American Summer

It’s been a month since my last blog post. Every time I write something like that (or even think it) I feel like I’m in confession… although not being a Catholic I have never been in confession so I’m just guessing what it feels like based on TV and movies.

Here I am in the United States of America in the final week of our vacation. In three days the girls and I (Bill has already gone back) fly back to London, which seems a world away. Actually, it is a world away. I have not spent a great deal of time reflecting on our life there since we have been Stateside because that life resides in a discrete department of my brain. When I’m here I use the American part of my brain. When I’m back in London then I’ll switch back to the European side. It’s sort of like partitioning your internal hard drive. Just select restart and hold down the appropriate button… Easier to allow the two to coexist peacefully in their own compartments than to try to marry them. That might cause… complete system failure.

It had been nearly a year since the girls and I had been in our home country. And let me tell you — I needed a good dose.

Since we’ve been in America we have immersed ourselves in things American, including beginning our trip with a stint in New York City, my home on separate occasions for a number of years. We did touristy things like visit the Empire State Building. I took our nanny, Agnieszka, who is from Poland and had never been to the US (or outside of Europe for that matter) on a Circle Line Liberty cruise to see the Statue of Liberty and the developing downtown skyline featuring the Freedom Tower with its newly erected spire. Gazing at the new skyscraper as the boat circled I was transported to an alternate reality. I remember the old skyline so well both with and without the twin towers. I need time to digest this new, rather sexy, angular structure, so different from the rectilinear monoliths that preceded it. There is still much empty space to be filled downtown where other buildings will be erected. But it’s a start. It’s different but it works. I decided I like it.

Some combination of the five of us also visited FAO Schwartz (I turned and looked at the people entering the store and every one of them, without fail, cracked a big grin — how could you not?), briefly traipsed through Central Park, waded through crowds in Times Square in the sticky heat (I have to admit to missing, slightly, the sleaze of years past), waited forever on the subway platform for the N train, inhaling that distinct, gritty, stale, heavy New York Subway air (I loved every minute of it even though I was sweating like a pig), did a fly by at the MOMA where my kids and I had lunch with my cherished friend, Susan, following which my older daughter had the pleasure of viewing — in person — Starry Night, by Van Gogh. “This is my favorite painting!” She exclaimed, as we came around the corner. Jackpot, I thought, since I hadn’t known it was her favorite painting and she hadn’t known that we were about to see it.

We stayed at the Carlyle (well, they were having a stay two nights get the third night free special which made it fit neatly into the hotel budget I was given so how could we have passed that up?). I loved it. We all did, really. I almost thought I might run into Marilyn or JFK waiting for the elevator (but not together, of course). The place just reeks of old New York and is at once both intimate and grand. I knew we had arrived in New York City when we walked in the door and there was a rather quirky lady sitting in the lobby with her Maltese in a stroller. She started chatting with the girls, as New Yorkers do. And when she wasn’t talking to someone else she was talking to her dog.

The night we landed I cabbed it across the park to the West Side and had dinner at the little Italian place in the New York Historical Society with my wonderful friend Kath, who was at HLS ahead of me. Bill and I were able to sneak off for grown-ups’ dinner on not one but two nights. I had a variation on a Manhattan (with a foofy name like Mannahatta or something) at Gotham Bar & Grill, which was delicious. I have the recipe. I’ll give it to you later. If you’re nice. We hit one of our favorite little brunch spots in the West Village (“good” — and it was, still) where we were assured to see many of the old standbys on the menu (try the homemade doughnuts and pear pecan coffee cake and the breakfast burrito is tasty as well). We ended our NY trip with a visit to Serendipity on East 60th to take in some Tiffany lamps and have their famous frozen hot chocolate (it’s still yummy, overcrowded, loud, bursting with ice cream sundaes drenched in chocolate and butterscotch spilling over the sides of glass dishes, but they don’t serve those fat sesame bread sticks in a glass anymore). Good Lord. Rereading this I guess I have to face the fact that my life always seems to revolve around my next meal. I can live with that.

