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“Back Then”

Audio: Mary Grimm reads.

Every year the Perseids came, splashing down from the top of the sky, and every year we begged our parents to let us go down to the lake by ourselves to see them. Every year they said no, and we sat on the narrow beach at the end of the ferry parking lot, our parents, my sister and I, and some of our girl cousins, whichever of them had come with us that year. The lake would be black, and the sky blacker. If there were waves, the curl of the foam was gray. The summer colors of our clothes were bleached out as if we were in an old movie, and we sat there waiting for the next shooting star, the next, the next. We’d read about the Perseids myth in the encyclopedia, but we pretended that they were sisters instead of brothers. The water sucked and slopped against the rocks. Sometimes there was the low rumble of thunder or the hum of a motorboat, its tiny lights crossing far out from west to east. Some years there were only twenty or thirty falling stars for our trouble, but other years they came hard and fast, as if someone were throwing them at the lake like handfuls of pebbles. In our private mythology, this meant that something wonderful was going to happen, that there would be a marvel, if we were ready to see it.

One summer, when my sister was little, still a baby but beginning to walk and making sounds that were like words, our grandmother came with us to the cottage. She had her own room, the one in the middle, with a furnace in the corner that was never turned on. The very idea of the furnace was ridiculous, for it was still midsummer, all the bright weeks of August spread out before us. I was four and a half, an elder stateswoman of a sibling, always ready to show off how superior I was to my sister when it came to eating with a fork and politely saying hello to strangers. And running—she couldn’t run at all. She couldn’t throw a rock as far as the water or pick a flower without mashing it in her fist. She was good, though, at covert behavior. Every afternoon, when our grandmother was taking a nap, she would go into her room and hide behind the furnace to pee in the corner. Maybe my grandmother didn’t want to get my sister into trouble, or maybe she found this behavior amusing; every day she wiped it up. She didn’t tell our mother until the last day of the vacation.

The cottage was one of several owned by Mrs. Brown, who always wore a men’s gray sweater and a men’s hat. She lived in a brick house across from the cottages, and had a tiny garden planted with strange, flesh-colored flowers that had no foliage. She walked stiffly, stumping along with her cane, sometimes stopping to poke it at something on the lawn or in the flower beds. She spoke only to our mother, politely ignoring our father and us children. Once, when I had sneaked out of the cottage in the early morning, I ran into her by the pool. She was skimming mayflies from the surface of the water, using a broom and a soup ladle. She held up a finger when she saw me, as if she were going to tell me something, a secret, and I waited to see what it would be. The morning was drenched with dew and the trees were dripping with it so that it sounded as if it were raining, although the sky was bright blue. My sneakers were wet. She kept her finger up as she spilled a ladleful of mayflies into a coffee can. When she finished, she said, “Are you a girl or a boy?” I knew the answer to this and told her, which made her shake her head. I was pleased by her confusion.

Every morning we kids walked to the store to buy a newspaper for our father. We walked across the lawn and down the road, which was haphazardly paved, with chicory growing in a border of unevenly sized gravel. We went past our set of cottages, and then past another, which looked much the same as ours but was indefinably inferior. We crossed the street to the yard where a goat lived, but he was never there in the morning. There was a field where weeds and wildflowers and scrubby trees grew, and then the parking lot of the store. We wore flip-flops, and the sound of them slapping against our heels kept time for us. At the store, we chose the Cleveland paper from among the others, exotic editions from Port Clinton and Sandusky and Toledo, and stood in line to pay for it. On the way back, the sun was hotter, and we began to dream of swimming.

The cottages were called the Rocking Chair Cottages, because the cove at the end of the road was Rocking Chair Cove. Was this because the shore of the cove was curved (some might say) like the bent wood that makes a rocking chair rock? We didn’t know. We knew the beach of Rocking Chair Cove, which we called the Rocky Beach, to distinguish it from the Sandy Beach, which was farther down the road and could only be reached by car. The Rocky Beach was no more than a ten-minute walk from the cottages, even if we dawdled, or had to run back to get a beach towel, or someone got a pebble stuck in her sandal and had to stand on one foot to remove it. We thought of it as our beach. It sat alongside Route 53, and followed the shape of the peninsula west. People who drove to the Rocky Beach parked on the edge of the asphalt, one set of tires partly on the road, the other on the Rocky Beach rocks.

