Friday, October 7, 2016

Boardwalk ghosts

Our empty, rainy October boardwalk
“Imagine this, buddy, in the middle of summer, especially near the Fourth of July. Wall to wall people, just sort of moving in and out of each other. Flashing lights. Loud music. Screams from Morey’s Pier, laughter on the swirly rides. Oh...and the cream, funnel cake, fudge, cheese steaks, pizza, fries...the smells alone would drive you nuts!” 

It’s 5:00 on the evening before his Nana’s funeral, and we’re standing in a windy drizzle on an empty Wildwood boardwalk. My mind has flashed back to the summer of 1991, when I spent a week here with my best friend. Wicked sunburn. Tandem bike adventures. Water slides. Thrill rides. A ground-shaking thunderstorm. Friendship bracelets. College guys taking showers outside. Ice cream and VCR movies every night.

Back in the here-and-now I’m trying to explain to Zippy what this place is like when it’s not October. He’s been to Rehoboth and Ocean City and Old Orchard Beach, but none of those come anywhere close to Wildwood in peak season. Here the boardwalk stretches for miles and the roller coasters dwarf the ones he's seen in Disney World and Story Land. I can see his eyes and brain trying to fill in the blanks left behind by gated game kiosks and store fronts, the still and silent tilt-a-whirl and locked-tight food stands. 

Summer in Wildwood! 
“Uncle Jack worked at these game kiosks when he was a teenager, and Nana would follow him everywhere, all over the boardwalk and to the bay when he went fishing,” I tell him. “Nana was much younger than Jack. He called her Pinky because she always wore pink. Maybe also because she was sunburned. She’d sneak behind the games and he’d let her play for free sometimes.” Nana smiled with each retelling of these stories, usually working a tattered napkin in her hand after a family meal. She cherished these memories of her brother, her boardwalk, her ocean. 

“Why did Nana follow him everywhere?” Zippy asks. 

“Because she loved him so much and wanted to be with him always.”

“Like me and Happy?” 

“Yep. Uncle Jack watched out for Nana like Happy watches out for you,” I explain. “And Nana probably bugged him sometimes, too.”

“Yeah, probably. What does Uncle Jack look like now?” Zippy asks, and I realize he’s never met his great-uncle. 

“Hmm. Like the man version of Nana, actually.” I smile at how clever I am, but also because it’s true. They look just alike, speak with the same inflections, even walk with a similar tilt and shuffle.

“Does he have blue eyes like Nana?”

“Yep, and like you,” I reply.

Nana's and Uncle Jack's boardwalk
Zippy is silent, looking around the boardwalk. We’re walking in the opposite direction now, heading back toward the pizza place to meet up with his cousins. I’m feeling nostalgic. My inner Jersey Girl is beaming. I’ve never been much of a boardwalk person, but you have to admit: Wildwood is like nothing else. I make a pact with myself that we'll bring them back here in the summer, and soon.

“Mama,” Zippy whispers. He’s holding tight to my hand as we lean into the drizzle and wind. “I would be really sad if Happy died like Nana did.” We stop walking and I squat down to his eye level. I have no words. He wraps his arms around my neck, and we just hold each other. A seagull stops a few feet away, cocks its head to the side, susses us out.

“I know, baby. Happy is your best friend. And you’re his.” There is nothing else to say. 

“Uncle Jack must be so sad today,” he says in his matter-of-fact tone. 

I stand up and he leans his head against my belly. I hear him sniffle, but I think it’s mostly because of the wind and rain, not tears. He’s empathizing but still so pragmatic. We walk toward the pizza place, the last remaining light on the boardwalk. Zippy's holding my hand, then bouncing to Happy, then skipping a little between us both. I can't see much of anything now because of the rain droplets on my glasses, but "watch the tram-car, please" repeats from the corner of my brain. One of the many ghosts accompanying us now. I swear I can smell cotton candy, too.

Zippy stops so abruplty I almost trip over him. His face tilts up at me, he juts his arms up over his head like he's trying to catch the wind. 

“I think me and little-kid Nana would have had fun here.” 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Summer in Maine is...

