Bird song echoes off a sandy hill behind the Indiana Dunes cottage and filters through the wood-framed window screen, waking me early on a June morning. High notes bounce off the moss-specked cinder block foundation, then rise along the chipped wood siding and skip over patched roof tiles to the brightening sky.
Woo woo woo wooooooo, ta ta ta ta ta! The bird trills again from the clothes line that runs like a curved track outside our bedroom window. The song sparrow announces that I am at my favorite place, the Dunes, a two-day drive from our brick house in Maryland, and a world away from the disappointments of first grade. At the Dunes, my mother’s cold winter sadness is forgotten. Her fights with Daddy never happened. At the Dunes, Mamma doesn’t stay up late crying or sleep through breakfast.
The cottage on the south shore of Lake Michigan sighs with the breath of my sleeping sisters, one in the bunk above me, and one in a single bed just across the room. I listen for waves, and hearing only birdsong know that this morning, the lake will be calm, clear as a mirror. Quietly, I push off the quilt that someone has pulled over me in the night. I tug off my nightgown and step into my swimsuit and a pair of shorts, then wrap a dry beach towel around my shoulders to keep off the morning chill. I tip-toe across the braided rag rug and onto the cool linoleum of the empty kitchen.
Through the second-story window, the lake spreads out before me, a fresh water ocean shining up at the sky, never ending. Down below, a thin line of gravel curls along the shore, shifting up and down in the shape of yesterday’s small waves. I see Mamma walking slowly by the water’s edge. She is compact and graceful, dark hair curling around her face as she steps slowly along the shore, looking down. One of her hands cups the crinoid fossils she is finding among the sandy pebbles. We call them “cronies,” and they look like Cheerios that have sat in the hot sun for weeks. They can be almost too small to see, or–rarely–as big as my thumb. They are rocks holding the shape of the stacked spines of water lilies that lived here so long ago that there were no people on earth yet, Daddy says; so long ago that the glaciers that melted to make this lake hadn’t frozen into place yet.
I stand in my bare feet and hear Daddy’s baritone coming up the stairs from Nanny’s kitchen. Nanny is his and all my aunts’ mother. She has her own small apartment downstairs and gets up very early in the morning. I go down the back stairs slowly, not wanting to wake my sisters or be seen by Daddy and Nanny, who sit at her small kitchen table, holding mugs in front of small plates of coffee cake. I don’t want to sneak, but I duck past Nanny’s window. I want to go to Mamma on the beach, to be with her inside her solitude.
I go to my mother, drawn to her peacefulness, to this chance to be alone with her. I run to her, soft sand flying under my feet. She looks up with a smile. We collide gently, and she wraps one strong arm around my shoulders. I press my head into her side, closing my eyes. Look, she says, I found three nice cronies, with holes all the way through! I walk slowly back with her along the water, wet sand cold under my feet. I feel helpful and quiet, looking down for cronies. Aren’t you hungry? She asks, as we approach the cottage. Suddenly I am. We walk up the stairs holding hands. We rinse our feet in the short plastic bucket, and wave good morning to Daddy and Nanny.
In our upstairs kitchen, Mamma scrambles eggs while I set the table. My big sisters wander in, sleepy, and sit down to look at the lake. A moment later, Daddy comes upstairs, refills his coffee and gives Mamma a kiss. After breakfast, we go back down to the shore, like returning pilgrims. I sit with my legs straight out in the water, my hands lifting wet sand that I dribble into small towers on my thighs. I dunk into the cold water, then lie on dry sand until the sun soothes my goosebumps and seeps down into my bones. All that day, I stay close to my mother.
Mamma is warm at the Dunes. Warm like the beach at mid-morning, like the shiny paint of her fingernails. Warm like the sandy hill rising to the woods; gentle like the tiny wavelets at the edge of the water before they moisten her feet. She is crystalline; blue-green as the lake, graced by summer. And I soak her in. She is such a woman as she is nowhere else, when she sits and looks out from the shore, studying the line of water and sky, the sailboat or the seagull, concentrating, almost forming the scene, as if it were her homeland harbor. It’s at the Indiana Dunes where Mamma feels most alive to me. It could be the morning air slowly moving tiny grains of sand over our footprints, or the smoothness of her face as the sunlight glances back to her from the white beach. Maybe it’s the speckled rocks or the flat green skipping stones that I place on the arm of her beach chair, for safekeeping.
