Social class and memories at a lemonade stand

_MG_4135Yesterday afternoon I was finishing a run when I passed what looked like a mom and her daughter selling lemonade.  They were sitting at a small plastic bench in the shade of a tree, on the front lawn of a house a few doors up from ours.  After I finished running, I went inside, got a dollar, and walked back up the street.

The house where the mom and her daughter were sitting is split into a pair of townhouses, both of which are among the few rental homes in our neighborhood.  My family has lived in South Freeport for more than twenty years and in that time I don’t think I’ve ever spoken with anyone who’s lived in one of the townhomes.  My brother and sister report the same.  It’s an indication, I think, of how those particular buildings exist towards the periphery of what is otherwise a well-to-do part of town.

I introduced myself to the mom and her daughter, and remarked that a few weeks earlier I’d seen balloons flying at the end of their driveway.  I asked the girl if it had been her birthday.  She smiled, looked shyly at her shoulder, and, with prompting, reported that she is now five-years-old.  With her mom’s help, she poured me a cup of pink lemonade from a plastic pitcher.  We talked some more while I drank it, and when I asked, the mom told me they’d been living there for seven years.  I had one more cup of lemonade, then we said goodbye, and I walked home.

Later, I thought about my mom and what it had been like when we’d moved in twenty years earlier.  It was right after my parents had divorced, and in every way our new situation in life felt strange and scary.  There was the fact of my mom being single, on her own, and appearing more vulnerable in my ten-year-old eyes than my dad ever did, though I know now that those days were terrifying for him, too.  There was also the fact of our new house, which was the smallest on the street, and flagrantly conspicuous—at least to me—in a neighborhood of Volvos, yacht club decals, and venerable white capes with ocean views.

That class anxiety was a big part of my childhood, and what I didn’t feel directly, I felt through my mom.  She expressed her own awareness of social class most strongly through the energy she put into raising me and my brother and sister, and through the satisfaction she felt before she died, that we’d all grown into adults with a lot of opportunity in life.  It’s always been a mystery to me why my mom, after the divorce, chose to move to a part of town where she’d feel out of step with her neighbors.  It occurs to me now that her choice was deliberate, made so that her kids could see up close the kinds of lives we might lead for ourselves one day.

So, when I saw that mom and her daughter selling lemonade, I thought first of my own family twenty years earlier.  I thought about how, as a kid, I would have been mortified to be selling anything on such public display in front of our house, filled in my own mind with the appearance of grasping at our wealthy neighbors’ quarters.  And, while I have no idea how that mom feels about living in this neighborhood, I hoped that by walking over to say hello, I could make a potentially forbidding place feel a little less so. 

I thought about my mom, too, and the way she might have bounced across the street to buy a cup of lemonade herself, and how she would have talked to that little girl, who is just a year older than Jay.

Looking for peace in a tent

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Saturday evening I looked across my pillow at Jay and thought with complete certainty: I’m going to miss him when he’s asleep.

We were side-by-side in sleeping bags in the backyard, fulfilling a plan that I’d instigated earlier that day by mentioning the existence of a tent, and Jay had hammered into being with repeated pleas that we sleep outside.  Now it was approaching dusk.  Through an open upstairs window I could hear Caroline putting Wally down to sleep.  The air in the tent was thick and familiar and for a moment I was overtaken with contentment.

But Jay didn’t fall asleep and the mood retreated as quickly as it had come.  Ten minutes later he was still awake and I grew impatient.  I was eager to return to my book but I knew Jay wouldn’t have that as long as he was awake.

That book was “Crossing to Safety” by Wallace Stegner, who also wrote “Angle of Repose” which I wrote about enthusiastically this spring.  Eventually Jay did fall asleep, and I opened the book to a scene, halfway through, where two characters, Sid, and Larry, discover a waterfall deep in the Vermont woods.  They dive and swim and return to their wives in camp hours later, invigorated.  But just as they are most flush with life, the story turns: Larry’s wife, Sally, has developed a fever and is getting worse.  Larry concludes the chapter, narrating:

Good fortune, contentment, peace, happiness have never been able to deceive me for long.  I expected the worst, and I was right.  So much for the dream of man.

As I read that with Jay sleeping beside me, I thought about how I’d rather not concur with Larry, but I do.  Through effort it’s possible to achieve and experience great things in life but the last note is always dissolution.  Still, neither that thought nor the hard ground were enough to spoil my happiness as I lay down to sleep myself.

The next morning Jay woke up early, with the birds.  He was grumpy from the get-go. Just after 5am he told me he wanted to go back inside the house.  I told him everyone else was still asleep and we needed to wait but Jay only ratcheted up his whining in reply.  Soon I was completely awake and fully annoyed, feeling aggrieved in a way that I think of as particular though not exclusive to fathers: I just spent the whole night sleeping on the ground for you and this is how you act in response?

The rest of the morning was spotty.  I was tired and grumpy and there were other tired and grumpy people in the house on account of an infant, and twice before he’d even finished his breakfast, Jay broke down crying.  The day was going to be long and I promised multiple times to myself and once out loud (regrettably) that I was never going to sleep in a tent again.

In between the roughness, though, Jay and I had a moment together on the back porch.  It was after breakfast, the sun was out, and he had a fishing pole in his hand.  We took turns pretending to cast out into the yard where the tent stood open and I watched the delight on his face as the pole whipped through the air.

In that moment I thought about the passage from “Crossing to Safety” I’d read the night before.  It still seemed true to me that in most aspects of life, the inevitable direction is down and out: health falters, possessions tarnish, even the greatest professional achievements end up seeming small.

But relationships are different.  My relationship with Jay, like my relationships with Caroline and Wally, can fluctuate  many times in a single day, and it’s hard to hold it in one place for long.  But the overall trend is positive, or at least it can be. I take that to be one of the very most optimistic things about life, that it’s possible to love another person with strength the world can’t undo.