  • Tank tops by day, hoodies by night 
  • Air so rich with strawberry smells that you stop smack in the middle of the Monument Square farmers market and giggle; the "tomato bar" in late August elicits the same response
  • Arms stained tie-dye red-purple-orange from the popcicles you slurp on the front porch; the house won't cool down until the sun sets 
  • Slow weekend mornings -- cold brew coffee, a book, a blanket, a patch of grass overlooking the sailboat-dotted harbor
  • Gigantic 10-story cruise ships, teeming streets, no parking spaces, buskers on every corner, impossibly long restaurant waits, a people-watching bonanza
  • Seagulls brazenly eyeing your fries as you pick apart lobsters the rocks at Two Lights Lobster Shark, laughing as the butter and salt water ooze down our forearms
  • Clouds that build and blow through a deep blue sky, mirrored in the lake we're floating on; reach your head back far enough, and it's easy to lose the distinction between water and sky.
  • Acrid charcoal-roasting meaty smells from all directions while you roast marshmallows and swat bugs around the backyard fire pit (some skunky weed-smoking smells around, too)
  • A house full of loved ones, visiting for long stretches of time...but never long enough
  • Kayak afternoons on the Scarborough Marsh, sunburn and solitude, cormorants perched on the directional sign like paid employees of the Audubon Society
  • Day drinking on the Maine Brew Bus, soaking in the local craft brew culture but quickly realizing that you haven't been so drunk at 2:30 in the afternoon in, oh, 20 years
  • Humidity so thick and enduring the back towels never really dry out
  • Hermit crabs skittering over your toes at Kettle Cove; try not to giggle when covered in tiny crab feet
  • Seaside sunset picnic with colors so rich you can't even speak...a moon that rises in cartoon-huge proportion over the sea...then mosquitoes that swarm so fast you have to spring to the car
  • White chocolate lavender ice cream at Bayley's, kids dancing on the patio, smiling sweetly thinking "we live in Vacationland!"

Every summer, around Memorial Day, we make a poster like this one to remind us of all the epic, action-packed, super-fun we plan to have in the few brief weeks between June and September. This summer was one for the books, for sure, in good and bad ways. I'm smiling now as I realize that we managed to do just about everything on this year's Summer Fun poster, as well as some stuff we hadn't really counted on. And now it's time to draft the Fall/Winter Fun poster... 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Middle school is happening! Some words for my big boy.

Well, here we are. Middle school. We knew it was coming, yet it still feels so big. So intimidating. So exciting. Yes, my love, I'm just as nervous as you are. Maybe more so because I've lived through middle school and I'm reveling (roiling?) in my own memories now. We've talked a lot recently, sort of casually, about what this transition means. But there are so many more things I want to tell you...

Choose friends who make you happy. And try to see them every day, even if just passing in the hall. Friends will be more important to you than ever now. You'll be meeting so many new people these next few weeks, and you'll likely want to cling to the people you know already. That's okay; you need security in times of transition. I hope you'll open up to new people, too -- people who have similar interests and humor, people who recognize how amazing you are and support you. (And get their phone numbers so you can spend time outside of school!)

Be as smart as you are. Never hide from your intelligence, but don't worry about knowing everything, either. Ask questions. Seek answers. Challenge ideas you don't agree with. You are good enough just as you are -- in fact, you are just right -- but I want you to push yourself further. This is where school work starts to count. I will always remind you to work hard, sometimes gently, sometimes not so much. Just know that when I push, it's not because I want you to be better, it's because I want you to have the best opportunities as you grow and spread your wings.

First day of 6th grade
Explore new things. This is a perfect time to find what speaks to your heart! Even if it's nerdy. Remember what I told you about what it means to be a nerd? It means you're all in. When you find something that's interesting or brings out your gifts, jump into it with both feet. Don't worry about what other people say. Chess club is cool when it's your thing. So is drama, art, comics, football, yearbook, roller skating -- whatever it is, do it with gusto.

Trust your instincts. Even if it means saying no or risking embarrassment, or even if you worry your friends won't agree. You have a kind heart and a smart mind. These two things will never let you down. If something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't, so walk away. And know you can always call Mom or Dad for help, no matter what.

Mind the internet. It is a public place. And permanent. What you post online can and will be seen by many people, and you can't always control what people see, say, or share about your online activity. The internet is a wonderful tool for research, communication, connection, creativity. But it also brings out the nasty in people. Only your notebook -- old fashioned pencil and paper -- is private. Write whatever you want in it. That's the best way to get to know yourself.

