have (Jay’s old flip-flops broke in a Portland doughnut shop yesterday), but I’m also hoping the purchases will be noted in the ledger, alongside my morning grumpiness.

What is the meaning of a summer in Maine?

_MG_5067

Last night we walked down to the harbor for takeout seafood—a pint of fried shrimp, three fresh fish sandwiches, onion rings, a cup of clam chowder. On the way back home we passed Strouts Point Marina, where my brother worked each summer through middle and high school. Caroline mentioned this to Jay and said that maybe when he’s older he could work there too. At first he didn’t like the idea, but by the time we reached home Caroline had talked up the virtues of the job—learning to tie knots, getting to drive a launch—and Jay was convinced.

We ate our food on the back deck, and after the boys had finished their shrimp and scavenged the last of my chowder, they took to the backyard. It was past seven—bedtime normally—but the air was perfect, the sun was brilliantly low in the sky, and we relaxed our daily schedule to let other rhythms take over. Jay and Wally took turns throwing tennis balls to my stepfather’s labs, they weeded and watered the garden.  Wally picked a tart green blueberry, puckered his mouth as he chewed, and then picked another.

Caroline and I watched all this sitting side-by-side on the porch. It’s one of my favorite vantages, the kind we get when they’re playing with each other down the beach, or Jay’s racing ahead of us up a trail—the boys just far enough away that we can watch them operate deep in their own worlds.

As we sat on the porch I thought about teenage Jay working that marina job, and I thought again about why the idea of him spending summers in Maine feels so important to me. It’s not an idea that needs much justification of course—it’s really nice here, and there’s extended family around, and if that were all, it would be enough.

But late into a long summer day three weeks after the solstice, the lawn and trees overwhelmingly green from a torrential nighttime rain two days earlier, it occurred to me there are bigger reasons that coming here each summer is one of the most important things I’d like to give the boys.

There is something about a long summer day, about weeks and months of them, one after another, that stays with you your whole life, that creates a kind of longing which can steer you through adulthood. When you find yourself standing on a barren plain, or deep in the jungle of an ordinary day, the feeling you had as a kid in summer tells you which way to turn; it helps you chart a course even when there’s no evidence that you’re walking the right way.

Last night I watched Jay and Wally in the backyard, I listened to them shriek with joy as they ran with jumping dogs, I imagined how eagerly they’d fall asleep in a short while, tucked between the cool sheets of their beds. These days are what immortality feels like, they’re proof that it’s possible that delight, and not fear, gets the last word. I want them to learn that feeling as kids, to carry it with them into adulthood, and to know that if they live their lives well, they can have it again.

Routine makes it easier to let new things in

_MG_5120

This morning Caroline and I dropped Jay and Wally off for their first day of daycare in Maine. They’re attending the same place they went last summer, and on the walk Caroline and I wondered whether their stay would begin as it had a year ago: Jay begging us not to leave, Wally eagerly scouting out all the new toys on the playground.

When you return time and again to familiar places, it can be hard to find evidence that time has passed at all. The cedar shingles on our house may have weathered a little grayer, but walking the streets of South Freeport with their overhanging elms, oaks, and pines, and staring down the storm drain where last summer with Wally and twenty summers before that I dropped pebbles, there are no obvious signs that anything has changed.

But then this morning we entered the daycare playground, and instead of clinging to Caroline’s side, Jay walked over to Ms. Jacky who runs the place, said hello, gave her five, and made it clear in a moment that he was more ready to meet the challenge of a new teacher and an unfamiliar group of kids than he had been a year ago.

All told we’re two weeks into our summer trip, with prior stops in upstate New York and lake country New Hampshire en route to Maine. Along the way, I’ve been thinking a lot about the way that routine, and clinging to familiar things, mixes with the desire and often the necessity to do new things.

