The Gift of Summer
Every year on the Fourth of July, my father proclaimed the summer “over.” “That’s it,” he would say. “It’s all downhill from here.” He never made his announcement on the beach but later, after the coals were lit and the burgers and dogs started, the sun still warming the sand in front of our cottage.
I remember my father’s yearly proclamations as one frozen moment, a merging of all the Fourth of July cookouts into a single late afternoon gathering. In truth, we often had company on the Fourth—some mixture of aunts, uncles, cousins, and both grandfathers in the early days—but in my memory, my family is alone.
It’s late afternoon, the time of day that doesn’t feel hopeful. The sun, still blazing above the marsh, more impressive than any fireworks, is doomed and you know it. You realize something sad about a sunset before you understand why, before you can connect its fleeting beauty with the ephemera of all glorious moments—a first snow, trees in autumn, the fireworks you are about to see, your own father’s life.
Everything about the moment is predictable. Butch, the mutt from across the street, lumbers over to hang out by the grill in case my father turns his back. I’m a little afraid of Butch and his big, slobbery mouth. But my father, who pretends to dislike animals, pats him and calls him a “good fella.” Butch sniffs the grill and drools egg-white saliva onto the cement patio dangerously near my bare feet.
These are the days before Weber and fancy gas grills. Ours is the standard—round, brown aluminum, filled with graying charcoal, doused with lighter fluid. We put yellow mustard and sweet relish on our hotdogs and ketchup on our hamburgers. There are no Vidalia onions, no roasted red peppers, no arugula, no goat cheese.
Kevin hits a wiffle ball while he waits for the food. Tall and skinny, all arms and legs, he tosses the ball into the air and swats at it with his plastic bat. He hits the ball first a few feet into the sand, then into the street, paved and crumbling, and finally onto the roof of our father’s Ford.
“Watch that,” our father says.
My brother scouts the ball from beneath the car where it has rolled and resumes hitting.
In the kitchen, my mother boils corn on the cob. Christine sits on the cement steps that lead to our screened-in porch, or she fetches balls for our brother, or she sits with me, waiting at the picnic table.
We are ten, eight, and four. Twelve, ten and six. Fourteen, twelve and eight. We are at our cottage in Green Harbor, Massachusetts. We are here for the summer.
It is already over.
For my father, the summer slipped away after the Fourth, the remaining weeks of July and August nothing more than one long late afternoon like the winter Sundays of my childhood. My father took his two-week vacation in July and after the holiday, his uninterrupted summer time was all-too quickly over. Maybe more than anyone else, my father had some sense of how little time was actually left before we all would have to pack up and leave the white curtains and cool ocean breezes and return to the Boston suburbs and our house, which always felt heavy and dark with its Oriental rugs and blinds pulled tight against the sun.
After Labor Day, most families returned to Green Harbor on weekends until mid-October when we closed up our cottages for winter. But those fall weekends were never the same. We could not recreate the reckless feeling of summer. The air was different and the breeze on the beach brisk. We piled on sweatshirts and built fires in our fireplaces. We might get together to play cards in someone’s living room, but we had already been back with our “real” friends and so it didn’t matter if we saw each other at all.
Some fall weekends, my father made the trip to Green Harbor solo. And at least once in the off-season, each of us kids had the opportunity to go alone with our father to spend the weekend at the beach. It seems to me now through so many years that my father and I spent our weekends together in silence, though I know that must not be true. But I can’t imagine what we might have talked about. I remember Saturday visits to his favorite bar, the Ocean Café, in Brant Rock, a short car drive over the bridge and the Green Harbor river, past the marina and the Yacht Club where we didn’t belong and where, as I got older, so many of my friends began to spend their time.
There were trips, too, on those weekends, to the town pier in Green Harbor. I was fascinated by everything at the pier—the clanging of the halyards on the moored sailboats, the water lapping against the wooden docks, the lobster boats chugging into the channel with their catch, the ease with which the men hopped out and tied up their boats or cast them off. I wanted a boat of my own and imagined myself the daughter of a fisherman, one of those adventurous girls I was always reading about. I imagined myself living far from the Boston suburbs. Here, in Green Harbor, breathing in the rank smell of seaweed and low tide, I imagined an exciting life.
