My daughter’s handwriting has changed during our summer apart.
She is twelve, and this is her sixth summer spent with her grandparents in Florida. She’s always loved these summers, loved her day camp, and while it’s hard for me to let her go for two months – to be without her, to give her to parents whose skills have ever been in question – it gives her so much joy that I do it.
This year has been different. She’s quiet, my mother says. She misses Boston – her new home. She misses her friends. She misses me.
Every year my mother worries that my daughter won’t return. Every year I reassure her that my daughter loves her, loves camp, looks forward to this all year.
This year is different.
As we wait for the bus, I look over her shoulder. Her handwriting has gone spiky, a sharp change from her generic-childish rounded script. It has slimmed and lengthened like her face, her limbs. My daughter has lost her baby fat. My daughter is starting to look the way she’ll look when she grows up.
We are waiting for the bus to take us to Woods Hole.
We are going to Woods Hole:
1. To visit my aunt, all alone since my uncle passed away this December
2. To let Elayna poke around the Marine Biological Laboratories, because she loves biology, and especially loves marine biology, and
3. Because I went to Woods Hole when I was twelve.
The first morning of my visit, when I was twelve, I say – I walked out into the dining room, and my aunt and uncle had laid out this amazing spread. Meats and cheeses and pastries. My aunt greeted me merrily and asked if I would like coffee. No one had ever asked me this before, and I said that yes, I would like coffee. (To this day, my mother claims that this stunted my growth.) My aunt poured me coffee, served me fruit and bagels, and she and my uncle proceeded to talk to me.
No one had ever really talked to me before.
My aunt is sweet and ladylike and mischievous, and not much taller than me, as I am not much taller than my daughter; we look like nesting dolls, three generations.
My aunt found her soulmate early in life.
My uncle was a biochemist and marine biologist, dry-humored and tightly focused; he was widely regarded to be brilliant. They were married for fifty-two years, twined around each other like vines; she made merry and he retreated to microscopes, he made discoveries and she typed them up. They supported each other.
Not once in my life did I ever see him take her for granted.
The first night my daughter and I are there, my aunt and I stay up late, talking. Her talking, really. Me listening. Stories of hated former employers, of movie parties in the 1970s with rented projectors.
I never used to be a chatterbox, she says; I don’t know why I’m talking so much.
I know, but do not say, that it’s because she’s used to having her conversations in bits throughout the day – brief exchanges with my uncle. Parry, riposte. And now her days are long and silent. It builds up.
My aunt’s hands look like my grandmother’s.
My grandmother was tiny and wrinkled and easily scandalized, with dark eyes and knobbly arthritic joints. She served Neapolitan ice cream in green glass bowls. She made mushroom barley soup at my grandfather’s behest, but stopped making it after he died, when I was ten.
My grandmother died when I was fourteen. She had a brain tumor. I helped take care of her, that last year.
My daughter is named for her.
My grandmother’s name meant “star”. My daughter’s means “light”.
Your aunt almost indirectly named you, I tell my daughter. It was here in Woods Hole, the summer that I was twelve, that she gave me a copy of Anne of Green Gables. And I read every book in that series, and then Emily of New Moon.
You were almost Emily, I tell my daughter, because I wanted you to be a writer, like Emily in the books. And it all goes back to the summer I was twelve.
So many things go back to that summer.
(My daughter is a writer.)
My aunt stands in her kitchen, speaking quietly, trying to keep from wringing her hands. (I look at her hands and see my grandmother.) She can’t show us around Woods Hole, she says. It hurts. It’s too soon. She’d thought she could do it. She’s sorry.
I understand. I tell her I understand.
She and my uncle worked side by side at the Marine Biological Laboratories for decades. This was home, and it was home with him. She has not been back since the wake. Her old co-workers call and send cards, but she cannot go back, not where every footstep, every door, is laden with memory. Not yet. She can drop us off, though. We can take the trolley back.
As she drives us there, she points places out to my daughter. We lived in those cottages when we first started working here, she said. We went to that beach.
Do you remember how difficult you were, she said?
Do you remember that week you stayed with your other aunt, and that screaming fight?
My daughter watches us from the back seat, wide-eyed and silent. Her mother? A screaming fight?
My aunt points out the cottage they lived in the summer I stayed with them, slows until honked at. I point my bedroom out to my daughter – the one in the very front. It was small, just big enough for a girl and a bed and a dresser. I would stack my library books on the dresser, and I kept a hydrangea blossom from the bush out front in a jar.
It was so small, my aunt says.
It was perfect, I say.
My aunt drops us off in front of the Marine Resource Center, where an old friend of hers is to show us around. He isn’t there yet, so I grab my daughter’s hand –
Come here. I want to show you something.
We cut through buildings, through yards, and all the while I am talking.
I was sent here because I was difficult, I tell her, answering her questions. I was sent to my other aunt first, and that didn’t work. So they sent me here.
I never had a good relationship with my parents. Some people don’t click, I say. We never clicked. And they couldn’t deal with me. So they sent me away. Here, and later to residential treatment centers.
I pause. Mental institution, basically, I say, summarizing years of hell in three words.
They could not deal with me. And they kept trying to send me somewhere to be dealt with.
My daughter and I have always been close. She struggles to understand this, to understand how a child can be sent away.
This is what your grandmother and I argued about, I say, last time I was in Florida. I asked her why she sent me to those places, those and the wilderness survival camp and the group home. And… she didn’t really have an answer.
I stop at a gate. We’re here, I say.
I open the gate and let her in.
We are standing in a garden. Behind us, a tall thin belltower; before us, intricately plotted gardens and religious statuary. To the side, ocean.
I would get up in the morning, I tell her, and walk here. And I would just sit here and write. Or I would practice Sara’s speech from Labyrinth:
Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Goblin City to take back the child that you have stolen, for my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom is as great. For my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom is as great. You have no power over me.
I repeat it. You have no power over me.
I tell my daughter, this is the first time I was free. This is the first place. This is sacred ground. This, right here, is my heart’s home.
I walk her around to the back of the tower, a garden neglected, a place no one but me ever came.
I did not have a happy childhood, I confess. But here, I was happy.
You’re lucky you had a place like this, she says softly.
You’re lucky you didn’t need one, I reply, hugging her.
We sit. We watch the wind on the water. We rest.