The afternoon was not looking good. AJ and I had planned an outing. We’ve been talking about it for days. We were going to ride our bikes to the train station, take the train two towns over to the Farmer’s Market, wander around for an hour buying good things to eat and then take the train home again. About 20 minutes before we were supposed to leave, the rain began pouring out of the sky in buckets. I was bitterly disappointed. AJ was not so much, but he was concerned about boredom.
The rain and my throbbing sinuses made me crabby. The weather-induced house arrest made AJ crabby. We tried to play board games, but we kept arguing over the rules. i was in a bad mood and wasn’t feeling tolerant of AJ’s penchant for making up his own rules.
Finally, I announced that we needed to leave the house to get our humor back. AJ agreed with me. And, since we’d spent the last two days at the library and weren’t really up for a third, we decided to go to my favorite coffee shop, which has recently started selling excellent organic ice cream. AJ had a giant scoop of cookie dough and a root beer and I had a cup of coffee and AJ’s leftovers. While we ate, we picked up the game of Yahtzee from the shelf. It was one of the few games my spartan paternal grandparents owned, and I remember spending many rainy days in their cramped Toledo living room, sprawled against the crocheted pillows that looked like ravioli, playing it with my cousins. I taught AJ to play today and he beat me soundly.
By the time we had finished our game, the rain had stopped. We headed out to go to the farmer’s market, but when we got to the car, we suddenly realized that neither of us felt like going anymore. Maybe it’s because it wasn’t the same going by car. Or maybe it was the root beer.
“Let’s go to a park and walk around,” I suggested. To my great surprise, AJ said,
We had to figure out what park. I suggested we try to find the park where his football practices are going to be held, which we’d never heard of until we got the instructions from the football league a couple of days ago. It’s on a side of our town that we’d never been to.
It turned out to be pure magic.
We started down a road we knew well. But when we got to the stop sign where we always turned right to go to baseball and basketball practice or left to go to yoga, we went straight instead. The road went down a hill past some impoverished looking houses, then went straight for a while and began to curve around a good sized lake that I didn’t even know existed. Suddenly, a beach appeared on our left. AJ asked to stop and I pulled into the small parking lot, but the sign said we could only park if we had a neighborhood sticker, which we did not, so we looked longingly out the window and drove on. We made a wrong turn and ended up on a road that petered out into a dirt lane that dead-ended into a spectacularly beautiful stretch of marsh, with cattails as big around as my arm. We turned around, narrowly avoiding getting stuck in marshy mud, and tried a different road. We passed another beach, even prettier than the last and just past it, the park. We pulled into the lot and stopped the car.
First we explored the park, which smelled wonderfully like summer camp, like honeysuckle and pine, like clover and campfire ash and rotting wood. It was a beautiful smell.
We walked around a small, winding ash path that led us past a map of the park, past a gazebo, past a pretty display of native flowers and on to two playgrounds separated by a basketball court. The first playground was huge and spectactular. AJ ran around the sopping wet slides while I launched myself into space on a zip wire, and through some great fortune, did not manage to dislocate either of my shoulders. We yelled at each other across the chasm between us. The second playground, though, turned out to be even better. It didn’t look like much, but there were two long twisty poles poking up through what looked like rubber-rimmed wheels. If you put your foot on one wheel, just outside of where the pole twisted out and gave yourself a shove, it spun wildly fast, and even faster when you picked up your foot and leaned out from the pole. It spun forever. It spun until the sky and trees became one big green-gray blur. It spun until you were laughing too hard to hold on anymore.
There was a pole for each of us and AJ and I spun and laughed until our arms were too tired to hold on. Then we walked out of the park, cut through the overgrown baseball field, and headed down the road to the beach.
Though there were multiple signs of rules, one threatening to charge us large amounts for the privilege of entering, the gate was open and the gatehouse was shut tight, so we walked in. We were the only ones there. There was not another soul in sight.
AJ headed straight for the water, walking across the sand to the enclosed swimming area. He stuck his feet in.
“It’s funny, Mommy. It feels cold at first and then it feels warm.”