My father taught me to float on my back when I was eight. Over and over that summer of ‘74, while my older sisters read books or sunbathed with my mother, Daddy held me up as I stiffened and sank, then startled and coughed. Holding one big palm in the small of my back and the other between my shoulder blades, he told me, your lungs are balloons that hold you up, let them hold you up. I took air into my body and let go its weight; I forgot to worry what might happen tonight if my parents drank too much and argued. Instead, I filled the balloons of my lungs. I felt the bones of my skull become feather-light as water rose to the outside corners of my eyes. Then I floated between water and sky, held up by my breath, and by trust.
I swam with Daddy in crystalline swimming pools and in the cobalt swell of Lake Michigan; we floated on calm days in the Chesapeake Bay and rode waves to the sandy shore of Ocean City. My mother, raised in Iceland where learning to swim was mandatory, worked her careful breaststroke with us if the water was calm and clean. She pushed her hands forward with each stroke, as if in prayer. Mamma swam without splashing, tendrils of hair curled at the nape of her neck, but Daddy and I always went under, even in murky water. We would risk river mud or ocean brine that dried on our limbs into filament shirts. Bobbing like rafts at the surface, we became still and gazed at the sky. He told me, Floating in salt water is easier because the minerals help hold you up. “Salt” became a verb–to swim in the salty ocean or briny bay is to be salted.
Salt adds buoyancy. And salt corrodes. My father’s love and his brilliance–his extraordinary wit and joyful wordplay—exist as a top layer of sun-warmed water that—if left undisturbed–lingers over cooler currents. A shaft of light moves over fine sediment as I swim my way through layered memories of my father, blurring the family struggles my father could not soberly acknowledge. I can’t see through the layers of my father’s character—they must be scented on the tongue as the rippled sandbar falls out of view and the cold darkness opens below.
Daddy was the weather man. Every day, I trudged to first grade at Green Valley Elementary and he drove to his office on Branch Avenue to decide what the sky would do the next day. While I contemplated the ragged edges of a Maryland map taped on the classroom wall, he sat at his desk and used wax pencils to draw contour lines of storm fronts onto forecast maps at the National Weather Bureau. With us, his young daughters, he would name clouds: Cumulous, Cirrus, Stratus. He taught me to look up, to see the sky and the wild paw paw fruit growing along Suitland Parkway. If you ever asked him if it was going to rain or snow, he would say, Yes, definitely. The only question is when.
Dad was named for his father, but had no brothers. He had seven sisters and six daughters. His adored step-sons carried the name of their Icelandic father. My parents were trying for a boy when they had me; instead of being James D. Ellis III, I was named Jenny in my father’s honor. But Daddy always called me Yenny, as my name is pronounced in Iceland.
Very small, I rested my cheek on the white cotton tee shirt over Daddy’s heart, while my sister, only one year older, lay her head on his shoulder. Morning light slanted through the windows as we rested on the big bed in Mamma and Daddy’s room. This mist of pre-school memory is parted by the crystal clarity of my father’s voice echoing through his chest and into my ear, and by the thrum drum-drum of his heartbeat as air whooshed through his lungs. He told us about his sisters and about their little dog, Nelly. The details of those stories fade, but the message doesn’t: Daddy had been young, had been small and sometimes frightened. He often started stories of his childhood by telling us, Back when I was a little girl…. I imagined how he had shape-shifted away from the boy who was so small, so skinny, that when he tried to float, he sank like a stone.
One summer, we drove to visit Daddy’s aunts in Danforth, Illinois. They lived in a small house that seemed to grow like native moss on the side of a green hill above the Iroquois river. Walking into the water with Daddy, slick mud sucked me ankle-deep as we made our way into the slow current. Unlike the ever-changing waves and undertows of Lake Michigan, the river movement was predictable, always going in the same direction, deep brown and fast in the middle. I gripped Daddy’s arm to rest only once as we swam all the way across. Then we stood on the far bank, looking toward the cottage where our elderly relatives looked tiny sitting in their hard-backed chairs.
At home in Maryland, we drove through the suburbs to our friends the Downs’s house, to swim. My father’s body was round and buoyant in the algae-tinted water. Even if the pump had been broken for weeks, the chlorine depleted and the pool walls slimed with green, he would dive in. He enjoyed cold water, surfacing with wide eyes and a shake of the head to declare the water Invigorating! or Quite refreshing! When we swam on visits to Florida, where my American grandparents lived when I was small, Daddy and I salted from Dunedin’s causeway beach, moving through warm water and slick sea-grass as pelicans floated nearby. Sitting together in the shallows, Daddy pulled up handfuls of soft gray sand to examine. The spiral shells of snails fascinated him. Yenny, look at this one! He held a small conch shell in his outstretched palm, and we watched as the slow creature emerged from its spiral-staircase house, then sent out an exploratory foot to suckle traction from the palm of my hand.