After three nights Bill took Amtrak to Boston for a week in the home office and we girls, laden with luggage, piled into a Suburban (muy americano, no?) and headed to Hamden, Connecticut to visit my mother in the house I grew up in. The heat wave started that day but I didn’t really mind because it was American summer heat. The girls drew on the driveway with chubby pieces of chalk they had remembered were stashed in the garage and dipped toes and fingers into the little fish pond at the edge of the patio. We had lunch outdoors with family and neighbors shaded by a now well-established Star Magnolia tree (I remember when we got that tree). We defied the blazing sun by swimming in my stepsister’s pool nearby where we met an Italian woman with her grown daughter (also Italian, as it turned out) and a man from Taiwan. Who knew Hamden was so international?

On July 17th I drove my mother to the hospital to have her second hip replacement. It was nice that the timing coincided with our visit, nice that I could be there with her as she was with me and us when I had my surgeries in London. But all of that is locked in my other partition and I’m not going to think about it right now. I remain firmly in the American side of my brain. So much so I am even ignoring — no rejecting — the UK spell check that keeps trying to change my “z’s” to “s’s” and my “ors” to “ours.”

After being assured that my mother’s surgery was successful and spending a little time with her in her room, I hijacked her station wagon and drove to Wellesley, Massachusetts, where we lived for seven years prior to our international move. We arrived at my in-laws’ house in time for a casual supper on the relative cool of the screened-in front porch with its ceiling fan, because the heat wave hadn’t yet relented. I did a drive-by of our old house, which is across the street from the public school Isabel attended from kindergarten through second grade. Felt kind of surreal. The second day I met my dad for lunch at The Cottage in Linden Square where I encouraged him to try the tortilla soup and fish tacos (he did) and brought him back to the in-laws’ so he could see the grand kids and listen to Isabel play the piano.

Friday morning I played tour guide while Agnieszka and the girls and I drove around Boston and Cambridge and walked around Harvard Yard (for about ten minutes because we were melting). After seeing the sites we headed to Legal Sea Foods near the Harbor for lunch after which I deposited the trio at the revamped New England Aquarium while I went for a doctor’s check-up.

The girls enjoyed some time with old (I use the term very loosely) playmates and we had a  poolside barbecue with friends where we drank good rosé and ate barbecue-flavored potato chips in wet bathing suits.

Saturday the 20th the five of us squeezed ourselves and our luggage into the Jetta wagon (seriously, successfully packing the back was comical and took several attempts) and drove to Bill’s folks’ Cape house in East Orleans. I had the pleasure of sitting in between the girls’ and their booster seats in the back because I have an unusually small ass. What? I do. It’s okay to be honest about these things. Anyhow, small it may be but I could still barely stand up once we got there I was so stiff. But I didn’t care. We were greeted by Bill’s parents and by some biting green head flies, whose purpose in nature is a mystery to me, unless they are tiny incarnations of the devil. “What did we ever do to them?” Isabel kept asking. I told her that’s not how things work in nature. Or at least not always. Luckily, they find Bill’s blood a great deal sweeter than mine (actually it has to do with how much CO2 you “respire” and I like to say he has a larger carbon footprint than I do) so I didn’t get many bites because they were all on him, of course.

On the way to (well and from as well to be technical) the private part of Nauset Beach where we go there is a sand road you have to cross at the end of the wooden walkway and for some reason there seems to be a rather large number of those biting flies and various other flying insects that sting or bite in this area. One day toward the beginning of our time on the Cape we were heading back from the beach with Bill leading the charge, in characteristic fashion, having been relentlessly attacked by green heads. I watched as he got to the sand road up ahead. As he crossed, his lengthy arms began to flail violently about his head and the next thing he was running back and forth up and down the road (with arms still a-flailing). I couldn’t see from where I was standing what was after him but whatever it was stung him on the index finger which he held up for my inspection after the incident was over. That’ll teach you to flail, I thought. “I’m never coming to the beach again,” he proclaimed. Of course we went back the next day and every other day except for maybe one or two cloudy days. But I admired his conviction because I am sure he meant it at the time. My only regret is that I failed for the second time in a row (this has happened before, although the first time the sting-y thing chasing him was as large as a small bird and visible from a nautical mile) to capture it on video. Alas.

