It’s midweek and the children beg for a museum and church-free day. My husband and I nod in agreement and drive to the Seven Seas, a water park at the base of Cortona, the walled hill town depicted in Frances Mayes’ memoir, Under the Tuscan Sun. Despite unrelenting heat, there’s no line. Once inside the wooden fence, we discover three cerulean pools. The gurgle and flow of a water slide punctuates the silence. With the exception of two women sunning themselves, the place is empty.
Our two water sprites, Anna, 12 and Julia, 10, toss towels onto a chaise longue and hurl themselves into the nearest pool, the one with the slide. Julia has a young equine quality—lean, long-limbed, a bit awkward. Anna’s angles have begun to soften, a sign she approaches the transition into adolescence. But today, both are joyous children, spared my dawdling along cobbled streets and reading to them aloud from a Rick Steves travel guide.
I long to explore Cortona, linger before Fra Angelico’s Annunciation in the Museo Diocesano, and visit treasures housed in the Etruscan Museum. Instead, I’m in the valley, settled into a poolside chair with a paperback.
I hear voices and squint into the intense light. Bronzed teenagers, two bikini-clad girls and three boys, have arrived and slip into the pool. They call to each other in Italian and motion to our daughters to join them on the water slide. Our girls hesitate, but follow them up the ladder. At the top in the staging area, the girls sit, link arms with the teenagers to form a mass of entwined limbs, a human dam, and wait for the water to rise at their backs. They let go, surge down the chute, and plunge into the pool with a thunderous splash. They’re laughing when their heads pop to the surface. Again, the teenagers return to the ladder and signal for Anna and Julia. Tenderness toward these young people laps the shores of my heart.
Two boys, Anna and Julia’s ages, appear and sit at the pool’s edge. The younger of the two, slightly pudgy, awaits a growth spurt. The older boy is a study in geometry: all angles and planes. Like our girls, they’re poised on the cusp of transformation. After a few minutes, the boys wade toward the group, but the teenagers shake their heads and float into the shallows to talk among themselves. Our daughters, race to the slide, the boys at their heels. Soon, the four hurtle down the chute together.
I sink into a doze, but a voice prods me to wakefulness. I open one eye and see the younger boy call to Julia as she climbs from the pool.
“Come si chiama?” What’s your name?“Dove abita?”Where do you live?
Julia doesn’t even take a backward glance. At first, I wonder if she’s heard him, then it registers that I hear him, and I’m farther away. The boy repeats his inquiry. Julia scuttles up the rungs. Although her Italian language skills are limited, I’ve seen her chat up locals behind gelato counters, so surely she knows when someone asks her name. She could respond non capisco, I don’t understand, or non parlo Italiano, I don’t speak Italian, but she’s silent. I glimpse at the open-faced boy and think: Have mercy, Jules. Give him something, a word of acknowledgment, anything.But, she doesn’t.
He retreats to the side of the pool where his older companion sits, feet dangling in the water.
The girls move to the pool with three diving platforms. Anna starts at the lowest level and without hesitation jumps in feet first. She masters this height and proceeds to spring into the pool in every way imaginable. Only a belly flop slows her down. Julia screws up her courage and makes her way to the lowest level. She stands for a several minutes before she jumps, coaxed and prodded by her sister.
Anna ascends to the next tier and after a few failed attempts, finally drops into the water. She climbs outs, shakes herself off, and heads back to the ladder.
The two boys wander over, flip into the pool at the opposite end, and swim toward the girls. The four take turns leaping from the first two platforms, with Julia stalled at the lowest level.
In mid-afternoon, it’s time to leave. The girls are reluctant. The proprietor urges us to return later, gratuito, without cost.
Several hours later, when we do return, we’re greeted like old friends. Anna and Julia make a beeline to the diving platforms. I sit on the tiled edge and submerge my feet. The teenagers are gone, but the two boys lay poolside, and ease back into the water, grinning, when they see the girls. Anna rushes up a ladder and dives from the second level sending an arc of water that soaks my shirt. I scamper to the chairs set back from the pool’s perimeter and watch the children cannonball into blue.
