The Last Summer

Originally Published 06/13/2011 06:15:43 AM

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Photo Source: Jessica Beebe

I can see and hear it all yet, like a dreamscape, like it seemed at the time and like it really was. My older brother yells “Come ON, let’s GO!” from the driveway while I struggle to fit the last of my clothes and toys in my nylon carry-all; my mom gently taps his chest, shushes him and says “he’ll be right out”; my dad holds her from behind, sways gently, talks last-minute domestic details in a low voice filled with love and longing for the family he won’t have for the next two months. She turns the key and our pale yellow Dodge purrs to a low metallic grumble, he leans in the window, says to us all “I love you, see you in two months” and we’re off to the lake.

Mom sells Tupperware, dad works as an actuary. So mom takes us to the lake for summer vacation. We’ve been there several times for weekend getaways, but never for the full summer. This is new and exciting.

The land on Lake Dirigo has been in dad’s family for years, but he built the cabin with my uncle when they were teenagers. It’s small and cozy, with screen doors and windows, pine frame beds in the corner, a small stove and an ice chest. And for two months that summer it was our paradise.

We pull out onto Rt. 163 and head north out of New Clinton. Through the Dexter Valley, where the signal on the AM station fades into static, mom is cheerful and extra loud, her black hair bobbing back and forth as she leads us on sing-along’s. An hour later we head northwest on Rt. 201 through farm country, with the smell of freshly cut hay and grass heavy in the humid breeze. By this time mom is a little quieter; still cheerful, but not as loud, like she’s suddenly lost in sad thoughts. She comes back again when we make the foot of the Rainier Lakes region. The land, now merely islands in the vast expanse of open lake water, is tied together by the macadam of Rt. 201 and ice cream stands, bait shops and salt water taffy greet us on every shore.

Finally, three hours after leaving the house, we arrive in the center of Harlow. We stop for lunch at the Howard Johnson’s, and I get clam strips and fries, an orange sherbet and a cookie. From there we stop at Rancourt’s Market and load up on hot dogs and buns, potato chips, cereal and milk, peanut butter, Shur-fine grape and strawberry soda, Bubble Yum and Starburst, paper towels, bug spray, kitchen matches, a lantern, batteries, coffee and lots more. Mom takes bills out of her bank envelope at the check-out. Then she grabs a bag of balloons, a squirt gun, a dart gun, boxes of sparklers and other toys in plastic stapled to cardboard from the pegs and a Snickers bar for each of us. She pays, we take the bags out to the car and ten minutes later we’re home for the summer.

After putting the groceries away we immediately change into swim trunks and run down to the lake while mom opens the cabin and starts straightening. The dirt of the path is cool, but the rocks are blazing hot and we step lightly over pine needles and the occasional pinecone. And then, the water. We dive in off the dock, the long desired water of Lake Dirigo filling our ears and noses, cool until we find a warm current and stand, on our toes, splashing and feeling more alive than ever.    

Slanted late-afternoon sun back-lights the lake and trees as we see mom walking down the path to join us. She walks in up to her belly button, then bends forward, dives under and resurfaces in a perfect line, the water spreading out in a shimmering V behind her body. She’s quiet again, with a look of sad contemplation. But she perks up and we splash cool lake water at each other, swim and hug until the sky is an explosion of pastel oranges, pinks and purples.

After it’s too dark to stay in the lake, we hang our wet trunks on a branch and change into dry clothes. Mom lights a campfire, and we cook hot dogs on wooden sticks. We have strawberry soda and mom has wine. She looks sad again as the flames dance and the stars shimmer, but her voice is full of love and excitement. We sit outside until the fire dies, then fall asleep to the sound of crickets and gentle waves lapping against the shore. The summer had begun.

And so it would be for the whole two months: mom lapsing into contained sadness, then snapping out of it; endless hot days on the water; fires and cookouts at night; growing closer and more in love as a family trio separate from the whole. Dad came out for three weekends, and every time it was like getting to know him all over again. There would be a lot of that after the summer, as mom and dad separated and, as we found out much later, their affairs became more primary than secondary. We would never again visit the cabin on Lake Dirigo, but that one summer resonates, like a galaxy of memory. One summer on the lake. One last summer…

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