Be kind. Always, to everyone. But especially to tall, awkward girls who will crave your attention because you're tall, handsome, and funny. Resist the urge to say things like "Ew, gross" when you find out a girl likes you. You don't have to like them back, of course, but remember kindness before coolness.

Don't be the stinky kid. Hygiene matters! Toothpaste, deodorant, face soap. These are all very important.

Stay organized. Locker, backpack, planner, bedroom. Create your own system if you have to, but have a system. I promise you, organizing your space and your mind will help you stay calm and feel in control when things around you seem chaotic.

Remember your brother looks up to you. In all you say, all you do, first ask yourself if you'd want to hear or see your brother doing it, too.

Enjoy time alone whenever you can. I know our house is small and space is limited, but I will respect and protect your need to be alone. I promise to not take it personally if you don't want to join us on family outings. You're going to want to pull away from us a bit over the next few years, and that's completely normal and expected; I will try my best to remember that. (Just be prepared for me to ask "Everything okay?" about a hundred times a week. And probably hug you or stare at your face more often. You know I will.)

Remember you are loved. So very much. By your mom and dad, your brother, your grandparents and aunts and uncles, your friends near and far. And you're a child of God, who watches over you and loves you and will be your strength and shield whenever you feel nervous, afraid, or hurt. We love you unconditionally -- no matter what.

Don't pay attention to people who warn you about how hard middle school is, or say things like "oh god! Never again!" Life is what you make of it. My mom told me this over and over, and I'll remind you too. Middle school will be amazing because you'll make it amazing, my happy handsome boy. You're totally ready to rock it!

Know, as well, that at the end of every day, no matter what happens -- good and bad -- your family is here waiting to celebrate, kvetch, hug, laugh, and recharge with you. Always. 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Take me to the sea: A poem for our mothers

This is a week of bittersweet milestones, dates on which we may celebrate and grieve simultaneously. My mother, Carol, would have turned 67 this week. My mother-in-law, Kathleen, would have turned 75 just a few days later. We took one Mom's ashes to the sea 19 years ago; we'll take one Mom's ashes to the sea in a few weeks. We'll celebrate their legacies of love, family, resilience, and laughter; but we will always grieve the empty spaces that won't fill in. They've both gone too soon.

Happy asked me recently why we take the remains of our loved ones to the ocean when they die. He and I were floating on boogie boards in the North Atlantic at the time, near a sheltered beach called Kettle Cove, a serene and lovely Maine-poastcard beach. My first response was, "Because that's what they wanted." 

He was quiet, plaintive, mulling it over. "But why?" 

I thought of my mother, my grandmother and grandfather, so many childhood memories that floated on water. I thought of my mother-in-law, who reminded me any time I felt nerves, "Go to my ocean, Tori, you'll feel better. My ocean will never harm you." 

When I looked at my son's sweet face, carefree and buoyed on the sea, the true significance struck: Water surrounds us. Water sustains us. Water makes us. Water is life. 

And water is eternal. The water around us now is the water that's been around us for ages. It cycles. Forever and ever, sea to sky to rain to earth and back again. 

This refrain sounded in my mind, and I repeated it for Happy: "All the water in the world is all the water in the world." We smiled thinking of our mothers and grandmothers keeping us afloat at that very moment, soon to be watching us from a cloud high above and washing back to earth to feed the apple trees...then do it all over again. 

We take them to the sea to be free, my love, as I hope you'll take me someday. First we cry. Then we drift. We sip water and regain our strength; we nurture one another. We grow. We love. Over and over again.

Take me to the sea: A poem for our mothers

Take me to the sea, my child,
Release me to the deep
Where I will be
Forever free.
Floating pulsing surging love
In the cycle of water
And life without end.

All the water in the world is all the water in the world.
I will float on the tides,
Evaporate into the clouds
Then soar above you on a breeze
Finally free.

You’ll see me blinking
Past sun and moon
Shimmer of stars
Until I rain down
Gentle cooling soaking love
To wash away your pain
To feed the earth and float on again.

