Summer’s lease on joy
by Stephanie Piper
Driving through Providence last weekend, it hit me: a sudden flashback to the summer vacations of my childhood, annual treks to Cape Cod in the days before I-95 wove its wide lanes up the East Coast. We knew we were close when we got to Providence, where tumbledown warehouses and scruffy streets baked in the heat of an August afternoon. The cityscape was dismal, but you could smell the sea.
The trip began in 5 a.m. darkness, with hurried bowls of cereal at a kitchen table piled with beach towels and plastic buckets. We spread quilts in the back of the station wagon and crowded in among the suitcases and Scotch Coolers. The air was heavy and sweet through the open windows; in the gray light, my parents’ backs looked solid and dependable. My mother rested her arm along the top of the wide front seat and drummed her fingers in a brisk little rhythm I only saw when she was happy.
The cottages we rented had names: Periwinkle, Conch, Scallop. Gray-shingled, blue-shuttered, they perched on the edge of Cape Cod Bay in a tidy little cluster ringed with beach plum bushes. We swam three times a day, in three different places. Mornings, we went to the ocean and jumped from the dunes and ran in and out of the icy surf. After lunch, it was one of the ponds that stud the Cape like blue jewels, Gull Pond or Long Pond, warm and clear under a canopy of pine trees. Back at the house, there was the bay at our door. We ate swordfish and quahogs and white corn from Crow Hill Farm. In the evenings, my father read to us from Charlotte’s Web or Stuart Little. The shutters creaked in the night wind. My baby brothers slept in twin cribs in the knotty pine bedroom; my mother drummed her fingers on the back of a wicker settee. I sat on the braided rug with my sister and listened to my father’s quiet voice and believed that the world would always be this safe.
Married with children of my own, I returned to the Cape for two weeks each summer. The interstate had streamlined the trip from New York to five hours, but we still treated it as an epic haul, breaking for lunch at a Howard Johnson’s in Connecticut and counting down the miles to Providence, the nearly-there point. The cottage we rented had no name, but it had knotty pine bedrooms and a sleeping porch for the porta-cribs. We ate fried clams and cooked hot dogs on the tiny, rusty grill. In the mornings, we roamed the rocky town beach. For the afternoons, we found a pond as clear as the August sky. At night, my husband read aloud from Fantastic Mr. Fox or James and the Giant Peach .
Now, a generation later, our beach road winds south. We rise at dawn and drive through Asheville and Spartanburg and count the miles to Columbia, where we leave the interstate and pass through pine forests and the dusty little South Carolina towns that dot the route to the coast.
Our children come with their spouses and babies and friends to a house with a name at the edge of the ocean. We set up cribs in white-painted rooms with white plantation shutters. We swim in the sea and fish in the creek and eat shrimp on the porch. In the evenings, we play charades or gin or blackjack. The night wind stirs the palm branches. I rest my arm along the top of the blue canvas sofa and drum my fingers and believe, for a moment, that joy never ends. It just moves on.