The walk to the beach passed the yard with the goat (who might or might not be there, tethered by a rope to a stake driven into the grass) and the ferry parking lot, and then the trailer court that occupied the tip of Catawba Point. From the road, you could see between the trailers, which to our perpetual amazement had marked-out yards—for how strange was it that someone would plant petunias around a trailer or border its territory with multicolored rocks or a phalanx of miniature American flags, when the trailer was by nature temporary and might be driven away at any time? Sometimes you could see into the trailer windows, to the murky, half-lit inner spaces with shadowy shapes that we could hardly parse as tables or chairs, so unfamiliar did they seem. The walk alongside the trailer park felt very long, for by now we could see the water, blue and glittering, ahead of us, the bright rim of the lake, which tantalized us as we got hotter and more dusty. Our burdens grew heavier: we each had to carry our own towel (red-and-white striped) and inner tube, which became more slippery and unwieldy with each step. Our mother carried the other essentials: a comb, an undershirt for my sister to wear (because she burned easily), Kleenex, Band-Aids, an extra towel (for inevitably someone’s towel fell into the water), her sun hat. Did she carry a book with her, or a magazine? We would never have thought so, for we assumed that she looked only at us, splashing and screaming for her to watch us do what we did in the water. Our aunt came with us, too, and sometimes our grandmother. She arrived in the car, and was set up under the Rocky Beach’s solitary tree, the legs of her chair jammed in among the rocks for stability. She never wore a bathing suit (the very idea was shocking) but instead sat in her regular clothes, a capacious flowered dress and black lace-up shoes over flesh-colored stockings.

We would have been entirely happy to have a week of days that were exactly the same: to get up in the morning, have breakfast, and walk to the Rocky Beach for our morning swim, and then, after lunch, jump into the pool for our afternoon swim. Every night we went down the road to the frozen-custard stand. We chose chocolate or vanilla (or, daringly, a twist that combined them), and we walked on, across the road and through the ferry’s auxiliary parking lot, to the Sunset Rocks, where we sat, our bottoms resting comfortably in a glacial groove scored into the limestone ten thousand years earlier, to watch the sun settle onto the horizon while frozen custard dripped down our wrists. Every day, every day: sometimes I imagined that our feet left visible tracks, tracks that would glow if you had the right sort of glasses. If that were so, the roads around the Rocking Chair Cottages would have been incandescent with light.

But maybe our mother feared the consequences of our boredom, and so she made arrangements to give some variety to the week. On the first rainy day (or on Wednesday, whichever came first), we went to Port Clinton, the nearest town of any size (although that size was small), to shop. For the rest of the year, we had been saving money in a brass pirate’s trunk that sat on my dresser at home, with the express intention of blowing it all in our vacation week. Port Clinton probably had many enticements and pleasures, but we ignored them all in favor of the dime store, a Woolworth’s with a slightly shady air and a creaky wooden floor, where we could buy kites and paper fans and miniature tea sets.

On Friday, the last day, we went to the Heidi Shop, a minuscule cottage where you could buy souvenirs, many of them breakable. The Heidi Shop was to us then what a trip to New York City or Paris might be now, its glass shelves full of trinkets, crystals, charms (to add to our bracelets), china animals, brass lighthouses, wind chimes, miniature musical instruments, wooden dolls wearing bonnets. Every year the stock was the same, every year the owner of the Heidi Shop (when we were small we thought her name was Heidi but, in fact, it was Bette) pretended to remember us and exclaimed at how we’d grown. Every year we bought treasures that we took home and set on our dressers to remind us of summer. All these things are gone now, and since I can’t believe that we’d ever have thrown them away, their disappearance has to have been caused by some process of time, some force that disintegrates and fragments fragile things when we’re not looking, when we forget to look.

