My mother called last night, to let me know they’re renting a house by the shore in August and could Leah and I come. Sometimes lately I think she’s getting old, or else it’s just that it’s got her all convoluted because her daughter has a broken family and she doesn’t what to do about it or how she needed to act, as if she needed to do anything. How does it work if I show up with her granddaughter but no husband? Am I even allowed to travel and take Leah away from this state out in the middle of nowhere that she’s never even visited because it must be so foreign? I started to say that I wasn’t sure I could come because of the cafe, wasn’t sure how I would get away for a couple of weeks, wasn’t sure I even could afford it. And then she changed the subject to my nieces. Sometimes I think this cafe reminds her of her grandfather, who had a business making pickles on the Lower East Side in New York. They lived in a little tenement somewhere there and they did all they could do to get away from there. Getting up to Boston, getting into an Ivy League school, they did all they could to put my great-grandfather’s pickle shop behind them. And here I am again, living in a poor little town in the middle of nowhere and making food for the farmers. It’s like I’m returning to poverty.
It wasn’t anything she said. It never is. Sometimes I’m not sure she even means it. But by the end of it I felt like a failure, and I wondered whether I wanted to go. Both of my parents are getting old, my father especially. He’s four years older than she is. He’s getting quiet as he gets older, so I never talk to him on the phone. They’ve always lived far away and I want Leah to be able to remember them, who they were, how much they did for her. But I could imagine sitting around at a summer house by the shore northeast of Boston, everyone talking about their happy, successful lives and all the great things they’re doing and their kids are doing and me sitting there, talking about … what, a cafe? Out in the middle of North Dakota? It’s like I’m in a place they can’t even imagine, a place they didn’t know existed until I inexplicably decided to give up everything I’d always known in Boston and come back here. For Erik. And hasn’t that turned out great, and now I’m stuck here. God, I don’t even want to get into any of that with them. So maybe it’s good that I can’t imagine how I could afford to go, or who I could get to work some at the cafe so I could.
Still, my heart pulls. When I was growing up, my grandparents, my grandfather who escaped the life of pickles on the Lower East Side, they used to rent a house by the shore in the summer. A lot of the old summer estates have been broken up now. The houses once sat on these sprawling properties and then the children built houses on the land when they inherited it, and then people started renting them out. This was never the Cape, but even so, when they were huge estates, summering out here was not the kind of life that was exactly open to Jews. Later, by the time he was working at Harvard Medical Center and these places were getting older, and they could afford it, they would get the same house every summer, and my parents would pack up my sister and I and we’d be out there all summer. When I think about my childhood, especially when I was in middle school and high school, that places is about the only happy memory I have from that time. The place they used to rent, there was a stand of woods on the property and I found a path through them that went to a little cove that was like a private cove. There was never anybody else there, not even boats coming into it to harbor. My sister wouldn’t come there with me — the woods were dark and you had to practically crawl under a few downed trees to get to it, and it used to scare me, too, but I loved going to that cove so much I’d screw up my courage and force my imagination to stop and hurry my way through the half-hidden path out to the cove. There was a little scrap of beach there and when it was sunny I’d sit in the sun with a book and hear the water and the circling gulls and just feel peace in a way I’ve hardly ever felt it in my life. Sometimes rain would blow in and I’d duck under the cover of the pines that stood along the shore there. It was my own little cove and it was like heaven to me, a kind of heaven I’ve never known anywhere else.
My parents are renting that same house this year, and at first my heart leapt to go back and see it. I imagined taking Leah there, packing a picnic lunch, stretching out on the sand with books, sitting together quietly, talking now and then. In an instant I imagined a whole trip out there and immediately I felt that old feeling of peace wash over me. And then almost as quickly, I remembered how my sister used to tell my grandmother that I was sneaking off to that place, as if there was some reason I was not supposed to go there, which there wasn’t. My grandmother was probably the most calm person that’s ever been in our family, never seeming to worry about anything, or at least not going on incessantly about it if she did. She used to just smile at me whenever my sister did that. But I could hear it all again. I imagined getting up and getting Leah ready to walk over there and my sister starting in on it all over again. Oh, not that place again! Of course Sarah would want to go there. There was a much nicer beach somewhere else. Never mind that it’s probably crowded with people trying to look more beautiful or successful or rich than each other, whatever it is. But she’d be able to make it sound appealing — she’s in advertising after all, it’s what she does. And in no time my nieces would be going on about how they wanted to go there, how the other beach sounded boring, and Leah would of course be wanting to go with them. They’re sixteen and eighteen and they live in the city and so whatever they’re doing is always cooler than whatever she feels like doing. And so in an instant I felt heavy and deflated and I didn’t want to go at all, and so I was telling my mother it would be difficult. Instead of being able to have the happiness and calm that I remember, it would be everything but that.
And knowing my sister, when she finds out I may not come, she’ll have her girls email Eva. Aren’t you coming out? You’re going to miss a great time! And I’ll have to find a way to go, or I’ll have to send her without me. This is how it always works. Always what’s good for the family, and it’s always painful for me. I should be getting used to this after fifty years, the hope and then the disappointment. But it gets me every time.