All the water in the world is all the water in the world.
So I am all around you now,
You will know peace, my child,
Now I am the sea, the sea is me.
And I am free.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Kayak mind drift

My mind drifts across Scarborough Marsh. No to do list. No schedule to keep. No children chattering. I’m alone. Sunshine on my face. Wind in my hair. Nothing between me and the sea but a bright red plastic shell. Nothing to focus on but this paddle in my hands.

Paddle left. Paddle right. Paddle left. Pull the water with your waist. Suck in your tummy. Paddle right. Keep your back straight. Push your feet into the foot wells. Paddle left. Paddle right. Oh we’re moving now. Into the wind. Over the chop. Paddle right. Cross the current. Paddle left. Use your back, not just your arms. Paddle right. Paddle left. Pull. Pull. Pull. Pull.

The tide is coming up. There’s more wind today than usual. The bow of the boat bounces over the choppy waves. My hat blows off. The laminated map on a lanyard around my neck whips my cheeks. Why do they give me this map anyway? It’s not like there’s much more than some twisting branches of water between marsh grass, a bridge, the sea. I can’t see beyond the next bend anyway. But I suppose we never really can.

Is that an egret or a heron? Long curved neck over the marsh grass, gracefully stalking her lunch.  I float closer. I won’t reach for my camera. Don’t want to startle her. Silence. Air. Ripples. She checks me, dives her yellow-speer beak into the water, comes up with a fish and flies off. All in one motion. But she doesn’t go far. She’s just as aware of me as I am of her. We’re both curious.

My right hand dips into the water. Cool and smooth. What’s on the bottom? Smile thinking of my mom jumping off a dock into thigh-high seaweed to pull me to shore on my first solo sailing venture. She loved me so much she'd walk through even that muck to pull me in!

I flash back to Great South Bay. I’m 7 years old, stowed in the hold of Grampa’s 22-foot sailboat with Nate; we’re nervously slurping salt from our life jacket straps while the adults scamper and yell on deck. We have to stay out of their way until we’re away from the dock. Once under way, I crawl out the hatch onto the bow, lie on my stomach with my arms overboard. My fingers rip through the water. Cool and smooth. Sun-kissed and mesmerized. Loved and protected. No worries on the bay.

Now I’m on the Sunfish with my Mom, about 12 years old. Just before I started to dislike her so fiercely, just before we fought like cats daily. She’s teaching me to sail the little 2-person boat; I’m once again nervously sucking the salt-water life jacket straps, hanging on every instruction. The rest of the family -- Dad, Nate, baby Robyn -- is on Grampa’s boat nearby, keeping watch on us as we tack across to the beach.

Mom never looked so young as she did that afternoon, so happy with me. I glimpse the girl she once was -- sun-tanned and squinting, cut-off denim shorts revealing those gorgeous long legs, confidence in her abilities to read the wind and waves. She’s beautiful. I’m awed. She shifts her position in the cockpit, hands me the rudder and sail line. She smiles and says, “You know what to do. Feel the wind.” And like that, I’m sailing.

She wants to teach me to handle a capsize -- an important and early lesson to learn on a small boat -- plus it’s hot. We want to cool off. So we flip the Sunfish on its side. We’re laughing as we right it, totally in control floating on the gentle wake of a passing speedboat. Suddenly, a splash from nearby. Dad has jumped off Grampa’s boat! He’s swimming toward us. He’s not a strong swimmer, anxious about open water. But he thinks we’re in trouble and doesn’t even consider his water worry.

Dad would be anxious about me now, too, out here alone on a kayak with no one around but a snowy egret and some sleek black cormorants. I wish I could convince him to try this with me when he visits next week. I know, though, it would not be relaxing for him. He’d do it. He’d do anything for me, for any of us. Yet he’d be worried the whole time. “Once your kids are adults,” he once told me, “You worry exponentially more.”

Not today, though. It’s just me and this marsh today. These crystal bay memories. These birds. Paddle left. Paddle right. Paddle left. The wind is at my back now, but my hat is long gone. Surely the spots on my face will darken now, the creases around my eyes will deepen as I squint into the sun. Ha! That doesn't matter now. Paddle right. Cross the current. Paddle left. Relax your grip. Keep your center. Paddle right. Paddle left. Pull. Pull. Pull. Pull.