Our mother also organized events, like the Miss America pageant, which took place the summer I was thirteen and my sister was ten. The girl cousins who had come that year also participated, along with a couple of girls from two cottages down. The audience consisted of our parents, our aunt, Mrs. Brown, the parents of the two girls, and several rowdy boys, who cheered and whistled at inappropriate times. My mother’s vision of the Miss America pageant was minimalist. There was no swimsuit competition—we had already seen one another in swimsuits every day, after all. No evening gowns. No minor awards, such as Miss Congeniality. The pageant was reduced to what she considered its essentials: the talent competition and the interview, which she conducted herself. My sister, who was then angelically blond, won, after singing “Bicycle Built for Two” in a patriotic costume (one of the red-and-white striped towels slung over her like a toga). My grievance at not winning was private and intense. Wasn’t I the oldest? Hadn’t the rowdy boys cheered louder for my talent, which was whistling like a somewhat demented bird? My mother had artfully fashioned a crown out of tinfoil and draped it with one of her necklaces to give it a bit of glitz. I drowned my sorrows in cherry Kool-Aid, and went to confer with the boys on the other side of the pool, where we ganged up on one of them, naming him Rick the Ratty Raunchy Ratfink, which, we decided, would be his nickname for all time.

I was thirteen, as I said, and something was going on with me, in my head or outside it. I had got my hair cut short only two weeks before. My mother had taken me to her hairdresser, whose name was Tawney; it was the first time that someone other than my mother had cut my hair. The chair I was ushered to was mechanically intimidating, with levers that made it rise and sink. I sat and was whirled to face the mirror and swathed in a pink cape. “She wants a trim,” my mother said in a hushed voice, and Tawney received this confidence with a nod. I’d expected that my mother would watch while I got my hair cut, but she left, saying that she had to pick something up. Tawney and I looked at each other in the mirror, her scissors poised. “I want it short,” I said, and, bound by some hairdressers’ code, she complied, although she must have known that my mother had not meant for her to trim off eight inches. When my mother came back, the longest part of my hair was the bangs. Tawney had teased two locks in front of my ears, like sideburns. My neck was itchy with freedom.

When we were little, we had had an hour of enforced rest between lunch and the afternoon swim, so that we wouldn’t get cramps and die in the water. It wasn’t clear to any of us what cramps were or how they would kill us. Probably our mother just needed a rest from our endless demands, our ceaseless movement. When we were too old for naps, we had “quiet time.” Books were permitted, but nothing active, not so much as a box of crayons. By the time I was thirteen and my sister ten, it was understood that we would simply stay out of the way for the hour that kept us from drowning. The something that was going on in my head made me want to avoid my sister and our cousins, and I spent a lot of these hours fooling around behind the cottages. There was nothing there but an expanse of gravel and a set of sagging clotheslines on which cottage dwellers hung their wet swimsuits and towels. Beyond the gravel were the inferior cottages, separated from us by a low white fence. The fence suggested that the space it enclosed was potentially a special one, but the yard belonging to those cottages was shabby and neglected, unworthy of protection. The gravel had migrated into the grass, which must have made it hard to mow—it was long, at least shin-high. There were objects in the yard—a tin pail, a bicycle wheel, a naked baby doll—scattered in no particular pattern, almost as if someone had stood at one end of the yard and thrown them out, their landing spot depending on the strength of that someone’s arm. When I loitered by the clotheslines, I spied on those cottages, hoping for something—I didn’t know what.

That year, two of our cousins had come with us, Janet and Sandy, who carried with them the delight of slight unfamiliarity: we didn’t see them often, because they lived farther away from us than our other cousins. They took ballet lessons, and in the summer they went to the pool down the road from their house every day, and therefore had tans. They could do cartwheels. They each had a boyfriend, even though Sandy, the younger of them, was only twelve years old. None of these things seemed available to or attainable by my sister and me. We were both uncoördinated: no cartwheels, no ballet. We couldn’t tan; our mother disapproved of it. We were forbidden to date until we were sixteen. They wore two-piece swimsuits, which, if not bikinis, still showed their navels. Need I say more?

