Tuesday, July 18, 2006

"Summer Days"

By Renee Geel

The school bus at the beginning of a long line of traffic holds everyone up for a good three minutes while we wait, anxious to be somewhere else. A young girl with a tennis racket, nine or ten years old, is greeted by her young mother, dressed in sensible khaki shorts and sandals. The girl looks tired, sleepy, moving dreamily down the sidewalk behind her mother and younger sibling in a carriage. Summer tennis lessons, I gather. I empathize with her sleepiness, remembering my own early morning swimming lessons when I was her age.

As I sit in the train of traffic behind the bus, wanting only a cup of coffee to jolt me into my workday, I try to imagine what it would be like to be that young mother of two. Painfully aware that the possibility of realizing that dream is nearly over for me, I focus instead on the little girl, remembering the feeling of coming home from early morning swimming lessons – lingering dread over my shyness relieved only by the familiar scent of chlorinated pool water.

On hot July days like this one, I would have marched straight into the house for my book – maybe The Diary of Anne Frank or My Side of the Mountain – and my own diary on my way to my not-too-high tree house in the back yard. It was draining, I remember, getting up so early to stand and shiver outside the pool and trying to make friends. I longed for the safe sanctuary that was my tree house.

That young girl with a blond braid swinging across her back like a pendulum, marking time until her long sprawled hours of play are no longer hers, summons an ache in my throat full of lost but still palpable freedom that I haven’t felt in three decades. Those summer days between elementary school and sixth grade were a dizzying spin of fear and confusion new to my protected world. I’m not sure my mother realized just how charged that time was for me, inexperienced as she was with a typical young girl’s transitions, and therefore ill-equipped to help me through mine.

Her own mother passed away when she was nine years old. My mother was passed back and forth between older, married siblings so that exhaustion and emotional roller coasters were something she took for granted. Or maybe she didn’t. Maybe that is why she – a born and raised Brooklyn girl – whole-heartedly embraced life as the wife of an upstate New York farmer. It was quiet, safe – hardworking, yes – but predictable.

So she couldn’t possibly understand why I felt so fearful of making new friends and being accepted by the right crowd. All she knew is that her own mother had been taken from her unaccountably, so that pressure to make it through a morning of summer swimming lessons with new faces and anticipating junior high was outside her world of floating back and forth between her father and her older, married brothers and sisters. I may as well have been whining to her that my life was thrown off kilter because my knee socks wouldn’t stay up, for all she could grasp.

I know that now. I felt abandoned by it then.

Finally, I ease into a parking spot in front of The Perfect Blend on Delaware Avenue, the main road through town. I know that I can go in and get a hot or iced cup of dark roast and be back to my office overlooking my back yard in ten minutes. Or, I can sit in the sanctity of the coffee shop at a table or in an armchair next to others searching for their perfect blend of communion and privacy, memory and present and future. The nine-o’clock sky is grey, the air, warm and heavy with humidity; but I love it. Summer days, traffic, ambling children: They all slow us down enough to remember or wonder or search for what was or could have been or will be. And to savor what is.

A freelance editor and writer, Renee Geel has a B. A. and M. A. from the University at Albany. She lives with her husband in upstate New York and is currently at work -- for tooooo many years now -- on a novel.

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