Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Once More to the Lake

We’re in the middle of a heat wave. What can be worse than a heat wave? A dome of heat and humidity hovering over a concrete city.

That’s why at this time of year we all dream about going away. We all have fantasies based upon experiences we had as kids of what a true summer is:

*Lolling about on a hammock
*All day reading on the cot set up on the screened-in porch
*A glass of lemonade, condensation sweating down the sides in rivulets
*Running through a sprinkler—an act so sublime that it has been lost forever I’m afraid to the Water Park
*In a canoe out in the middle of a lake, the cool breezes wafting over you
*how about a peach, a bucket of blueberries, shucking corn, cranking ice cream
*doing nothing, nothing at all

In 1941 E. B. White (he of Charlotte’s Web fame) wrote a small personal essay about returning with his young son to a camp on a lake up in Maine that he had visited during the summer months as a child.

The lake had never been what you would call a wild lake. There were cottages sprinkled around the shores, and it was in farming although the shores of the lake were quite heavily wooded. Some of the cottages were owned by nearby farmers, and you would live at the shore and eat your meals at the farmhouse. That's what our family did. But although it wasn't wild, it was a fairly large and undisturbed lake and there were places in it which, to a child at least, seemed infinitely remote and primeval.

Wow that lake and woods sounds amazing. Through the filter of nostalgia White has woven a paradise. Yet even as he journeys there he worries about how time might have altered the “holy spot” of his memories. Instead of gravel, would the road be tarred? Would the lake be clear and cold and still—or marred by the invention of the outboard motor?

But when I got back there, with my boy, and we settled into a camp near a farmhouse and into the kind of summertime I had known, I could tell that it was going to be pretty much the same as it had been before--I knew it, lying in bed the first morning, smelling the bedroom, and hearing the boy sneak quietly out and go off along the shore in a boat. I began to sustain the illusion that he was I, and therefore, by simple transposition, that I was my father. This sensation persisted, kept cropping up all the time we were there. It was not an entirely new feeling, but in this setting it grew much stronger. I seemed to be living a dual existence.

Whether we have children or grandchildren or a special niece or nephew or “borrow” a friend’s child, we know that human tendency of wanting to show them the kind of fun we had, and in doing this, make it possible to relive our past through them. I used to want to take my girl bike riding until she complained so loudly that I gave up. Seems that she HATED riding her bike. Some things you can’t share. But in White’s essay, he and his son bond over fishing, swimming, pie-eating. For those couple of weeks summer was as he always remembered it. It was like time had stood still. Rare and golden, like a memory. Until one can actually come to believe that they are immortal.

When the others went swimming my son said he was going in too. He pulled his dripping trunks from the line where they had hung all through the shower, and wrung them out. Languidly, and with no thought of going in, I watched him, his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he pulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment. As he buckled the swollen belt suddenly my groin felt the chill of death.

And it is this line: I’ve always remembered from White’s essay, the final word of death. When reality comes rushing in and I realize time has passed. That my parents now in their own twilight, both this July turning 86 and 85. That my daughter, also having a birthday this month, is turning 22. That that summer we vacationed at the lake, the same summer her father got the worst poison ivy imaginable doing GI crawls in wet jeans in thick underbrush, the same summer we had terrible rains and the lake rose up quickly to level with the boat house, and Grandpa and Grandma came down from Galesburg with a picnic and a cake decorated like an American flag, and me, Mom, launched herself from a rock on the rope swing and forgot to let go and swung back and smashed and grazed my arm, letting go to plop and make little eddies of bloody water—that summer, that conflation of many summers we had—are gone.


We can only go there again by some slip of the mind, with strong memory magic. This heat wave I hope once more to go back, once more to the lake.

1 comment:

Sheila said...

Wow! I loved your essay and the quotes from White.

I'm working on revisions for a novel with a time-slip fantasy element that deals with issues of aging, so your post really was relevant.