At the end of the summer I would be starting high school. I wrote in my diary that year that I wanted to study etymology, though I had an imperfect idea of what that was. I thought it was a kind of philosophy, a field of knowledge that would reveal all the secret things that held the universe together. I was always looking then to explain everything, looking for meaning behind the ruddy, cheerful, rule-bound world I knew. Before I started kindergarten, my mother had explained (as mothers do) that bad things happened, and that there were bad people (men) that I had to watch out for, but she hadn’t explained why. That summer, nine years later, it still wasn’t clear to me, despite all the talk of good and evil at our Catholic school. I almost yearned for them, the bad things, so strong was my desire to know.

The night after the Miss America pageant, we went to the frozen-custard stand, a boisterous gang of kids kept barely in check by the presence of my mother and my aunt. When we were younger, my sister and I had often wished that Janet and Sandy were our sisters. But now I’d found myself getting tired of them halfway through the vacation week. The giggling, the jostling, the pushing of each other into the road—I looked at my sister so that we could share our disapproval of all this upheaval, but she and Sandy were now skipping in time with their hands linked and she didn’t see me. Ahead, the pink-and-blue-and-green neon sign glowed. Our mother stepped up to the order window and called for quiet so that she could ask what everyone wanted. Inside, the frozen-custard employees waited, bored, for us to decide on chocolate or vanilla, cherry or chocolate dip.

I was wearing a new outfit: white shorts and a horizontally striped shirt, which I thought was very smart. I had just begun to be interested in teen magazines. I thought of their content as a form of reporting, as documentaries, each photo a window into a life of possibility, where there was always a breeze to fan out your hair or modestly ruffle the hem of your skirt. My outfit, with its combination of white and navy blue, seemed to me to be something that the teen-mag girls would wear, something that could lift me out of my here-and-now-ness, if only I weren’t surrounded by my cousins and my sister, if only my mother weren’t paying for my dripping frozen-custard cone. I stepped up to the pickup window when my mother called me over to take the cardboard carrier of cones to the picnic table. The frozen-custard woman pushed it toward me. “Here, honey,” she said. “Be careful, Kathleen,” my mother said, as I tried to balance the carrier and another two freewheeling cones. The woman gave the carrier a little nudge so that it was more firmly in my grasp. “Why, honey,” she said. “I thought you were a boy with that hair.” She winked at me. “A cute boy, anyway.” I carried the cones to the picnic table, a prickling blush washing over me. It was a strange feeling, part guilt, part triumph, although I didn’t know how I was to blame or what I might have won.

At the beach the next day, I consulted the older of my cartwheeling cousins, fourteen-year-old Janet. Did she think that my hair was too short? We were lying on our beach towels, she in her red-and-white checked two-piece, me in my turquoise-and-white striped one-piece. The stones of the Rocky Beach were hot under us and the water was still, the waves coming ashore with barely a fringe of white foam. We had just had a snack, another of my mother’s swimming rituals: an hour of swimming, out for a rest and a snack, back for another hour or until it was time for her to go and make lunch. There was no question of our staying at the beach without her. “It is kind of short,” Janet said. “Rick the Ratty Raunchy Ratfink’s hair is longer than yours.”

Both of us were making little piles of rocks on our towels. She liked to have a theme: this year she was collecting only hot-dog-shaped rocks. I chose mine for their color and how they felt in my hand. She held up a rock to show me and then we both shook our heads. It wasn’t sufficiently hot-dog-shaped.

“You were probably glad to get rid of the ponytail, though,” she said. “It was kind of babyish.” I silently resented this, but she had the authority of someone who already had a steady boyfriend. I looked at her out of the corner of my eye, trying to decide what it was about her that had got her a boyfriend. She had fair, reddish hair and round cheeks, a small pouty mouth. Her eyes were small, too, but there was something about how they crinkled when she smiled, how her cheeks pushed up so that her eyes almost disappeared, a gleaming line of blue. Later that afternoon, after I had taken off my bathing suit, I stood in the dimly lit bathroom of our cottage for a moment before putting on my clothes, looking in the mirror at my own longer, narrower face, the aggressive set of my eyebrows. My lower lip was fuller than the upper: what did that mean?

