Today begins the first week this summer that neither my daughter nor I have anything extensive scheduled. Before I acquired my own, ahem, unstructured time, she attended camp in some capacity--day camp, overnight camp; she’ll repeat a counselor in training experience in mid July. That commitment however, extends only for a month. A bonus with regard to my employment status arrived in the form of our ability to offer her a few unplanned summer weeks. Her first week off from school we had company, so we were busy enough. This week though, she and I are a bit unsure of the blank calendar hanging by the desk. Watching the weather forecast calling for extended rain last night, we looked at each, and asked: “What are we going to do?”
Until 2009, her summers were planned, coordinated, organized—the opposite of mine at her age. She had drop off and pick-up times and attended extended day programs all summer long. The good news is that she has loved it all. It’s just hard for me to relate to.
Back in the day, if you will, starting in mid-June, my sister, brother and I waved goodbye to Mom at 9:30 a.m., jumping onto our ten-speed bikes for a trip across town to Lake Waban. Skimming bareheaded and barefoot up Route 135, we careened around parking meters and hopped over curb cuts. Traversing paths that snake through Wellesley College Campus, we peddled hard on the flatlands approaching the downhill then plummeted, no hands, no feet, arms swinging at our sides and hot breezes tangling our hair. Whizzing past sun blond fields loud with chainsawing cicadas, we pumped ourselves by the college science center replete with pseudo smokestacks and jutting metal beams, past honking frogs in the sculpted lily pond, over the hill near the brick art center and descended one more time. Panting, we hopped off our bikes onto summer callused feet; walking the last fifty feet over a stony drive to flash our beach badges at the desk that marked the territory we considered our summer home.
Ah, the lake. It was nothing more than a pond really--muddy brown and warm by August with a tiny beach molded out of mocha sand they trucked in annually. Peeling green and white docks jutted into murky water, olive benches and picnic tables toasted in the sun at the back. No matter how small though, the beach offered us huge freedoms. Long before I was my daughter’s age our parents let us go and beach rats that we were, weather permitting and even when it didn’t, we stayed at the lake until the last whistle blew.
My brother, sister and I weren’t alone in our passion for the beach. Living in a wealthy town, many of our school friends summered elsewhere. Those of us left behind dove into seasonal friendships; alternating between breathless games of raft tag and partnering up in striped-sailed Sunfishes to battle mid-lake sponge fights. Sometimes, we rowed boats, weaving long chains into the black water with our oars, and tipping precariously, plucked wild blueberries from bushes that dangled across the way. On the far side of the lake, we crayoned ourselves with chunks from an old demolished paint factory, drawing on canvases of suntanned skin. At night, chests aching after a day of swimming, we’d pedal home exhausted but exhilarated, counting the minutes until the next day.
I became a lifeguard at the lake when I was old enough and spent my summers earning a salary where I wanted to be anyway. Once age granted us driver’s licenses we met our friends back at the lake as the sun tipped below the horizon. Tunneling bare toes into cooling sand we’d laugh in blackness that turned us invisible. During the hottest nights we swam, ducking behind the dock and holding deep breaths when college security shined searchlights over moonlit water. Paddling row boats to the middle of the lake we gasped at shooting stars--quicksilver strokes brushed across crowded evening skies.
Even as I write this I sigh. Not only are those days of teenage independence ancient history for me, but the beach that was witness to my blossoming adulthood is fenced off now. It turns out that poisonous residue from that long abandoned paint factory where we unknowingly played, had leached into the surrounding land and waters for almost eighty years. When this was discovered, our beach became a hazardous waste cleanup site, complete with bilges, spillways and pumps. Trees were torn down across the lake, an impervious barrier laid and now playing fields for the college students exist where there were once woods.
Though I live fifty miles away now, at least once a year I walk by the lake, eager to catch some reflection of my youth. All this time after the cleanup though, a chain link fence still blocks the way. Perhaps in the future my little beach will open again. But this summer, my hopes are for my daughter. For the five weeks she has free this year, I wish her a summer with friends at the harbor, boat trips to our peninsula beach, salt crusted skin sticky with sunscreen, flip-flopped feet covered with sand, and most of all, a season riding no hands and no feet, arms flung wide as she negotiates yet another downhill swoop.