Because in a lot of ways we’ve tried to recreate our normal daily routine while on the road. The boys do wake earlier than they usually do on account of the early New England summer sunrise, but in other ways we’re mimicking our South Carolina days: cereal and peanut butter toast for breakfast, Netflix shows during dinner prep, dinner at 5:30pm, boys to sleep by seven, lights out for me and Caroline just a few hours later. And when we do curl up to sleep, it’s beneath the same duvet and atop the same pillows we sleep on at home—one way we’ve tried to soften the sense of dislocation that comes with two months on the road.

These routines are satisfying, but they can also be limiting. A few nights ago in New Hampshire, Jay and Wally were playing outside with their cousins after dinner. By the clock it was almost bedtime, but the four boys were deep in each other’s worlds, spotting emergencies and zooming to the rescue on their police bikes. They could have gone on for hours like that, but pretty soon I called it, thinking there’s always tomorrow, and it’s hard to enjoy anything when you’re tired.  I packed Jay and Wally into our car, and we retreated into our evening litany: car pajamas, teeth brushing, two books, three songs, lights out. It seems a coin flip whether I made the right decision.

Now they’re off at daycare in another new place, and if this morning’s drop-off was any indication, it’s going pretty well. After we’d left them, Caroline and I walked back to our summer home, and made two cups of coffee using the same press I use at home in South Carolina. Mugs in hand, we sat in the backyard in someone else’s plastic Adirondack chairs, and talked about what it’s like to walk into a new place and meet new people as the boys were that morning.

I tried to picture Jay tentatively approaching a pair of girls in the sandbox, and Wally trying to get a teacher whose name he didn’t even know to watch him as he climbed quickly up a slide. In the same way it’s easier to sleep in a new bed when you’ve brought your old pillow, I thought about how it’s easier for Jay and Wally to make their way in an unfamiliar place when they have each other, a sense of themselves, memories of successful experiences coming into new places before, and the complete knowledge that Caroline and I will be there to pick them up that afternoon.

For the rest of us it works the same way, as we muddle along trying to sort the daily catch: we’ll keep this, throw that back, knowing all the while that it’s not always up to us choose the things we love, or the things we leave behind.

Wally and the skateboarder

Last week a very small snowstorm washed out two days of school, but by Sunday it was sunny and seventy again. That afternoon, Jay, Wally, and I drove to a nearby skatepark. It’s located next to the soccer fields where Jay played this fall and often after games we’d stop for a minute to watch the skaters and BMX riders trick their way through the concrete canyon.

On Sunday the multitude of skaters, in their short sleeves and wool caps, suggested a premature spring. Jay and Wally sat close by the side of the main course, as they like to do. One skater after another whizzed by and did a trick—various kinds of board flips and rail grinds, almost all of which ended with the clatter of the board, a swear, a trek back up to the starting block.

The skate park is a scene, especially when you add Jay and Wally to it. After a few minutes of watching, one skater, in his mid-teens, came over by us to take a drink from a liter bottle of Pepsi. He wore a black t-shirt that said, “The Motherfucking Life.” As he drank his soda, Wally twirled the wheels of his upturned skateboard.

I always worry that the boys are going to get hurt while we’re there. Boards fly after missed tricks, and some of the riders take fast lines through the course that bring them much closer to Jay and Wally than I’d like. But I realized we were really the ones who were sitting somewhere we didn’t belong. And there’s an ethos to skatepark culture, obvious at a glance, of following unwritten rules and not asking for special accommodation.

We’d been there ten minutes when an accident took place. One guy was coming down the ramp on his bike and the other was coming up it on his skateboard. Later they’d say that each thought the other was going to turn a different way, but instead they turned into each other. The skateboarder fell the ground. The bicycle fell on top of him. For a few seconds it was unclear who, if anyone was hurt. It turned out to be the kid on the bike, a boy maybe in his mid-teens. He grimaced when he tried to stand up, grabbed his shin, and limped over to the side, right by Wally.

Wally, who can strike up a conversation with anyone, walked over to the injured kid  He put his hands on his hips and leaned in slightly. “Why’d you trip?” he asked.

The kid had lowered his heard into his hands. He looked up at Wally. “I didn’t trip, he crashed into me,” he said.