Julia spies a tiny kitten shivering beneath a chair. She pulls herself from the pool and cuddles the mewing fluff to her wet chest, torn between a desire to comfort and hope of bounding off the second diving platform.
Anna, distracted only momentarily by the kitten, climbs to the third and highest platform with a look of determination tinged with fear. They’ve not ventured to this height. She attempts a running take off, but falters. Then, like her sister earlier, stands frozen at the edge. My husband and I call encouragements, as do the Italians, until she steps into the abyss and plummets through space, moments of bliss before she slices the water.
When the sun brushes the horizon, we gather our belongings, convince Julia the kitten would be heartbroken to leave the Seven Seas, and halt Anna’s climb toward another flight. As we reach the exit, I look back. Both boys stand—the younger cradles the kitten in his arms—and watch our girls disappear with the light.
Diana Dinverno, a mother of two, is a graduate of the University of Michigan and the University of Detroit School of Law. Her work has appeared in Peacock Journal, Ekphrastic Review, Peninsula Poets, The MacGuffin, American Fiction—Volume 15:The Best Unpublished Stories by New and Emerging Writers, and other publications. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Michigan Poetry Society’s 2018 Founder’s Prize and Detroit Working Writers’ 2018 YA/NA Fiction Prize. Read more at dianadinverno.com.
I sit on the bed these days to put on my socks. They are tall socks and it has been a point of pride that I can stand on one leg and put the sock on the opposite foot. Well, I used to be able todo that. Now I wobble around, out of balance. I am too stiff to bend over far enough to get the sock mouth under the foot, which itself will not rise as high as it used to. So I sit before I fall down, and I grouse about getting old, about not getting to my yoga classes.
Children, on the other hand, are natural yogis, or at least natural practitioners of whatever Baba Ram Dass was recommending when he enjoined us in the 1970’s to “Be Here Now.” “Here” is where children always are right “now.” And generally where they intend to stay. As a rule, they are fully engaged in whatever they are doing, and have little interest in inducements and preparations to be somewhere else.
So my first achievement is to get everything — towels, snacks, life jackets, water bottles, swimsuits, diaper bag, spare clothes, pail, shovel, sunglasses, hats, beach blanket — and everyone, someone just two, someone four and a half, and myself into the car. It takes me only an hour and a half.
All the vehicles I’ve ever owned have been manual shift. That’s not to say I’ve never driven an automatic — I have, many times, but it’s not a regular thing. So the operations are not, um, automatic. Also, I have no patience with mechanical apparatus of any kind: things should just work. And if they don’t, after a couple of tries, I give up. Indeed, in so far as I can, I organize my progress through life so as to avoid irritating encounters with things-that-don’t-work. For example, I don’t go out the east gate of our yard anymore because I can’t navigate the makeshift array of ropes and latches my husband has arranged to overcome the warping of the fence. And, based on unsuccessful, if limited, experience, I have ceded entirely the operation of can-openers, the automated sprinkler system, and the supposedly simple conversion of the upstairs futon into a spare bed.
So when we arrive at the beach, I’m stuck when the ignition key seems to be stuck. I push and turn, but it won’t come out. I peer at the housing around the key, looking for directions. I try again. It’s getting warm in the car. I have two children in their car seats patiently, at least for now, waiting to go play on the beach – which is Right There. I do not have the leisure to indulge my own frustration, or the latitude to give up. I need to get this key out. I start over: turn the ignition on, off, push-turn, out. Nope. Stuck. While I’m thinking what to do about this, the four-year old says, “Get me out and I’ll do it for you.” I unbuckle him from his car seat. (This in itself a small victory. Only this year have I mastered the operation of these buckles.) He leans between the seats and confidently reaches for the key. It doesn’t move. “It’s stuck for me too,” he says, a little surprised. As I watch him, my eye falls on the gear shift: “P” – for Park. Of course. Once I shift from Drive into Park, the key comes out easily.
