One night, a month ago, Caroline and I took a walk down the hill from my house. We went to the harbor, walked on the docks, and talked about the best summers we’d had as children. We talked about YMCA summer camp and weeks at the pool, and as we talked, we stood beside a stack of small sailboats that, hours earlier, kids at camp had steered in from the bay. We wondered whether these boats, and Maine, would figure into how Jay and Wally remembered their childhood summers when they were older.
Our time in Maine was wonderful. We arrived in early June, before school had let out, and left in the second week of August, when a few cool nights were just enough to suggest the possibility that the season had begun to turn. For me and Caroline, the summer was a chance to live at an easier pace, after what, in retrospect, had been a stressful second year in Michigan. For Jay and Wally, the summer was most about my stepfather, Papa Bill, who taught them how to pick blueberries, drive a tractor, operate a crab trap, and inflate a dinghy, and who introduced them to the pleasures of whole fat strawberry milk, and fluffernutter sandwiches.
I watched all this and found myself with an unusual feeling, a clearer than usual sense of how I’d like Jay and Wally to feel in their own lives. I think about Jay and Wally a lot, of course. I think about the things they need, the qualities I’d like them to possess, the opportunities I’d like them to have in life. But I don’t often think about how I’d like them to feel, I don’t get down deep to the level of how your body tingles after a truly delightful day, and think: I need to find a way to give that feeling to my boys.
So, I would say this summer gave me a new perspective on Jay and Wally, and on what I want to do for them as their father. Maybe it was because we were all more relaxed, and because my stepfather’s time with the boys allowed me to step back and look at them from more distance. Maybe it was because we lived in the house where I grew up, so that this summer was interwoven with previous summers, which made it easier to project from my own experiences to theirs. When Jay and Wally lay down to sleep at night to the drone of a window fan, I could think: I know what it’s like to be a boy asleep in that same bed, with the same crickets chirping out the window, the same fan breathing cool night air into a warm upstairs room.
We left Maine on a Friday and spent a week driving down the East Coast to South Carolina. We spent the last three days of the trip with Caroline’s parents, in Virginia, where they have a house on a lake. On our last afternoon there, Jay and I went swimming together, and afterwards, lay down beside each other on the dock to dry.
We were on our stomachs, with our heads turned towards each other, our noses only a few inches apart. Drops of water rolled down his cheek. For a few seconds we just looked at each other, and I was filled with the familiar feeling of how much I love him. But I also felt something else. For a moment I glimpsed what it must feel like, for Jay, to have me look at him like that, how good it must make him feel to know that he is that important to someone else.
Summer is over and, as I said in my last post, now we’re swamped with things to do. Empathy is often the first thing to go when you get busy, but I hope that Jay and Wally continue to feel as fully real to me as they have the last two months.