I pulled Wally away, gently, but after a minute he went back over.

“Can I see your boo-boo,” he asked. The skater lifted his pant leg as though he’d just been asked to by a doctor. He had a long scrape up his shin. Wally crouched down, and bent his head within inches of the boy’s scrape.

“A song will make you feel better,” Wally said. Then he started to sing, the lyrics from a song we’ve listened to a thousand times in the car:

Victor Vito and Freddie Vasco
Ate a burrito with Tabasco

The skater, still holding his shin, eye-level with Wally, laughed and shook his head.

I laughed, too. However big the gulf between a two-year-old and an injured teenage skater, Wally had gotten it right: The song did make the kid feel better.

Jay and his cousin find each other again

This guest post is the second in a series from my cousin Mara Lewis chronicling her relationship with Jay.

One. Two. Three. WAR!  I won him back.  Six months later, yes, but I won him back.  James is no longer a toddler, but a boy approaching kindergarten.  Two summers ago, he and I got along great.  We picked blueberries in Papa Bill’s backyard, drew pictures on my iPhone, and walked down to the harbor together.  After our Maine vacation that summer, I felt closer than ever with Jay.

I also felt that our relationship from then on would only get better.  James would be thrilled to see me, eager to play, and always ready to cuddle.  Unfortunately for me, four-year-old James didn’t look at things the same way.  We hit what I’d call a rough patch in our relationship.

When I approached him for a hug, he scooted away.  It wasn’t because he was shy, although I preferred to think that was the reason.  Really the reason was he just didn’t like my hugs.  I wouldn’t say that Jay was cold to me, but he wasn’t particularly friendly either.  At age 21, I was old enough to understand that his behavior was just his being a kid, but too young not to let it hurt my feelings (although I wonder whether you ever grow old enough not to feel hurt by that kind of rebuff).

This Christmas, after another six months had passed, I spent the week in Maine with Jay and the rest of my extended family.  By this time, I’d significantly lowered my expectations for our relationship.

Thankfully, my lowered expectations served only to magnify the improvement in our relationship.  Good news everyone!  Our relationship recovered.  For whatever reason, or perhaps for no reason at all, Jay decided to be my friend again.

Let it be known, I may have made this choice somewhat simple for him.  I taught him how to play War, recited the same joke over and over and over again at his request, and willingly allowed him to jump all over me.  The joke, about a duck walking into a bar asking for grapes, had James bursting with laughter each time I came to the punch line.  He then asked that I not only tell him the (somewhat lengthy) joke nine more times, but that I also tell it to each person in our family, one at a time.  James had mostly outgrown his two-year-old cuddly nature, but he was still certainly capable of being cute.

By Thursday, day five of our weeklong vacation, our improved relationship was visible to the whole family.  Jay’s mother, walked into the living room to find us playing a competitive round of War.  James and I both put down an ace,  One. Two. Three. WAR!

“Jay, is Mara your best friend now?” his mother asked.

“No, Mom.”  Jay replied with a smirk on his face.

I felt my heart sink, but I wouldn’t let Jay see my disappointment.  I continued with our game as if unscathed by his comment.  Minutes later, I couldn’t help ask him again

“So Jay, who is your best friend?”

James turned red in the face.   Before answering, he slid off the couch and walked to the living room door.  He peaked out, confirming that no one was about to enter.  He then plopped back on the couch, lifted his pointer finger to his mouth, and whispered “shhh.”  He cupped his hand around his mouth, and moved his small body to my left ear.  “Her name is Anna.  We had a play date last week.”

“Do you like her?”  I asked.

He glanced over his shoulder to once again make sure that we were the only ones in the room.  “Yes.”  He said.  “But don’t tell anyone.”

It was then that I no longer felt the pang of disappointment that had struck me just minutes before.  Jay didn’t call me his best friend.  But he had confided in me, which to me was equally as telling.  I felt close to Jay.  And while I imagine this closeness meant more to me than it did to him, I think he felt it too.