Pilgrimage to Childhood Summer
MY husband is watching me learn to row. I am little, maybe four years old, with long skinny legs and extremely short hair. I owe the coiffure to my brother who in some sudden, fleeting surge of older-sibling magnanimity, cut my hair. Off. What little he left had to be chopped in order to achieve the semblance of uniformity that my husband is now admiring, albeit sarcastically, I think.
Seated in a white wooden boat, my head turtling out of an orange life jacket, I smile proudly as I concentrate on leaning forward and pulling back, showing off my new skill. Full of the wonder of this miraculous movement, this paradox in which by making the boat glide backward I am really going forward, I'm too busy to notice the trees standing guard around the pond, the water so reflective it looks like I'm rowing across the sky.
Months later, back home in Paris, the one detail from these ancient home movies that my husband retains more clearly than any other is the orange life jacket. According to him, I never left it. Or rather, it never left me. In his mind it remains the symbol of all the Rhode Island summers of my childhood.
Now we are flying down I-95, squirming in our seats as we look for the exit that will take us to that same rowboat on that same little body of water, and away from everything else. If we're even more impatient than usual to arrive, it's because this time we're voyaging with Ulysses, our six-month-old son.
My husband's excitement reminds me of my own a few years ago when I first brought him here, to this place my family has always called "the pond." Bombarded with my detailed memories and jumbled explanations of Roger Williams, cranberry bogs, and those ubiquitous stone walls, this impenitent urbanite - and a European at that - became an instant and eternal devotee to my little lost corner of Rhode Island countryside. And since the day Ulysses was born, our goal has been to introduce him to the wonders of the pond, to the inevitable, enveloping peace that waits for us there, season after season, year after year. Generation after generation.
This initiation is all about continuity. For the pond is nothing if not that: A perfect, static place, like a fond memory one distills into its essence so that it is always available, always intact. Oh, some things do change, like the stories about the nearby ruins, the stone foundations of a farm lost to fire a long time ago. The stories about which building burned down during which war changes with every telling. But in general, not only the whole but the parts that make it up remain untouchable.
In every photograph I have, for example, regardless of the season or the year, the colors are identical. The people in the snapshots evolve, of course, growing taller, thicker or thinner, leaning on a cane or, sadly, simply being absent. But the scenery is invariable from picture to picture.
ANDREW WYETH would love it here, this trichromatic landscape so complex it would take an entire palette to reproduce it. There is the blue of the sky - so deep and full it is almost round; the green of the trees - shadowy green-black pines and sun-pale aspens; and the yellow of the high scratchy grasses - a shade somewhere between corn silk and the stringy flesh of summer squash.
These are the colors my grandfather, his daughter, and I have loved. These are the colors I want to see flashing across Ulysses' eyes whenever he thinks of this place.
So as we park next to the big red barn, I am already looking for the signs that mean we're really here. With Ulysses in tow, my husband and I check inside the house: ancient bottles of citronella and witch hazel, vestiges of the old East Side apothecary, still cluster on the linen closet shelves. My grandfather's boar bristle shaving brush still sits in the medicine cabinet. A framed copy of "The Pond," a very bad poem I wrote when I was 10, still taunts me from a corner cupboard. I could also find, if a sked: six cribbage boards, a stash of 1969 Christmas postage stamps marked "Korean Relief," a heavy yellow phone that dates from the time when a call to a neighbor meant dialing four digits, my old set of coloring pencils, a Chinese checkers board, and a rusty can of Bug-B-Gone.
Outside we make the rounds too, and everything is just as we have left it for so many years: old coffin lids in the cider mill, bottles of inch-thick glass in the root cellar, an incomplete croquet set in the milk shed. These things, which seem riveted in place, are useless and unused, yet they are integral pieces in the sense and the feel of the place, like the gears of a clock.
Finally, we pick our way across the yellow fields to the pond. It is a pilgrimage we're making, and whether or not Ulysses will remember this, the first visit of many I hope, it is not too soon to involve him in the tradition. We are in a strange state, as every time, at once roused by the anticipation of arriving and soothed by the pervading calm. Coming to the pond is like taking a deep breath and letting it out very, very slowly. He must sense our thrill as we emerge through the trees into the large r ound clearing, like a hole in the forest. Glimpsing the water I am elated, for the first image in Ulysses' memory bank will be as splendid as ever. Just the way I remember it.
HERE, too, there is an uncanny constancy, an immutability that makes me believe I'm in a parallel universe, one that is suspended and comes to life only when we set foot in it. Whatever slight change I do notice is merely a condensation, a concentrated version of what it was before. The rickety dock, for instance, is now more rickety than it is dock. The poison ivy that used to threaten the path has become the path. The oars with which I learned to row have lost their varnish, but the wood underneath is even smoother without it. A maple has died; the tree we will plant (in Ulysses' name) to replace it will probably be an oak. There are beavers now, of course, but what did the spillway exist for anyway, if not to be dammed?
Seeing my father dive off the dock, my mother wade along the shore, her mother lounge in the shade, my husband and Ulysses crawl on the sand, I suddenly realize the extraordinary power of babies. Something has changed indeed: Before my eyes, Ulysses has turned my grandmother into a great-grandmother, my parents into grandparents, and their child - me - into a mother.
But that is more continuation than transformation. We will bring our children back here the way my parents brought my brother and me, and they will run to find their favorite things just as they left them. And they will be surrounded by these same friendly ghosts - childhood spirits, water and wood spirits, house spirits (because I know the house remembers too).
It is time to go for a row. My husband waits in the boat as I gather up Ulysses and venture into the cobwebby bath hut. I push an old fishing rod away with my toe, reach under a pile of deflated air mattresses and retrieve - because I know it's there without even thinking - the orange life jacket.