My father and I stood together at the pier dreaming of other lives we might live, each wanting to be a stowaway on one of those fishing boats, escape a life we felt thrust into, not the life we’d imagined at all.
Or maybe not.
I never asked him, so I don’t know what my father dreamed of while we spent gray afternoons watching the fishermen unload their lobster, flounder, mackerel, cod, but I know he hated his job. Hated riding the “T,” overcrowded and late into Boston every day, to the tax department of State Street Bank, hated the work he did there, hated the commute back home—first the train, standing room only and then the trolley, too hot in summer, too cold in winter.
I know that when we tried to get him to give up cigarettes and beer for his health, he would say, “Why deny me my two favorite things in life?”
Where do we come in is what I wanted to know. How far down the list?
I know that my father had been laid off too many times before to even think of quitting his job. These were the Seventies, a decade of cutbacks and layoffs and long gas lines. At Christmastime in our house, Santa was always a little too poor. That’s the way our parents explained it in the weeks leading up to Christmas, hoping we wouldn’t have high expectations. Though I never felt deprived, money was always a little too tight, and we had food stamps to get us by.
And a cottage.
Bought for cheap from my father’s father, we rented out the cottage for a few weeks some of those summers and then for most of July and August when we kids got older and had jobs. Our suburban home belonged to my mother’s father with whom we moved in when I was six, when my grandmother died. My mother reminded us how lucky we were to grow up in an affluent town, a town my parents couldn’t have afforded on their own, and attend good, safe, public schools. I know she’s right—but at what cost to my father?
“If I have a heart attack,” my father said more than once, “don’t revive me. Just let me go.” Maybe we were watching T.V. when he said it, one of those crime shows or hospital dramas, but what I remember watching with my father was football.
“Who’s losing?” I always asked, coming into the T.V. room in mid-game. “That’s the team I’m rooting for.”
My father had his favorites and cheered for all the Boston teams. He shouted at the television. “C’mon!” he groaned, when his quarterback made a lousy throw. Or his other favorite expression, “You dirty dog!”
But me, I only wanted the losing team to win. I only wanted to root for the underdog.
Even so, when my father did have his heart attack the summer I was eighteen, the last summer I would live at home full-time, I knew that rooting for him then was useless. I knew that whatever the paramedics were doing to my father there on the porch of our house in the suburbs was already too late. I knew he had given up long ago.
Summers, unlike weekends in fall or spring, were the province of the mothers. Fathers had to work and stay “up town” in the year-round houses. We all knew each other’s mothers, but fathers came only on weekends and occasionally, for week-long vacations. They were pale in their bathing suits, unlike the mothers with their brown backs and arms and legs. Some fathers commuted from the cottages, but that was rare. From time to time, my own father did that and took the Plymouth and Boston bus from Green Harbor right into downtown Boston.
When my father commuted, he got off the bus behind the cottage, on the street along the edge of the seawall. We heard the bus pull up and would peek out the back window to look for him. My father crossed the street, his tie already undone, and cut through the empty lot of marsh grass and sand to our cottage, the waves like background music behind him. First thing inside, he would change into his bathing suit. He would grab a cold can of beer and head down to the seawall, bath towel draped over his shoulder, to take a dip.
You could always count on my father to take his nightly swim. Little kids followed him to the seawall to watch. The older kids, the ones who hung out at the seawall and drank and smoked, watched him, too. My father was friendly with all of them. He was a big man, built like Jackie Gleason, whom he resembled. He walked with deliberate steps, barefoot in his dark blue boxer-style bathing suit, round belly and hairy chest protruding. Leaving his towel, beer can, and watch on the seawall steps, my father entered the water first to his ankles, then a bit further, yelping and shouting for the amusement of his audience. At last, he dove under, then pushed off on his back and sat in a kind of back float, his toes poking through the surface of the water.
We say that you have to get used to the water in Green Harbor, but we really mean that you need to be numb before you can swim. “How’s the water?” we kids asked each other, the ones just heading down to the beach and the ones heading back, dripping, beneath wrapped beach towels. “How’s the water?” the adults yelled from porches when we kids picked our way back to the cottage for lunch, barefoot, the paved street hot on our soles. I loved to swim and the story goes that I could swim before I could walk. I was, as my father liked to call me, a fish. I preferred the water to the sand and I spent entire mornings and afternoons in the cold ocean, emerging only after my lips had turned blue.