My father loved flat toothpicks, often keeping one pressed between his teeth as he read after dinner. When I kissed him goodbye to go on a date, or to say goodnight, he would pull the softly worked toothpick all the way into his mouth, then pucker up. After a kiss, the toothpick would reappear on the corner of his lip.
When he was in his late eighties, a few years after my mother died, I once called my father and woke him from a nap. Oh, Yenny, he said, I was just dreaming about Iceland. Maybe I can even go back to sleep after we talk a little bit so I can see it again. Above his bed was an oil painting of Iceland’s Mount Baula, painted with sea-worthy skies, all blues and blacks and greens.
With so much wonderful sympathy around, I wish I were more depressed! said my father, the year after my mother died. He wished very much to be married again. We sat together in his assisted living facility and talked about ways he might find a new wife. I said, Online dating seems complicated. What about putting a sign on your door? Without missing a beat, he responded: Yes! It just needs to say ‘Come in! First man you see! At his funeral two years later, I learned that he’d asked every woman in his small congregation, including the minister, to marry him.
At 89, Dad’s memory was eroding fast, but he was looking forward to his big birthday. One of my sisters asked him where he would like to celebrate his 90th. On Earth, I hope! He also said he wanted to be surrounded by beautiful women and to get drunk. The night of his party, held on a pier overhanging the Gulf of Mexico, his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren darted around his shoulders and landed happy kisses onto his cheeks. He drank white wine from a plastic cup and sang out whatever songs the river of his mind brought forth.
That night, the husband of decades helped me put my tipsy father to bed. We guided his walker up the hallway of his assisted living facility just as that last glass of wine swished into his bloodstream. As he wobble-sat on the edge of his bed, we took off Dad’s shoes and pants, then each of us held one of his hands as he swiveled his body around and sank into his pillows. As he began to doze, his face beamed the same beatific smile I’d seen almost forty years earlier, as we swam together at the Indiana Dunes lake shore. On that warm day when giant swells had settled into soft rollers, he sat facing the beach on a shallow sandbar as frothy waves pulsed over his shoulders from behind. Bubbles coursed around his ears and played over his skin, like an ermine trailing her white tail over his chest. Yenny, it feels so good! Try it! he called to me, eyes closed over that smile. Despite my fear of turning my back on moving water, I waded through the current to him and took his outstretched hand, sinking to my knees on the sandbar. Churning bubbles landed on my back in a steady, comforting stream. I sank my hips to my heels and let go, closing my eyes to better feel the blend of water and air on my skin. The joy of that fresh-water froth, how air can be held by water so securely, until the liquid sphere breathes itself free, returning to the lake or making its way as vapor to the sky.
Dad called the room where medications were dispensed at his assisted living facility the “pillory”. He would say, After breakfast, Dear, we should stop by the pillory.
One of my last games with Dad, as his memory thinned and tore like silly putty tugged too far, was to remember the three close relatives of the llama. Alpaca was easy—that one stayed in his mind the longest. Both of us had to think for a minute before Vicuna came to mind. But, two years before his last salting, Guanaco was out of his brain for good. What quiet storms inundate the hemispheres of eroding memory, where once-anchored words float free?
We last salted Dad nine years ago, when he was 89. My sister and I drove him from his assisted living apartment to Florida’s Honeymoon Island State Park, a placid shoreline where the sand ramps gently down to the Gulf of Mexico. Dad’s legs were swollen with edema and his toes were numb with diabetes. A swim in salt water was on the far margins of his ability, but his face bloomed with delight when we suggested the outing. I can’t remember the last time I salted! Oh, girls, that would be wonderful! We held on to each other as he lumbered across a boardwalk toward the water. He listed to the left, a ship without ballast, rolling along on tender feet no longer accustomed to sunlight or the pressure of wood planks. White sand glowed down to the water, its shine extending to an infinite horizon. Sea gulls hung in the humid air as tiny waves brushed our ankles. We held Dad until he was hip deep, then let him go. He reclined into the water with a deep sigh, his arms floating around him like wings.