A Day in the Life: Lessons from My Father
As another Father's Day approaches, I am drawn to summer memories of my father. When I was young he was a teacher and we would stay in a cottage in a small hamlet for a month, soaking up the sun and breathing in salt air. Days blended into one another. My memories are sweet and compact. Each evening as my dad and I sat on the beach the six o’clock whistle would blow from the firehouse. The sun danced off the gently lapping waves. My dad would sigh, “Better start packing up. Your mom will be waiting for us.”
He would put his empty bottle into the tartan plaid cooler and begin taking down the green and white striped umbrella. The seagulls cawed above circling, waiting to drop down onto the sand and grab at scraps left by the beach goers. The sand, now cooling under our feet, sparkled in the late day sun. The beach mostly empty now, stretched out, majestically calling to the ocean.
My dad would pack our things onto the brown bike and lift me up and place me into the metal bike seat that sat precariously on the back of his bike seat. There was no buckle and no bike helmet. Dad would mount the bike and with a little uneasy swerve that made my belly drop just a little, he would begin the peddle home, down the short hill to the main road. His brown sandals not buckled and the loose buckles would hit the side of the bike in a rhythmic thwack, thwack. I lolled back and forth in the rickety seat, holding tight to the metal rails at my sides, sure if my dad father took too quick a turn I would be sent flying out of the seat. An element of danger I admit I found rather exciting. In the background the sun would sink just a little lower, getting close enough to the sea to give it a gentle kiss good night.
The bike moved along, passed the casino where the sound of kids getting an ice cream filled the air. The smell of salt and seaweed tickled my nose as we moved past the lagoon where the tide was moving out and still more kids huddled around buckets and pulled crabs out of the briny water on strings wrapped with muscle guts. More children were folding up their sails after an afternoon of sailing.
As we ventured along my dad would wave to people who were walking their dogs or sitting on front porches. His skin brown and soft with slight rolls poking over his swim shorts. He hardly every wore a shirt, just a green baseball hat. I would continue to swerve back and forth as he pumped his legs, up, up a hill and then down. The rank smell from the marsh, more seaweed and low tide, pummeled my nostrils as we rounded the corner. The tall grass moving in almost the same rhythm as I did on the back of the bike, a gentle sway back and forth.
We reached the cottage and my father would rest the bike against his side as he lifted me from the seat. “Head to the shower and rinse off. Your mom doesn’t want sand in the house.”
As I walked to the back of the house my mother would call from inside for me to go rinse off before coming in. I would glance at my dad, who responded with a wink and a laugh. I rinsed under the warm water in the outdoor shower, green slime creeping me out and making the wood floor slippery. The sky above me turning a darker shade of blue as the sun continued its descent. I could feel the sand in all my cracks and crevices. I turned every which way to help get the sand out. I could feel the heat of the sunburn under my fingers, because that was a hallmark of a good day.
I would come out of the shower to find my dad father sitting on the deck, still in his baseball hat and swimming trunks and no shirt, having a beer and looking out across the small yard, through the neighbor’s yard and out to the water. The two small houses on the island across the bay turning pink and gold as the fading light danced on the water.
Wrapped in my towel, shivering slightly from the cooling air hitting my sunburned skinned, I would climb into my dad's lap and watch the water and the sand and the sun say good night.
Those summer days are some of my most cherished memories of my childhood. There was a rhythm to our days but it wasn't a hurried, frantic rhythm. It was a slow steady beat of friends and family coming to visit. Of suntan lotion and cook outs. And corn on the cob. Lots of corn. There was laughter. My dad made me laugh. The friends and family who came to visit brought with them more laughter. There were no rules really. My father would sit with friends on the beach, sipping cold beer, swimming and was always attentive when I yelled "Watch this!" It is one of his greatest lessons and I am pretty sure he wasn't even trying.
Those summers taught me that being in constant motion isn't necessary. That there isn't always something that has to be done. I learned that it is important to be present but that it is also important to let go. Our summers were full of free time. Bike riding and swimming and crabbing. There were no cell phones to distract anyone. You watched the sun set. You breathed in the salt and let the sun touch your uncovered skin. You enjoyed the people you were with. You laughed. I learned that it is okay to be still, watch the sun go down and sip a cold beer because the moment you are in is the most important one.
My dad, mugging for the camera in the summer of '76