My father liked to swim with us. On weekends, he pulled us around in the water, dunked us under, pretended he was the shark coming to nibble on our toes. The mothers sat in beach chairs facing the ocean, with sunglasses and hats. They were friends with each other and they watched out for all of us, whichever kids were at the beach. Each mother had a different rule about how far out her kids could go in the water if she were not there in person. For us, it was our waist. I obeyed this rule. I was always afraid that if I went beyond, something terrible might happen.
My father liked to go out far in the water. He would walk and walk, well past his waist, until you could only see his head above the blue green swells. Sometimes he would bring us with him into the deep water, pulling us by our arms or backing up, backing up, saying, ‘Swim to me. Come on, you can do it.”
I didn’t know then that most of the other families at Green Harbor were far more well-off than we.
Our cottage might have given it away—we didn’t even have hot water until I was well into my teens, and never an indoor shower those years we spent the summers there. Our cottage was small, one main room with a fireplace made of stone, a combination living/dining room and a screened-in porch where we kids slept when anyone visited, a row of sleeping bags on army cots, all the cousins crammed out there on holiday weekends. There were three bedrooms, small ones, all of them off the narrow kitchen. If you could stand in the middle of the cottage, you could practically reach all the rooms, touch the windows we jacked up with sticks, the screens we kept patched to keep out mosquitoes. My sister and I shared one bedroom, our beds at right angles, my feet to her head along the walls where the paint peeled and water dripped in if it rained, rusting the nails that stuck through the wide planks. My brother and grandfather jammed together in one room and my parents had the third. There were no closets; each of us had a total of two drawers for our clothes, but we needed little—bathing suit, couple of T-shirts and shorts, one pair of long pants for August. In the early days, we had no television either—no one did—the Red Sox games broadcast over the radio that sat on our mantle.
There was an old-fashioned dial telephone, but I don’t remember ever using it. Who would you call in Green Harbor? You saw everyone you knew on the beach. Or you passed them on your way to the General Store or to pick up the mail in the one-room post office.
I was blissfully ignorant of what it meant for us to be at Green Harbor, our summer life a constant even when my mother was forced back to work full-time, commuting in the dark, taking her outside shower in the cool pre-sunrise morning.
I was stunned the first time I met a renter, a girl my age whose family came from out of state.
“Mom,” I said that night at dinner. “Did you know some people pay to come to the beach?”
Those years when we had to rent out the cottage reminded us how lucky we were to have a summer place at all—the weeks uptown feeling long and oppressive, the house dark and unsuited to summer. Who I would be now, what the whole of my life might have become without those long, sunburned days of sand and salt water, those afternoons spent next to my father at the town pier, dreaming, I can’t imagine.
These days, my mother, in her eighties, lives year round in Green Harbor with her husband. After she retired, she renovated the front room of the cottage, raised the ceiling, put in a ceiling fan and skylight. She added insulation and an indoor shower, renovated the kitchen and updated all the appliances. She covered the sand out front with soil and planted a garden—hydrangeas and black-eyed Susans, hostas and tall, leggy wisps of lavender. And when at sixty-nine, my mother, a widow for twenty some years, finally remarries, she and her new husband make Green Harbor their home. They close in the screened-in porch, buy new furniture, put gas in the fireplace, combine two of the bedrooms into one.
When I think of Green Harbor, it is my father I think of, even now with him dead thirty-nine years. It might be because the cottage first belonged to his father that I think of Green Harbor as my father’s place. It might be because that is where I remember him best and where he seemed happiest. I know even before I have the words to express it that a place can shape a person. I know that Green Harbor is what my father had to offer, and when he didn’t have a job, when there wasn’t any money, when he was miserable in his own life, my father could still give us summer.
Patricia A. Smith’s publications include her recent novel The Year of Needy Girls (Kaylie Jones Books / Akashic Books, 2017). Her nonfiction has appeared in Nine Lives: A Life in Ten Minutes Anthology, Older Queer Voices: The Intimacy of Survival; Gris Gris- An Online Journal of Literature, Culture and the Arts, Broad Street: A New Magazine of True Stories, as well as in several anthologies. You can find out more about Patricia and her work at her website. Connect with her on Facebook and on Twitter @pattysmith711.