Monday, August 8, 2011

Recent Travels: First Stop

This summer's vacation took us to upstate New York, Boston, East Greenwich, RI, Litchfield Ct., and Winchester, Va.  It's always good to do things in the right order, and this time we hit it just about right.  First stop: my brother's house, which perches above a small lake where the Colgate University crew practice.  My brother has a pontoon boat that putts happily around the lake, and I love being out on the water.  Truth to tell, I prefer a lake to the ocean.  Oceans are so infinite and ultimately threatening.  Excepting the Great Lakes, a lake tends to lap the shore gently and smells comfortingly of water, rotting plant life, and boat fumes.  This may sound like an unpleasant combination, but when I smell it and feel the wind in my face, I am young again and anything seems possible.

For us, a couple of days hanging out on my brother's deck was a wonderful respite from the deadly heat in NC.  It had been hot in Hamilton too, but fortunately it cooled down in time for our stay.  Global warming is changing everything, as this summer's droughts, floods, storms, and heat waves attest.  Human beings' long history has been witness to many climate changes, and people have had to adapt in order to thrive, if not to survive.  The Thames used to freeze solid, and the Sahara used to be under water.  Nothing stays the same.  But sitting among the trees that shelter my brother's house, I felt the past--both my brother's and mine--as a presence that I could see out of the corner of my eye.

My brother had a cache of old family photographs, most of which I hadn't seen before, strangely enough.  Together we pored over them, recalling long-dead relatives, our own childhoods, and an America where cars had running boards and swim suits were made of wool.  One photograph in particular sticks in my mind.  It shows my father lying prone on a diving board that projects from a lakeside dock.  Hanging from his arms, with her feet just grazing the water, is my mother.  They both look so young, this photo must have been taken when they were in college.  My dad looks much as I  always think of him, except his hair is dark.  My mother, though, seems a different person from the one I knew.  Here, caught in a playful moment where she literally depends from my father, she is a slender sprite.  Will he continue to hold her, perhaps pull her up beside him?  Or will he let her go into the water?  My mother never really learned to swim; the water was an alien environment for her, and I imagine the thrill of fear, hilarity, and love she must have felt at that moment.

When I observe young people today, I am conscious of what lies ahead for them: the pains and joys of parenthood, the anxiety over career and money, the pressure of never having enough time.  Imagining my mother as one of those hopeful kids, with a World War, seriously ill children, and a year in Afghanistan no one could have predicted all ahead of her, I feel a lurch.  It is as if I were seeing her as my own daughter.

My brother moves more slowly now than he used to.  He nods off as I continue riffling through our shared family history, and I try not to disturb him.  My big brother.  My hero when I was a child, my advocate when I was an unhappy teenager, my friend when I most needed one.  I feel time nudging us from behind, and I want to say, "Stop!"  I want to stop the reel of memory from spinning; I want memory to be more than a black and white photo or a whisper of an emotion once felt.  I want to say everything I know I won't say, because to do so would be to admit mortality, and I can't do that.

And so we embrace and laugh and say goodbye until next time.  I never lived in Hamilton myself, but I spent a lot of time there over the years, so much so that I almost feel it as a kind of home and am struck by how much the familiar can be so exclusive.  In the end, I know I don't belong there, don't even want to, but leaving seems to pull something precious out of my hands.

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