When I was ten, I had a story I inhabited for the whole week of vacation. I was a princess in this story and I lived in the sea (which was the lake, but “sea” sounded better). In the morning, as we walked to the lake, I let my sea name rise into my mind: Darena, who lived under the blue-green water. My sister and my cousins were my unwitting servants, and the towels we spread on the rocks were royal robes. When we went into the water, I splashed and dived and swam, I pulled handfuls of sand from the bottom and pretended that it was soap, I played at being a shark. But I was living a double life: I was a little girl whose mother was watching from the beach, whose father was standing in the shallow water staring at the horizon (he never swam); and I was Darena, who could call the fish out of the water and make the waves rise to cover the road. At night, Darena lay with me in the twin bed across from my sister’s and she imagined or remembered magical balls, where she had danced on the sand at the bottom of the lake, and rides in her cushioned boat, which was rowed incongruously by rabbits, my favorite animals at the time. I never told anyone about her. I conjured Darena up the next year, too. Then, when I was twelve, she came forward on the first day we swam in the lake and I tried to let her in. I leaped in the water, I twirled in a circle, trailing my fingers to make streams of bubbles, but she kept her distance.

Now, at thirteen, I was thinking of her, remembering her, during the hour that we were letting my mother rest. My sister had actually fallen asleep (which we would mock her for later), and my cousins were French-braiding each other’s hair. My mother was outside in the hammock, a book face down on her chest and her sun hat pulled over her eyes. I went to the clotheslines out back, slinking along the rear of the cottages as if I were a spy. The sun was hot and bright. From there I could see into the kitchen of the last of the cottages opposite ours, where there was a table with a carton of milk, the same brand as ours, and a cup beside it. The top of a woman’s two-piece hung over the back of one of the chairs. The yard was somehow even more cluttered than the last time I’d looked, though I couldn’t tell which objects were new. I walked the length of the gravel to the end, where I could look down the road that led to the little town. The road was flat and straight and I could see places where the asphalt looked wet, which my father said were mirages, like the imaginary things you’d see if you were dying of thirst in the desert.

That year, we did the usual things—the trip to Port Clinton, the one dinner at a restaurant, where we wore our good clothes, the sunset viewing, the card games around the kitchen table after dinner. Our mother made a ham for dinner one night, as she always did (although none of us really liked ham), and for dessert another night we had a frozen creamy pie from a box, the kind of thing she would never have bought at home. My sister and I and our cousins swam and splashed one another, jumped from the diving board into the dangerously shallow pool, read our vacation books, spent the money from our pirate’s chest. Our parents and our aunt and our grandmother sat in metal lawn chairs in the evenings while we ran across the grass, catching fireflies in jars, calling to one another as the dusk came down. Nothing was different, which made me happy on some days and angry on others. I wanted to blame someone for the rifts in my mind, places that were torn and pulling apart.

On the last day there was that double feeling. We wanted to stay forever, to swim every day in a hot summer haze, to live in our bathing suits and flip-flops, our hair never quite dry. And we wanted to go home, sleep in our own beds, rescue our dog from the kennel, run down the street to see our friends—the next-door friend, the friend who lived on the corner, the friend whose brother was so annoying. The walk to the beach was elegiac, melancholy. Even the pebbles that got under the straps of our flip-flops were something to be cherished. The lake looked more blue, more glittery than ever. When we got to the Rocky Beach, we anchored our towels and put on suntan lotion. The rocks were almost too hot to touch and the water was flat and glassy, only the tiniest rippling waves advancing on the shore. We swam and cavorted, dived through the centers of our inner tubes, pretended once more that we were mermaids or sharks. My sister managed to evade our mother and came into the water without her undershirt and, because it was the last day, my mother didn’t call her back. When we had been out for a while, when we knew that soon we’d see our mother and our aunt standing on the beach, waving their arms to say that it was time to go and have lunch, we made a flotilla of our inner tubes and bobbed on the little waves, our legs dangling down, toes barely touching the sandy bottom.