At the lake side, a retaining wall makes two steep, narrow steps between the parking level and the shore. On my own, I would have settled for walking along the board walk. But I am not on my own. I help each child down a step and then slither cautiously over the first drop on to the narrow shelf of the second. From there, I see that the only way to the beach is to jump. My knees flinch at the mere thought. Again, on my own I’d have elected to stay where I was, assuring myself that this was just fine – close enough. By now however, both boys are on the beach, so, saying a prayer for my knees, I half-skid-half-jump down, Hunh.
On my request, the four-year old climbs back on the ledge so I can help him out of his clothes and into his swim suit and life jacket. His younger brother, contrary to assurances from his parents when this expedition was proposed (“He’ll just sit down in the sand and root around”), marches down the shore away from me, toward where the water and the wall converge at a set of cement stairs which will block his way. He will have to clamber over them, or wade into the water in order to proceed. Neither of these is an acceptable option from my point of view, and so while my older grandson and I negotiate his gear, I keep the younger one in my peripheral vision. I am measuring distance and speed, his actual and my potential. After a few minutes, my sensors identify the critical point: where more steps will put him too far for me to catch in case of trouble. I leave the older boy on the wall, half in his life jacket, and sprint off to turn around a loudly reluctant toddler. He strides back, this time stepping his little yellow shoes in the shallows that lap along the sand. I return to clipping one boy into his life jacket, keeping an eye on the other, who is, for now, happily intent on pounding the sand. The first swimmer dressed, I deadlift him down to the beach where he wades out into the shallows. I collect his brother, hoist him onto the ledge and get him out of his clothes and into his swim suit and life jacket, this time tracking the-boy-in-the-water from the corner of my eye.
The morning unfolds, warm and mostly relaxed. For hours, the kids have played in the lake and on the sand: wading, digging and building, channeling water into fortresses and smacking down sand castles. We’ve had snacks and watched kite surfers. We have looked for fish and for the best rocks. I have let the day run until the absolute last moment to get the youngest back in time for his nap.
I retrieve the two-year old from the beach and bench-press him onto the wall. As soon as I get his life jacket and bathing suit off, he’s shivering with cold. I wrap him in his sun warmed towel and snuggle him. Then I put a diaper on him, but he doesn’t want a shirt. “No shirt!” he shouts as I slip the shirt over his head. I leave it like a collar around his neck, and he sits on the wall, bundled in his towel while I lift his older brother to get him out of his life jacket.
At least that was the plan. But I can’t get the squeeze buckles on the life jacket to release; there are two, one on the waist belt and one on the strap that goes between his legs. I go from one to the other, getting nowhere with either. In both cases, one side of the buckle is simply solid, as if it was never meant to move. I look carefully at the buckles to see if I am in fact squeezing the right places. My grandson stands patiently, the life jacket making it impossible for him to move or even see what I’m doing. I try some more, each try hurting my thumbs while having no effect on releasing the buckle. Frustration and tendrils of panic well up in me; for my grandson’s reassurance, and my own, I try for humour, “Maybe,” I say to him, “you will have to live in this life jacket.”
“And I will get bigger and bigger and Explode the life jacket!” he says cheerfully, waving his arms, which is all the movement he can make at the moment. We grin, and I try again; the buckles must require some combination of strength and technique that I am evidently lacking. Giving up — taking him home, wet and packaged in Styrofoam is, again, not an option. I consider an appeal to the kindness of strangers.
I think it will need a man’s strength to overcome the buckle. Until this moment, it has seemed to me that there have been a lot of people around, walking along, enjoying the beach. Now, the boardwalk is suddenly empty, except for one elderly woman working her way along with the aid of a cane. No help there. From the opposite direction, come two men in shorts and sandals, shirts flapping open, youngish but not too young. They are absorbed in conversation. I have only moments to make a decision, to overcome the inertia of public privacy, not to say, fear. They look OK. How do I interrupt? How can I tell who is OK?
I speak before I lose my nerve. I hope they are not thugs, or pedophiles. “Excuse me. Could you give us a hand? We can’t get these life jacket buckles undone.” They come right over and the bigger one tries the waist belt buckle. It doesn’t move.
