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The Summer Father Was Away
“Jo-bear, Jo!” a voice called. “Wake up, wake up—it’s just a bad dream.”
“Where am I?” I awoke, puzzled, my eyes only half open.
A familiar face hovered over me in the morning light, sun-bleached hair strewn across his forehead, and clear glacier-blue eyes. A boy about fifteen—my brother, Nathaniel.
“Where are we going?” I questioned with a start.
“Crazy with Maisy and Daisy!” Mama said. That was Dad’s favorite phrase—it meant that, as hard as we pushed, we would never pry it out of him.
Our father, Matthew, was at war. It felt empty the three of us in the car without him. For a long time I could only hear the forlorn sound of the wind and the rhythm of the tires on the dirt road.
“I wonder where Daddy is right now,” I asked.
Sadness fell like a heavy blanket; I knew everyone was thinking about Daddy. I closed my eyes and imagined what he was doing, but the pictures were blurry: maybe he was listening to the scratchy sounds of the radio as he tried to stay awake on patrol. Maybe he was cleaning his rifle, rubbing oil on the barrel the way he’d shown me. Maybe he was writing us a letter, his flashlight getting dimmer and dimmer as the batteries faded.
“We’re here!” my mother said, her voice filled with an enthusiasm I sensed was a little too fake. I was jostled out of my reverie. Rolling down the window I could hear the faint sound of sighing waves. Bunny rabbits, startled by the rough engine cutting through the silence, stopped to stare, then run. The summer cottage father loved so much looked gray and forgotten. The flowers he had planted drooped, no longer able to find the light of day.
As we carried our bags through the door the sour scent of mothballs overwhelmed the comforting sea-salt smell of our summer home.
“Let’s go straight to the beach,” my mother called. “Come on, it’ll be fun.”
Nathaniel and I looked at each other—we both knew she was definitely trying too hard.
“The sun’s not even out. It’ll be freezing in that water. I’d rather stay here.”
“Fine—then I’ll just go by myself,” my mother said, “and I’ll bring those frozen Baby Ruths you love so much with me.”
It wasn’t because of the candy that we gave in; it was for Mom, it was for how hard she was trying.
I was pulled in our familiar red beach wagon down Tanglevine Lane next to vines of wild grapes. I was stuck between a mix of happy and sad, torn between two people, loving both equally. Mom was chattering away about who knows what until, finally, we arrived.
“Well, we’re here,” Nathaniel muttered, uncomfortably. “Er—might as well go in the water.”
At first my brother and I jumped the waves dutifully, skin white with goosebumps. But, as the waves got bigger, so did Nathaniel’s spirits.
“Here comes a humongous one. I challenge you to dive under.”
Breathing hard, I closed my eyes and prepared to dive.
Suddenly I felt comforting arms lifting me—up, up, up—then throwing me across the waves. Exhilaration!
I fell under the churning foam, the voices on the shore mutted. But I could hear my father’s voice above the rumble of the waves, “No matter where I am, no matter what I do, I’ll always hold you tight.”
The thrill of it made me laugh out loud, the first time in six months. Even when I realized that it was my brother who’d lifted me up, and not Dad, it still made me happy.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw—or maybe I was just imagining it?—Nathaniel’s lips (blue and chattering) curling up into a hint of a smile.
“Who wants a frozen Baby Ruth?” my mother called.
“Isn’t it wrong to feel so happy?” I blurted out when we plopped ourselves into the hammock we had made summers before.
I looked at Nathaniel, his lips embedded in a thick layer of chocolate. I pointed and stifled a giggle. He flashed a quick, embarrassed smile, white teeth with chocolate frosting.
“I’ve been waiting to feel like this since Father left—but I didn’t realize I could,” I said.
“Jo-bear, get real,” Nathaniel said.
“OK, maybe not since he left, but for a long time.”
I felt my mother’s fingers tuck my wet hair back behind one ear.
“You’re my smart girl, aren’t you?” she said.
The steady drumbeat of my heart, still pounding, rang in my ears. The hammock sighed contentedly as we swayed back and forth.
“You can’t buy a day like this,” Nathaniel announced. It was a phrase Father used that always made us laugh.
Before I knew it, he was pulling me across the beach on a boogie board.
“Faster, faster,” I cried. This time, he, too, was cackling gleefully.
I remember that summer—way more than the rest: father returned with war stories to tell us (with occasional sound effects from Nathaniel). That summer was the turning point of my life. That was the summer I learned that I could live with sadness and still find a spark of joy.