You may think I am mean but really I am laughing with him, not at him.

In addition to beach-going and arm-flailing we did a good deal of cooking, including charcoal grilling, and of course, eating. We visited Yarmouth and spent a glorious lazy afternoon with our very close friends the Roosevelt-Churchill clan (no I did not make that up) and everyone picked up right where they had left off, parents and kids alike. I have long believed that this is a true test of friendship. The ability to pick right up and have it feel natural and easy after much time between visits has elapsed and much life has been lived. If you find yourself hemming and hawing you know you have grown apart or that you never really had much to begin with.

The kids stood on the dock and scooped up moon jellyfish while the grown-ups chatted and moved boats around and that night for dinner we had spaghetti squash with pesto topped with diver scallops (who knew such a combination existed or could be so tasty?). Isabel spent the night and then the next day demanded to spend the night again which she did because why not, after all? It’s summer vacay.

Agnieszka returned to London on Wednesday the 24th with one more suitcase than she came with (compliments of my mom) packed with her stateside purchases (these included American jeans, New York and Boston Starbucks mugs and a Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt from the restaurant in Times Square). Then Friday Bill’s parents, who had gone to Wellesley for the week, returned to the Cape, and Bill’s brother, Phil (yes, Bill and Phil) arrived from DC. Friday night we had a dinner party with the aforementioned persons, Bill and me and the girls, of course, and then Bill’s work colleague, Brian and his wife Alison, who drove in from Boston in traffic so bad that we plied them with drinks and demanded they spend the night, which they did. To round things out, my best childhood friend, Beth, drove up from Connecticut to spend the weekend on the Cape at a nearby resort and she made it in time for dinner too.

Following a tasty meal of chillied flank steak, sweet and regular potato “fries,” chipotle mayonnaise (all recipes stolen from the Roosevelt-Churchill annual New Year’s Eve blow-out) and salad, and a strawberry-rhubarb crisp for dessert, which I made because Carol had never liked rhubarb having been forced to eat it “plain” by her mother and I wanted to see if she would like it in a baked dessert with other ingredients, I discovered that our six-year-old daughter, Charlotte, apparently has the makings of a go-go dancer. Seriously we are going to have to keep an eye on that girl.

Char started DJ’ing and rocking out, and Isabel joined in, with a hula-hoop. I have to say that they both have some pretty fierce moves. And no one broke a lamp even though there was leaping (while hula-hooping) involved. What really would have made the night would have been an indoor slip-n-slide lubricated with mojitos but you have to draw the line somewhere.

Sunday morning Bill’s parents left for Wellesley and that evening Phil made phenomenal fish tacos (Martha Stewart) and then headed back as well because he had to return to work on Monday.

Enter cousins Abigail (five) and Lydia (two going on three) and Bill’s sister, Lib. Grammy Carol and Lib and her girls pulled in Monday afternoon after not so great traffic during which they were saved from hysteria and boredom by the serendipitous presence of the Sound of Music CD in the car, which kept the girls entertained for hours. The cousins reunited, and we quickly became aware that both Charlotte and Abigail knew most of the lyrics to the songs, so the next days were sprinkled with performances, sometimes in falsetto, of songs the words to which I confess I never fully learned (until now).

There was more cooking and eating and beach going and then a week ago today, I left the gang at the Cape and headed back across the Sagamore Bridge to take my father out to dinner. Caffè Bella is a great little Italian restaurant in Randolph that’s been there for many years and to which we’ve been meaning to go for a few years ever since my dad moved to Massachusetts but we never managed to get there. He had fresh figs stuffed with blue cheese on prosciutto and capellini with fresh lobster meat. I had sautéed soft shell crab and a delicious capellini with capers and fresh vegetables. And we shared a chocolate cake and a piece of blueberry cheesecake for dessert. There was so much food I sent my dad home with my leftovers and he was able to have “a whole ‘nother” meal out of it. I also made him try my soft shell crab thinking that being a Southern boy he might never have tried such. When I explained why the shell was soft he said he wasn’t sure he had wanted to know that, but at least he had already swallowed the bite.

