Friday, August 6, 2010

Memory, Menemsha

We're here all together for a week's beach vacation, celebrating my in-laws' fiftieth wedding anniversary -- Gus and Linda, with their kids and grandkids, in a rented house on the Vineyard. We've cooked big meals and eaten on the wide wooden deck overlooking Rhoda's Pond. We have canoed around the brackish lake, bought sunflowers and eggrolls at the farmer's market, and all gone swimming at various beaches. Today was the only rainy day of the week, for all of two hours maybe, so we headed into town to go window-shopping and buy bags of gumdrops and licorice. I watched Abigail ride the Carousel in Oak Bluffs. She looked so focused, studiously grabbed at the rings each time she passed; clearly, she's just as susceptible as I am to the habit of turning life into a project rather than a game. "I got one every time," she told me, proudly. "It was easy. I got a whole big stack."

Tonight we drove to Menemsha, a little fishing town that faces each night's sunset. We ate lobster and steamers and fish tacos together on the porch of a restaurant, surrounded by other big (presumably happy?) families on vacation in their Wellfleet t-shirts and summer tans. It wasn't simply hot, but so stickily warm that we were nearly sweating as we sat still, so the grownups drank Var rosé on ice and the kids downed cups of fresh lemonade.

I write this all down, with every detail fresh in my memory: the taste of the sweet clams in the butter, the rosy shade of the setting sun on our faces, the graying shingles of the houses, the weatherbeaten American flag down at the end of the pier. I write it all down, knowing that this too will pass. It's midsummer now, but on days like this I can't help but remember that it is so much later than I think.

My memory feels to me like it has been fraying a bit at its far edges, for reasons I can only pretend to understand. Whereas once I felt like I never lost anything -- a name, a place, an idea and its origins -- now I sometimes feel like the past is a soap bubble, popping just as I reach for it. I tell myself that the details are dissolving for some reason or another: like the dislocation of all this travel. Like the impossible fullness of a life's experience. Like I'm suddenly here at forty, my brain is old, and there is just too much to recall. Like the new warm swelling of my heart is somehow overcoming the old, cold sharpness of my mind.

We walked down to the end of the pier and looked over the fishing boats, across an uninhabited green spit of sand, and towards the setting sun. This little place was almost impossibly perfect -- not a Disney fake version of a fishing village, but the thing itself. It was messy in places and worn in others, yet still so beautiful it might have been composed by an artist. You could look through one window of a blue-grey shack, entirely hung with fishing lures, through to the window on the other side, and onwards toward the water beyond. At the end of the pier, some awful destroyed hunk of an old building was slowly rusting into the salt water. We ate soft ice-cream-cones by some big grey rocks, but they dripped faster than the kids could keep up. The hot wind blew their hair around and spattered drops of melting ice cream on their shirts and onto the dusty ground.

As I am writing all this, I want to burn it into my memory. It is three hours of one day among the hundreds we have shared together, the thousands over the years, the tens of thousands we can only hope to have if we're as steadfastly lucky and wise as Linda and Gus. Today we have each other in a way that feels perfect. It feels like forever, but as I have started to learn, the best of our days fly away against our will. The sun keeps setting. The kids grow up. We ourselves grow older, and the warm wash of our summer memories together will slosh and dilute and slowly fade away.

And that's only if things go well. Fifty years worth of sunsets is almost too much for anyone to hope for.

I have set up my computer so that every five minutes a new photograph shows up as the screensaver behind whatever I'm doing. There, behind my word processing or pointless internet search emerges one random shot from the over seven thousand images stored away on it. A blue sky and soft blonde grass from a hillside in France. Hayden and Zeke, eating hotdogs on Katie's porch four years ago. A sea of a hundred freezing people at Obama's inaguration. My Dad's seventieth birthday. Mom and Dad's anniversary. Field Day. Full Moon. Christmas morning. Each time a new shot appears, unbidden, I'm back in some other happy memory, some other place elsewhere. Each one is an instant memory, but arrives with the shock of the unfamiliar: How could I ever have forgotten that?

On our drive home, we wound slowly around the twisting North Road through Tisbury, back towards Lambert's Cove. We put on music that made us all happy, bouncing around to Hawaii 5-O and Vida la Viva and eventually Abigail's other favorite, the Black Eyed Peas. As we pulled into the driveway, last summer's inescapable hit was playing. We turned it way up and got out of the car to dance on the lawn under a crabapple tree. When Gus and Linda, Laura and Finn drove up, they danced with us, too, just for a few minutes. The loud song echoed out into the quiet woods. I got a feelin…that tonight's gonna be a good, good night…

That song has played in a whole lot of places, on a whole lot of nights, almost certainly too many, on the whole. But for tonight it was just ours, as we jumped around on the fallen fruit, all three generations dancing together.

We all went inside, and the kids got cleaned up and ready for bed. Abigail read Finn a story, while Grace sat on the sofa with us and giggled. She's been a shaky and tentative these past few days, in the way she sometimes can be, but tonight she was fully herself. Maybe it was the ice cream. Maybe it was the dancing. But we were glad to have her back in full form. We sat together and made plans for our next day, and then all drifted off to our corners of the house to read, or watch a movie, or fall asleep. I haven't been sleeping all that well these past few nights, but the storms and the wind had finally started to cool the house, and as the cold air came in from below and the warm air drifted out the window of our sleeping loft, I fell in. Deep.

Maybe it was an hour. Or two. Or only fifteen minutes, but suddenly I saw Grace standing there, right next to the bed. She was smiling at me, just on the edge of speech. I started to sit up, started to ask her what she needed, and just as the words started to form between us, she dissolved into thin air. A ghost. A trick of sleep. I knew then she was down in her little twin bed, not there in the loft next to mine, but her presence had felt so real. She was there, and just as quickly she was gone.

Like all those memories I never write down. Like all those summer nights. Like all the photographs I never thought to take. Like all of these moments and days and years.


  1. Beautiful, thoughtful, wonder-filled. The lessons are so well-taught, my teaching friend: Live. Here. Now. Write down, record, journal, remember as much as you can, yes - but live it well.

    Fifty years, huh? That would be a lot of sunsets, a lot of ice cream, a lot of dancing to old favorite songs, and so much love. That certainly is the goal, isn't it???

  2. Thank goodness for drippy ice cream cones and fortuitous songs and fish tacos and frayed flags. They're the rainbows on our soap-bubble memory.