Nearly every summer, I work for a few weeks at a theater in Bar Harbor, Maine. Last year, my parents Paul and Sharen visited me for a week. They brought the dog. It was my first vacation alone with my parents since I was 3, when my brother came along. Sharen organized the trip – Sharen organizes everything. Paul is along for the ride, petting the dog hairless.
They pull into the driveway of the house where I’m staying, and honk for me to come out for our excursion. By the time I get to the car, they are both sitting in the back seat with the car running: Apparently I’m driving.
We are going to Winter Harbor for a lobster festival. Mom has gathered coffee and chocolate chip cookies from my favorite gourmet bakery in town. I drive and we eat cookies and look at little Downeast towns. On the way, we stop at Schoodic point, a remote stretch of boulders on the ocean. We get out to walk and let the dog pee. It is one of my favorite places in the world, I have been there several times before, and I’ve brought them here on purpose – huge dark rocks tumbling down to the ocean. This seemed like a good idea, but now I feel dread for them as we start to walk on the boulders. They’re going to slip off a precipice and fall into a chasm. “People die every year,” somebody says. My dad must inch to the edge of a cliff to see just how people die. I can’t breathe. There is a treacherous walk down toward the water. My mom leans against me measuring each step with her toes: She blames it on her trifocals.
Other couples, tall and blonde with tall blonde dogs off leash, bounce over the rocks like Eddie Bauer models; we creep down with Rudy choking on his short leash, my parents quietly horrified and me terrified that they’ll break something. Is this how a new parent sees the world once their baby starts walking – all sharp things at eye level and dropoffs?
My mom sits on the rocks over the Atlantic ocean and paints a tiny watercolor. She is an object in motion, even when she is at rest. My dad sits with the dog, petting its bald behind balder, staring out into the ocean like a record needle poised over the record and never making contact – spinning, spinning. I am exhausted by the thought of heading back up the rocks. And then it hits me:
My parents are becoming old: My mom is scared to go up or down stairs. She wears purple ponchos she makes from leftover fabric. My dad talks to the dog like a baby. They are comfortable sitting in silence for long periods of time. They go to bed before I even get to work at the theater. They’ve left all the decision making on this vacation to me.
I don’t want to be forty. I don’t want them to be 70. I don’t want to be responsible. I don’t want to be in the front seat driving. When I was 16, I didn’t even want to get my license. And now I’m responsible for getting my parents safely up the rocks… One step at a time, Mom, hold on – give me the painting…Dad, are you OK back there? Up the rocks we go. To the car. You want me to drive? Of course…We’re off to Winter Harbor, to the Lobster Festival.
Craft Vendors sell my mother raw felt and red hats, while my dad finds a bench to sit on and pet the dog and stare. I keep losing them, but this is safe, this is appropriate. Lobsters are only $15 and served in a tent by a church group. There’s corn on the cob and apple pie, and a lobster each. We’re the kind who will suck the meat out of the little legs – They look to me to lead the conversation. Didn’t you like the rocks? Dad, don’t eat the Tamale, it’s got mercury poison in it this year. Isn’t this fun? Isn’t this great? I have my mom’s ability to resculpt a memory by driving the conversation afterward.
But it is great. Of all the summer festivals, it seems the most festive; of all the golden summer-meals, it is the most golden.
We’ll finish our meal, and in the car on the way back, we’ll eat warm leftovers of cookies, and my parents will doze in the back seat and the sun will be turning everything orange and nothing will be better than a warm chocolate chip cookie in a hot car. I am clinging to childhood, and they are beginning the beginning of a slide back to it, but we meet suspended for a perfect moment in that middle place – everybody’s healthy, happy and whole.
I drive us back home, racing to get back in time for my show. Paul and Sharen drive back to their cabin to go to bed early.
This is how it will be: My mother will create things until she can’t walk, and then create until she can’t lift her arms, then she’ll still find some way to do something. She will use every minute of every minute. And my dad will keep doing what he’s doing, which is avoiding doing much at all – petting the dog, when it’s gone he’ll have another, sitting, petting, watching.
And everything I need to know about life is in between those two, the rocks, the ocean. “People die every year.”
There is nothing beautiful about growing old, but there are many beautiful things about being old. Or maybe it’s the other way around.