Summer is over. Alas. And hooray. On Friday I took my children to Orchard Beach, which has sometimes been called the Riviera of the Bronx. Well, maybe - if you’re not counting the already-peeled bananas washing ashore, or the fact it’s not hosting a film festival, or toplessness. Nevertheless, it turned out to be a perfect, poetic bookend for our excursion to Brighton Beach at the other end of the city, back in June, just as we were beginning to acknowledge the first warm wisps of summer’s endless promise.
Because that’s how it starts, the sprinklers spurting unexpectedly around our neighborhood, the children (and some of the adults as well) afforded more, and longer, euphemistically-named free periods (“enrichment”, “extra-yard”, “staff appreciation”), and lists getting scribbled with all of the things we’re finally able to get around to now that our weekdays are not taken up with school, or discouraging weather, or inflated expectations of our (and others’) productivity. Finally! This vast, open canvas to express our enthusiasm at being parents, and no excuses not to paint.
Every year this happens, and yet I am still at a loss to reconcile the euphoria of these opportunities afforded by the calendar, the weather, the relative flexibility of my professional situation, and the hint of disappointment which inevitably follows when I (and my family) are not as infinitely enterprising as we guessed. That is the problem with summer: we cannot measure up. When we set ourselves this time to be different for two months than we are for the rest of the year, then who is it we’re expecting to welcome back in September – the sort of sallow, harried scribbler who always seems a little in over his head, or someone perceptibly changed?
Pity the children, who are expected to practically turn into a different kind of butterfly every time we’re not looking; I suspect the liabilities of this parallel season are even doubled when they return to their regularly scheduled lives, to a different class, a different school, a different neighborhood, and everyone else seems grown up. In Garmann’s Summer, a six year old boy spends much of his summer visiting with three old aunts who are not long for this world, and not overly worried about what awaits them. He buries a sparrow. He pulls at his teeth – still not loose – and frets about the twins next door who can ride bicycles and read and spell backwards, and shed teeth with impressive regularity. But of course he is changed - from contemplating ladybugs and tunneling in the hedges, from chats with his mother and father, and from waving goodbye to the boat carrying his aunts to wherever and (maybe) forever. The greatest and most permanent transformations usually happen where no one else can see, and they are an awesome responsibility, summer or not.
We look to summer for perspective sometimes also, and in this it probably does not hurt to find some geographical distance between the lives we have chosen for our relentless forward progress and some quieter location – at the beach, in the mountains, near a vineyard – where we hope to shift down into neutral. Still, some of us remain, forever hoping and scribbling, and taking really noisy subways further uptown than we’re accustomed, and further downtown, and almost out of town, in search of whatever cheaper entertainments we will probably remember more fondly than they merited. From Brighton Beach and its execrable (but memorable!) pickled watermelon to the improbable landfill of Governor’s Island with its unparalleled views and wistful junkyard mini-golf (the 16th hole an inexorable funnel “because everybody needs a break!”) From the High Line, reclaimed and re-sculpted from an abandoned railroad platform, and recently so crowded with tourists you’d think Beyoncé was handing out Twinkies, to a Czech Beer Garden in Astoria where it was only us, the midday sun, and a slightly baffled looking waitress. The Tea Lounge in Park Slope. Botanical Gardens. Tattoo parlor. Wang Chen’s Ping Pong Parlor. Roller hockey near the band shell. Emergency room at Roosevelt. Chinatown: frogs in a bucket, dragon fruit, swords.
We live in this city, and we are lucky of course, though its infinite promise can mirror the summer’s, and I would be lying if I did not acknowledge all of the tilting and griping and bickering that surrounded the highlights, the walking in circles, the fifty-something bucks we spent traveling to the top of the stupid Empire State Building, the heat, the lines, the scolding:
“This is not a race!”
“Stick down! Do you hear me? Or one of us is going to end up in the emergency room!”
Also I have the regrettable habit of following every snippy advisory with the word “Sweetie,” so much that entire chapters of our summer conceivably sounded like:
eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee – ”
And yet. And yet. From where I am sitting right now, in this Starbucks, somewhere briefly as far as I can get from my family (the East Village) at the beginning of the end of this season that seems to have started when I was back in my thirties - from here I have already begun to even cherish the memory of that emergency room visit, and suppose it is part of the optimism that comes with sharing one’s experiences – any experiences - with a family. And I suppose that it’s probably incurable.
A Drive in the Country tells of cramming the car full of drinks and snacks and “jars for keeping unusual bugs.” It remembers the smell of a skunk, the sight of a crawdad sleeping, of minnows racing between your legs, a store with wooden shelves stocking arrowheads and doughnuts and licorice and jars of piccalilli (“whatever that is”), milkweed collecting on a fence, graveyards, license plates. The boy (or the author), falls asleep, and when he opens his eyes it takes him a minute to figure out they are home:
“That right here is where I live, and that wherever in the world we’ve been today, the only place we wanted to go was Together, just our family, and a Sunday drive in the country took us there.”
It’s a mysterious business, the relationship between the consolations we ask from a minute or an hour, and the ways we decide to remember them. Pictures From Our Vacation is a book about both: the desultory photographs in a notebook meant to document one family’s often rainy, sometimes tedious pilgrimage back to the old family farm to visit with relatives, and the very different pictures that continue to linger from all of those times when they were too busy to fiddle with the camera.
Because what we remember isn’t always so photogenic, in fact it isn’t often what we saw. My son, who is entering Second Grade on Wednesday, has taken to relentlessly picking out the Empire State Building from the skyline, from wherever we are, no matter what other fascinating subject is emanating from my face. The Empire State Building of all things! This, though his father made quite a little stink about having to pay extra for the map (eight bucks!) plus the view from the street – whether Chinatown or Orchard Beach – has very little to do with the one that we paid for. Is it, I wonder, a consequence of anything he has actually learned from our travels? Of scale? Or myopia? He desperately needs glasses, so perhaps he is only amazed to be able to pick anything out these days from a distance. I don’t know.
But I’m glad. At least something got stuck in that rear view mirror, and I hope it’s not blurred by my screeching. We need to get on with things though. It’s time. And I cannot help thinking right now as I go out shopping for rulers and pencil cases and Five-Star Notebooks and Gallon Ziploc Bags (does anyone know of a good Rite Aid in the East Village?); I cannot help thinking ahead to the next time I’ll be doing this, when my kids will be entering Third Grade and high school, for heaven’s sake! When whole countries have probably been invaded, when I have answered phone calls from the principal’s office, and accumulated more than my fair share of awkward moments, more stitches, maybe a tattoo, when people I know have died or gotten sick and gotten better, and we’ve made it – together - no matter where we are coming back from, though I hope that’s Tahiti and not Coney Island.