“Sand,” he says. “It happens to my son’s life jacket all the time.”
“He’s a dad!” I think.
“You have to go back in the water and shake around to wash the sand out,” he says. I lift my grandson down and he races into the water. He does the “washing machine,” twirling and agitating the water around him. When he comes back, I hoist him onto the wall and the man again leans over his back and squeezes the buckle which, after a little resistance, opens. The man does the second buckle and my grandson is free!
“Thank you” we all say. Including the two-year old who has watched the whole thing from his precarious perch, wrapped in his towel and wearing his shirt around his neck like a scarf.
“Life Jacket Rescue!” celebrates the four-year old, and we pack up and go home.
That day at the beach had me reflecting — about old people, and flexibility. And how, in addition to the loving charm of being with my grandsons, their company is also good for me.
At home it is easy to get set in my ways, to have what I want where I want it, to abandon what is difficult to do. That day, I stretched my courage and my body. I did downward facing dog to retrieve floating sandals. I did balance poses, climbed — down and up. I lifted weights and persevered. I sat places I never would have sat on my own. I got my clothes dirty.
I bet I can put those socks on standing up.
Susan Safford lives, writes, and teaches English in Kamloops, B.C. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Descant, and Mothers Always Write.
Sally walked up the wooded hill behind her house, enjoying the absence of snow and her first exercise after the long, winter. She was partly meandering, partly searching for something, and partly wishing the change of the seasons would not be so predictable.
March always hosted the contest between aging winter and the fetal spring. One day would bring southwesterly breezes and flocks of northern-bound geese. The next would revert to blizzard conditions, and the ground would be sprinkled white again. There was no doubt that eventually winter would recede into the past, and spring display colorful victory banners over the hills and woodlands, but each year the battle was fought in earnest, as if there were no foreknowledge of its conclusion.
Sally’s son would be finishing school this spring and going away. She came here to escape the empty house. She had always said the three girls put together did not make as much work as Jeff, and it must have been more than a joke, for now that he was grown she found many unoccupied minutes each day. They were not so appealing as she formerly thought they would be, so she spent a few of them thinking back over the busy years of Jeff’s childhood.
From the crest of the hill she could look over the house to see ruins of an ancient barn across the road. It had never really been theirs, but Jeff had taken possession of it at an early age. It had waited over a hundred years for him to make of it a castle, an outlaw hideout, a fort where Indian attacks were repulsed, the Constitution Hall of a two-member club, and a space ship to explore distant galaxies. In his fourteenth summer, strangers bought the dilapidated barn and tore it down. It had been nothing but and eyesore and a firetrap to them. Jeff stood in the kitchen looking out the window on that terrible day, silent and watched while the walls came down and was silent for a long time afterward.
He and his buddy had salvaged some of the boards to build a fort in the woods, but it, too, lay in ruins now. They never used it much. By the time boys are old enough to construct a decent fort, they find themselves too mature for its fantasies.
Sally turned away and left the woods to stroll through a high pasture. From there she could look down on a sparkling run and the field alongside it where once Indians had made a village. There was nothing left to see, but the place held a fascination for Jeff. Each spring, after the fields had been plowed, Jeff would come home with his pockets full of muddy stone arrowheads and scraps of broken pottery. They had been a washday nuisance for Sally, but for Jeff were rare treasures.
There had been treasures of other sorts, too. He had discovered where uncommon purple trillium grew and had brought her huge bouquets. In season he knew where to go for wild strawberries. He had always been excited about his finds, always eager to share them with her.
She was glad now she had allowed him the freedom of the hills. He’d had his share of childhood injuries, but they always occurred at school or on vacation or in the house. He had always been safe here in the friendly hills, seeking only to wander about and enjoy the secrets they so willingly revealed to him. They had belonged to him in a special way and he belonged to them. They had given him security and helped him to grow strong. Now their timeless beauty called to him in a softer voice, drowned out by other allurements. They would always be here for him always welcome him, but they could not hold him. They practiced a letting go love that Sally both envied and feared.
