Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Flag raising

This Fourth of July I had a chance to return home.  Not to the actual house I lived in, not even to the place where I lived with my family the longest, but to the place where I felt most connected to my family and most cradled by the place itself.  As I write down these words, I’m stunned with the reality that this was the first time my children visited this place, and the corollary, that this visit was the first time I had been back in over ten years.

A string of archetypally charming seaside beach towns, east coast style, that attract lifestyles of the rich and famous levels of wealth, is how most people think of this place.  But this is never how it was for my family.  

For us it has always been:  stretches of beach so long that at the water's edge the ocean can take over your peripheral vision, broad rectangular carpets of green farmland, and spools of days that are all the same. Days in which you get to touch every bit of what the day offers up--the thin lipped breakfast saucer and the toast lying upon it, the sand still in the bathing suit from the day before, the brace of early summer atlantic ocean, blades of grass that trail into the house on pool wet feet, water in your nose from one last cannonball, slippery beads of sweat on a wine glass, cobs of summer corn dripping with butter, and of course, on the Fourth of July, the nylon slip of the flag between your fingers.

Our hostess this visit was a good friend of my mother’s.  They lived in the same apartment building in New York City, shuttling dinners, newspapers, and friendship between floors.  This spring she invited us, my mom, my aunt, Graham, me and the kids, out to share the holiday week with her.  Though we have a long, affectionate history, I have to admit, I was somewhat baffled by the idea that someone would host someone else’s grandchildren as house guests for a week.  Grateful, absolutely; but concerned that the reality of three small girls at a beach house went something beyond what a good hostess could reasonably be expected to tolerate.

And then, on the Fourth I understood.  It was the flag raising.

For years, our friend’s recently deceased husband, John, hosted Camp Poppi on his own, a week long summer camp for his grandchildren.  In the morning there would be flag raising, and then I suspect the summer day would unfold just in the way that it always does in this place.  What was remarkable to me about Camp Poppi wasn’t so much what happened over the course of the week, but the very fact of its existence.  John, of all the adult men in my life, had the career I admired most.  He was a journalist, a successful one.  He wrote books, travelled the world, and made his career covering politics at the highest level.  He did all that, and he hosted Camp Poppi, by himself, summer after summer, because loving his grandchildren was as big a part of his life as anything.  

Camp Poppi, and the flag raising that went along with it held what was most precious and dear about his life.  And while this was never said to me directly, I think my mom’s friend knew raising the flag again was going to take a whole lot of us.  Kids especially.

So when she said to us, I guess we should raise the flag, which late in the afternoon on July Fourth seemed almost like an afterthought, Graham, hoisted Gwendolyn onto his shoulders.  She teetered against the leverage of the flagpole, and the two of them bobbed precariously on the front steps.  It took them three tries, but on the third it was up.  

We had the kids recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and they responded by alternately following along and then telling fart jokes.  We sang the Star Spangled Banner then all together started to teach  Eloise It’s a Grand Old Flag (which she mastered by the end of the weekend).  They romped around on the grass and the adults drank champagne, as we all admired the proud vision of the stars and stripes whipping and flapping in the summer wind.  

And that’s the way this place works, it slows time, it holds generations, and in this case, helped us get the job that needed doing done.  The flag was raised again.  A joyful salute to John, whose name, because I was a kid in this crowd, was only mentioned to me once over the course of the weekend, but whose presence and absence was everywhere.

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