Even now, all these years later, I can remember the feel of the ridges of sand on the bottom, the slight up-and-down-ness of the waves, the black rubber of the inner tubes as hot as the skin of an animal, the jostling of our elbows and knees. We faced out into the lake, pretending that there was no shore behind us, that our mother wasn’t there, that there was nothing calling us back, only the water, the flat blue plain laid out before us. Janet was wearing a bandanna tied over her hair, which was almost the same color as the sky. The gulls were swooping and circling a little farther out, diving and falling toward the water, which we knew meant that there was a dead fish floating on the waves. I looked at the others, my sister and my cousins. My sister’s face was drowsy, eyes half-lidded, her cheeks and nose flushed with sunburn. Sandy was playing with her ring, twisting it on her finger. Janet had crossed her arms on her inner tube and laid her cheek on them, her long brown hair trailing in the water, rising and falling with the waves. I waited for them to say something, or to look at me, but they didn’t. If there was anything to know, they didn’t know it. I didn’t know if I wanted a different life, or I didn’t know if I wanted it enough. But something was going to happen. I felt almost sure of it. ♦

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The Pentagon’s Outsized Part in the Climate Fight 2019-06-27 03:00:35As giant a consumer as the Pentagon is, its use of energy pales next to that of the civilian population of some three-hundred million Americans—

America’s Indefensible Defense Budget 2019-06-26 08:30:46The sheer size of the military establishment and the habit of equating spending on it with patriotism make both sound management and serious oversight

Timeline of Deceit: From Trump’s Draft to Rosenstein’s 2019-06-26 02:00:55These new disclosures of what Trump said in the draft letter terminating James Comey as FBI director highlight the central parts played in the affair

The Cold, Dead Hand of the NRA 2019-06-24 10:35:55The NRA may repair its finances—dues did rebound in 2018, though the recent scandal seems likely to reverse that trend. The organization may als


In 'The Gifted School,' Ripped-From-The-Headlines Parental Scheming 2019-07-02 07:00:23Bruce Holsinger's new novel — about overprivileged parents cheating to get their kids into a magnet school — is very topical, but the cha

Kids' Author Mo Willems Has A New Creative 2019-07-02 05:07:00The creator of the Pigeon series, Knuffle Bunny, and Elephant & Piggie is currently an Artist-in-Residence at the Kennedy Center. He says if you w

George Takei On Why America's Past Is Present 2019-07-01 11:30:30Takei is the co-author of a forthcoming graphic novel about his experience in a Japanese-American internment camp.

From Ansel Adams To Unica Zürn, 'Scrawl' Finds 2019-07-01 09:44:12Some might say these little works only acquire their auras through their creators' fame. But once you start pondering them, they start to seem like f

'Reviving Ophelia' Turns 25 2019-06-30 17:18:00The 1994 book Revivng Ophelia spotlighted the mental health of teenage girls. Years later, author Mary Pipher and her daughter Sara Pipher Gilliam hav

How The Advance Weather Forecast Got Good 2019-06-30 08:12:00Under the radar (so to speak), predictions have improved dramatically of late. In The Weather Machine, Andrew Blum writes that it's due to an interna

A Self-Sufficient Kid Finds An Unexpected Silver Lining 2019-06-30 07:00:11Lauren Morrill's new YA novel follows 17-year-old Maritza, who's used to taking care of herself. But when she lands with a foster mother who truly c

Not My Job: We Quiz Novelist Jennifer Weiner 2019-06-29 14:39:00Weiner will be quizzed on one whiner in particular — she'll have to figure out which negative review was actually written by host Peter Sagal'

'Three Women' Puts Female Desire At The Forefront 2019-06-29 08:03:00For her new book, Lisa Taddeo spent nearly a decade immersed in the sex lives of three women. She says desire is one of the things we think about the

Podcasts Are Providing A New Way Into Poetry 2019-06-29 07:00:09A poem on the page has its appeal — but poetry spoken aloud is a more intimate experience. And a new crop of podcasts are expanding poetry, givi

For Novelist John Green, OCD Is Like An 2019-06-28 13:22:00The Turtles All The Way Down author says OCD "starts out with one little thought, and then slowly that becomes the only thought that you're able to

3 Memoirs That Explore The Many Facets Of 2019-06-28 07:00:00One in five Americans have some experience with mental illness every year — and these three new memoirs dig into that experience, whether it's

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