She had not expected the letting go to be this difficult. She had raised him to be Godly and independent and he was. She was proud of that, but realized now that their relationship, like the path through the woods, was making an unexpected turn. Jeff no longer needed her, but she needed him in a real and curious way. He was the child of her youth the major undertaking of her life and he was slipping away.
The change had seemed gradual and non-threatening at first: a night at a friend’s house, a week at camp, and all the school activities that occupied most of his time. Then there was his first job, his own car, and his first real girlfriend.
Many times he had given girls flowers, but never the purple trillium. Many times he had taken dates out to eat, but he never gave them wild strawberries. Those things were special. Perhaps they wouldn’t have meant much to someone else, but to Sally they were of supreme importance. As his life became ever busier, increasingly aware of the great world beyond home, he left the friendly hills and their treasures behind.
Sally started walking back toward the house. Her daughters would be arriving home from school. There would be stories to hear, homework to supervise, and snacks to distribute. She looked forward to their commotion on this quiet day, but she stopped for a moment to look back up the hill, a bit reluctantly. She had a feeling of incompleteness as if she had been looking for something and failed to find it. Something was not quite right. As if a familiar tree had all of a sudden disappeared from the skyline. In the disturbing silence, everything appeared to be in order. She moved on toward the house, planning supper and the evening’s activities. She had to leave Jeff in God’s hands. She had to trust that she and his father had raised him the way God would have wanted them to.
Sally never found the strawberry plants, or the place where the purple trillium grew. She never found an arrowhead of her own, either, but it was not needed. Back at the house, undisturbed in a quiet room, hung Jeff’s shiny Plexiglas case full of them. It had taken all his youth to accumulate the collection, and they were safe there. They were precious to her now because they had been precious to him. Relics of an ancient way of life that once had been and could never be again.
Ruth O’Neil, born and raised in upstate New York, attended Houghton College. She has been a freelance writer for more than 20 years, publishing hundreds of articles in dozens of publications. Ruth spends her spare time quilting, scrapbooking, and camping with her family.
your first home was inside of me during Snowpocalypse twenty-twelve. our apartment in Olympia lost power twice during that season and snow days drifted high at June’s end teaching on pause and tech week skipped A Midsummer’s Night Dream stuck in winter.
your father and I alternated between snuggly couch movie binging and child-like wonderland advent’ring. the most snow either of us had seen at our homes. we layered in clothing jeans on jeans, shirt on shirt on shirt on pea coat, miscellaneous wardrobe scroungings doubleting us snow tourists topping our look with gloves, hat, camera.
owl print lady rain boots shared with him sink deep like my pastel plaid ones march in exaggerated slo-mo laughing lift leg from hip, then crash down again, fresh powder compressed with old knee-deep we trudge merrily along.
four blocks to capital mall goes slow. city shutdown, snow silencing six lanes of traffic, intersection still, magically eerie we stand there in the center we hold our breaths to hear nothing, then just echoing crunch of a willow goldfinch crossing to yonder vacant Olive Garden.
survey vast blanket ahead of us look back at our tracks, indentations dotting perfection, much like a bird on stilt-like chopsticks waltzing across an enormous bowl of sticky rice.
twelve weeks with you, I’m tir’d but happy— we work our way back home, uphill, chilled go in while he stays out to create life-sized snow people, snowfie portraits of snow-us, with you, windowed inside middle ball of snow-lady, tiny snow-baby, size of a clementine, complete with stick umbilical cord connecting to small snow-placenta (providing snow-nutrients, of course).
perchance this is how our neighbors learned, and local faeries too (if they are), you exist, our frozen announcement.
Joann Renee Boswell is a teacher, mother, photographer and poet currently living in Camas, WA with her spouse and three children. Joann loves rainy days filled with coffee, books, handholding, moody music and sci-fi shows. She’s been published in Untold Volumes, Voices of Eve and Western Friend.Joann’s first book of poetry is forthcoming from Fernwood Press in May 2020.