My daughter in her black velvet helmet and leather boots sits up tall on Buddy the pony, whose chocolate coat is glossy in the setting sun. Each blade of grass is illuminated, verdant green sharp against shadow. After the hot, terrible days of July when summer seemed to be suspended, endless fighting and humidity, insult and injury, the season has turned and I’ve felt a chill in the night air— the first chill that carries, as Elizabeth Strout puts it, “that subtle undercurrent of old longings and new chances that Autumn often brings.”
This evening my daughter, nearly 7, is poised on a gentle pony, and I have nothing to do but lounge in the grass and watch. We ate our fat heirloom tomatoes for dinner with salt and olive oil, fresh pesto and corn on the cob. Summer’s bounty overflows on the windowsills— sungolds and Romas, chili peppers and cucumbers, huge bushes of sweet basil, its green peppery scent intoxicating, begging to be devoured before frost.
Time plays tricks with the light. Is this really my first child riding a large, four-legged animal, trotting on a lunge line, leaning forward into his mane? Her long hair hangs in a straight ponytail down her back, the mere sight of which fills me with tenderness for her, who is growing up at the speed of an August garden. This summer A. learned to swim; she taught herself up at the pond, approaching the task with grave dedication. She wanted to swim out to the dock like the other 6-year-old at the beach, and though the undertaking was neither fun nor easy, within two days she was doggy-paddling solo. Soon she was trying to swim underwater, then attempting a dive, each new frontier requiring serious effort.
Of course C. (nearly 5) followed suit and managed a wild doggy-paddle of churning limbs, her round face barely staying above water. “Controlled drowning,” her Dad called it. C. threw her body off the dock with total abandon, jumping hard from a running start, thrilled with the flight and immersion into another element without any thought of consequences. I recognized and feared her reckless nature. By her birthday she’d learned how to float– my baby, belly-up in the cold Maine ocean, vulnerable and soft as a fish.
August teems with cricket-song and goldenrod, the late light drenching me like liquid amber I’d drink if I could, store in my cells for the dark months ahead. School starts in a week and my children are another year older, and suddenly it seems I’m staring down the barrel of the rest of my life, the calendar pages turning, more endings and beginnings, Kindergarten, First Grade, Second Grade…
The years tick by like mile markers on the Interstate, like the wise, older parents promised they would when we were deep in The Baby Cave, cuddled up with barely enough air for four beings to breathe—caught in the timeless cycle of nursing and napping. Now we’re standing beyond the mouth of the Cave and another summer is gone and sometimes I leap forward a decade and the girls are 15 and 17, going to parties, taking Drivers Ed, visiting colleges. I have to stop myself before I drown in nostalgia for the life passing before my eyes.
“When you’re 50,” he replies, and she accepts.
We can’t even recognize danger when we see it, don’t know there’s yellow-jacket nest under our front porch—predatory wasps zooming in and out. When I get stung, the pain is bright and searing, impossible such strong venom could come from a small insect. For hours my arm pulses with lighting forks of pain. I pray it won’t happen to the girls too, but then it does, a wasp alights on A’s pinky and clings, and I have to flick it off then carry her, screaming, into the kitchen and put her hand in a bowl of ice. It’s the shock as much as the pain, how one minute she’s happily coasting on her new scooter and the next she’s shot through the finger with venom. I promise her it will get better, that tomorrow it will be barely an itch, but she doesn’t believe me.
There are much worse things to happen to a young girl, of course. There are children suffering from hunger and sickness, children living through war and disaster, children who endure terrible pain at the hands of those they love, pain I cannot imagine on a green hillside surrounded by horses, basking in the late summer sun.
Down the valley, the river winds like a black snake through our town, the same river that freezes in the coldest winters, the river I once skied for several miles when I was pregnant with A. There was no snow anywhere that December but you could ski on the river, and I trusted the ice pack to hold our weight. I glided north down the very center, the ice shifting, twanging like a plucked wire. I was in thrall with risk and thought I was invincible but I was only foolish and lucky, blind to the journey ahead of me. Still, the ice didn’t break—it held us both up.