I stuck my feet in too and I saw what he meant. The edges were cold, perhaps from the rain, but the deeper parts were warm and inviting. The water was crystal clear. We could see every stone. The lake smelled just like the one where I used to swim as a child when I’d visit my maternal grandparents in Michigan. They would take us to their country club and we would walk in our bathing suits across the golf course, pausing, if there was no one looking, to walk in our bare feet on the greens to feel the weird spongy grass on our toes. We’d head to the tiny beach in the lily-choked lake and would jump in and swim out to the raft. We liked to be in the water, because when we were on shore, my grandmother would slap us hard if she thought there was a horsefly on us. My grandmother always hated horseflies. We, however, did not see how they could be so much worse than being slapped by your own grandmother. My grandfather would always come in the water with us. He would swim underwater and play sea monster with us, grabbing at our arms and legs and growling until we shrieked with mock fear and laughter. It smelled just like that lake.
I helped AJ roll up his shorts and I rolled up my own and we waded deeper. AJ kept forgetting he didn’t want to get wet and soon he was soaked from head to toe. We practiced skipping rocks. He tried to throw his by curling his wrist in toward his chest. I showed him how tilting your wrist back and flicking it forward to throw worked better and he skipped a rock four times.
Then I noticed something moving near my ankle.
“Look, AJ! Look at all the fish!”
They were pale, nearly translucent with a dark spot on each gill and a silvery flash when they flipped sideways. There were dozens of them, curious, swimming just inches away.
“Wow! Look at them all!” exclaimed AJ.
“When I was a little girl, I used to like to stand very still and feel the minnows nibbling at my toes.”
“Did it hurt?”
“No. It tickled.”
AJ looked doubtful. “I want to catch one. Will you catch one?”
“I don’t think I’ll be able to. They’re too quick and slippery. And I’m not sure I want to. I don’t think they’d like to be caught.”
“I’m going to try.” AJ splashed around for a while, and then decided to try it my way. We watched and held our breath.
“Hey!” yelled AJ. “One just nibbled my butt!”
“What did it feel like?”
“It was very tickly.”
“I told you.”
Just then one nibbled at my ankle and then another moved in for my toes. I flexed my foot and they jumped away.
“I think,” said AJ, “we should call that feeling fishtickle.”
“I think that is an excellent idea.”
We took a break from the water to explore the rest of the beach area. We climbed up the hill past a dingy little playground, certainly no match for either of the one’s we’d been to earlier, and went around the other side to the section that was invisible from both the road and the beach.
“It’s a pier! Can we go on it, Mommy?”
“Yes, of course.”
The pier was shaped like two letter Fs back to back and had benches built in. All around it were tied all kinds of small boats: pedal boats, rowboats, kayaks, canoes. It was tempting to grab one and take a spin around the lake, but we restrained ourselves and sat on the benches instead. We listened to the water lapping at the edges. Across the lake a man raked his little patch of beach in a house next to a hill covered in day lilies.
“Wow, cool!” said AJ. “Look down, you can see the water!” The pier was made of a some kind of grid and you could indeed see the water.
“Maybe there are fish right under us.”
After we’d sat long enough, we returned for a little more fish baiting and then, reluctantly, we headed back toward the car. It had been such a perfect afternoon, that I hated to see it end. And yet, I didn’t want to stay too long. I didn’t want anything to taint it.
AJ begged to go back to the playground one more time, but already the perfection was wearing off. We were swarmed by mosquitoes (where had they been before?) and soon the rain began to fall again. We ran for the car and shut ourselves up inside it.
It was a perfect summer day. And as I told Mr. Spy later, the moments of joint discovery with AJ are precious. In them, he is most at himself. He is not trying to be smart or funny or silly or cute. He is wrapped up in the moment and wondering at all he sees. To be able to bear witness to it feels like an incredible gift. I would be so sad to miss it. These moments are already becoming fewer and farther between. Pretty soon he won’t want to include me in them anymore. I want to have as many of these days to remember as I can.
We will go back to this spot and bring Mr. Spy sometime. But I know it won’t be the same, because it’s already been discovered. And I half expect the whole place to have disappeared in the mist like Brigadoon. But I hope one day AJ and I will find this place again. Maybe I will say, “Do you remember” and he will finish the thought, “the day we found a beach and tried to catch fish with our hands? The day we spun until we laughed and fell down? The day we sat on the dock and wondered what it would be like to live right exactly where we were in that moment, over the fish and under the sky?” Maybe we will remember what it was like to want more than anything else to be exactly where we were and marvel at our own good fortune in finding something new and wonderful and forever.