Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, July 12, 2015
By the time I turn 11, half of our household has left — one for school, one to get married and one to join the Air Force — and I’m all alone with my mother and father in the four-story, 5,000 square foot house I still dream about, perched above Lake Washington, with a view of Mt. Rainier to one end and Mt. Baker to the other. It’s one thing with six people inhabiting it, but quite another with three.
The following year, in what appears to be a true act of compassion, my father will buy us a puppy to make up for the lack of bodies milling about, but for the time being, I spend most of my time kicking around with the neighborhood kids, back at the house only when the streetlights plink on, which is around 9:30 p.m. in a Seattle summer. It’s an adjustment, being an instant only child, and maybe not such an inexplicable wonder that they let me stay out so late.
We’re house rich but cash poor. Dad lasts a year at Boeing before the layoffs and then decides simply not to go back, to work things out on what was then a meager colonel’s retirement. So when my mother announces that we’re going on vacation — taking the ferry to Orcas Island because a friend has offered up her cabin for a week or two, I hardly know what to feel or think.
We don’t go on vacations, not like other people do. No, we don’t have the means. In addition, my mother and father, who have moved eleven times in seventeen years, have no inclination — zero — to budge. But if someone offers up an ocean-front cabin, for free, and if it gives my dad a chance to put the DIY fishing boat (not kidding) in the water and troll for the ever elusive salmon one more time, he’ll take it. For all of us. (I catch a sand shark and a red snapper one particular day, but only because the boat stalls and we fish while waiting for the engine troubles to be sorted out.) (Other than that: no fish.)
In ‘69, the San Juan Islands have not yet boomed. The rustic little cabin right on the water, with a dinghy down below and a crab pot in storage and a tiny, shell-beached island to row to (named Skull), worms its way deep into my brain. The cabin kitchen, small and covered in contact paper, has a functioning toaster as the jewel in its crown. And the damp smell? A maritime combo of tide-so-close and rain every couple of days.
I fall in love — not with a person but a place. In love with the wobbly table and the old Scrabble set. With the lumpy couch and gothic romance novels by Victoria Holt. In love with spitting watermelon seeds out while a bucket of chowder-bound clams spits out sand. With picking mussels, and eating crabs, old-school general stores and the salty feel of the Pacific Ocean in my hair and in my lungs.
Before my dad shows up and starts ordering people around (which he has done for a living in the U.S. Army for 25 years), my mother and I enjoy some of the sweetest summer days I will ever know. Simple days made heady with a kind of boredom that is essentially unavailable to us today — unless we hunt it down. The kind of boredom we now stave off as we go about filling our days with forward motion, visual stimulation and endless things to tick off.
It’s July Fourth on Orcas Island. We are shooting off our packets of firecrackers and pinwheels and pop-pops and snakes. Right around the corner in the next inlet, there’s a fancy party going on. We can see the flashes from their Roman candles and bottle rockets and hear the screams of their children and adults, carrying on with what kind of extravagance I can only imagine. I spend a good amount of time wondering what is going on just there, beyond the light — what better brand of vacation they are privy to, even as I stand there writing air words with my own sparkler.
Who knows what the words might have been. Something classic, like “Please, God, make my life more interesting.” Or a site-specific word, like “geoduck,” which is a Northwest clam with a firehose neck you’ll never forget. Who knows. More likely there were no words at all sparkler-ing in the black above my head — just the endless loops and flourishes of an adolescent hand watching itself move through space and time.