After dinner I drove to Wellesley to spend one night and then headed to Sudbury for the memorial service of Kate’s father, Jonathan Roosevelt. Again, I felt lucky to be present in person on this occasion so that I could support my generous and treasured friend. I drove back to the Cape the next day and we spent another lovely few days at the beach. Did I mention that the heat wave did finally break? It was so lovely. Isabel taught herself to boogie board (I’m a loser and don’t know how so she had no choice but to teach herself) and enjoyed body surfing with her cousin, Abigail. Charlotte and Lydia played in the water some and dug in the sand building sand castles or mounds of sand that were supposed to be sand castles and burying body parts (still attached) and random objects.

I stood on the beach, feeling small but not necessarily insignificant, taking in the beauty of this favorite place. This stretch of sand and open ocean, this feeling of being one with the earth. I embraced my ability, here, to let all things momentarily fall away, to relax and simply be in the moment. I inhaled it, tasted it. It’s where I will go in my mind when I feel the stresses of life pushing in on me, or whenever I get that feeling that I should be stressing about something because I’m done stressing about whatever I was stressing about. I’ll use it to clear the mechanism. In fact I think I’ll give it its own partition. So that I can reboot and be there if I want to.

Monday I drove the wagon back to Hamden and visited my mother, who is recovering well from her hip replacement and walking better than before the surgery. The weather was gorgeous, perfect, bottle it and keep it kind of weather. Dry and not too hot. The summer insects intermittently humming, the birds chirping and there were other familiar sounds… Someone mowing the lawn. The tic-toc of the grandfather clock in the living room. The soft whoosh of cars driving by on the street where I grew up. The deck was peppered with tiny acorns that have already begun to fall from the big old oak. And the temperature dipped pleasantly in the evening making it excellent sleeping weather. I like to turn on the window fan and pull up the quilt. Each morning when I opened my door I was greeted by a friendly meow from one of my mother’s two cats who jumped up on the bed, rolled over and displayed his soft tummy. And the other one sat and watched me do yoga for forty minutes.

Last night we went to L’Orcio in New Haven and ate on the patio. We had burrata with roasted tomatoes and arugula and then my mom had filet mignon with gorgonzola sauce and I, linguine alle vongole and a side of spinach. No room for dessert. It was the best steak I have tasted in years. And my clams were divine.

This morning I took a cab to the train station and was standing on the platform waiting for the Acela which was ten minutes late. I looked around and noticed signs and vending machines. Trash and recycling containers. Things I never paid much attention to. Vending machines stocked with every imaginable American treat. Pop Tarts and Doritos, Smartfood and Reese’s. Snickers and Utz. And I found this, this glass and metal box full of junk food, somehow beautiful and comforting. I felt the same way staring at the pristine white rows of Pepperidge Farm cookies at the grocery store. It’s just so… American. Familiar.

Now I am on the Acela, speeding from New Haven to Boston on another glorious day. The ocean is glittering and the grass and plants are bright and lush. People on the beach wave as the train hurdles past. I am passing Noank, where I spent time as a child because my grandfather lived there, right on the water. It makes me think of docks and lobster rolls and Boston Whalers. Slippery rocks and barnacles. The slightly mildewed, musty yet not entirely unpleasant smell of old life vests. Playing in the crab water. Watching Isabel take her first steps in his house after she played in that same crab water eight years ago.

And my summer vacation is drawing to a close but not yet over. I have a little more to do, a bit more traveling. Time to be alone with my thoughts on the train and in the car. More time with family and friends. A few more precious moments to enjoy this partition. To really remember that this is who I am. I am an American. This is my country.

Oh how I love it so.

5 thoughts on “American Summer

  1. What an extraordinary post. I was truly on your adventure with you. Have a safe trip back to England.

  2. Beautiful Em. I am with you, we are blessed to live in America. Thank you for sharing your wonderful childhood memories and your new memories for your children! You should make your blog into a book.

  3. This post is so beautiful, on so many levels, that it has reduced me to a inchoate pile of blubbering protoplasm! Wish even more that I’d gotten to see you!

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