Our first island day begins with blueberry muffins. The children, who chivvied my mother out of bed at six, helped mix them and are eager for me to try one from each batch. I’m late to come downstairs, sleeping until seven and then polishing off a quick work assignment while still abed, and they can’t wait any longer so I pull on yesterday’s clothes and go down unwashed, hair ahoo, for muffins and coffee and scrambled eggs. The sourdough starter we brought with us from Portland has bubbled out of its mason jar overnight, so I mix up the sponge and set it to rise.
After a shower, it’s off to town for the farmers’ market, origamied into the back of the Jetta between the car seats while my father drives so we don’t have to take a second vehicle. The children eat croissants and whole cucumbers and choose jam and flowers and fresh pasta. We play at the tiny playground beside the gazebo in Sunken Park before we have to go home for more food and a rest.
While Jolyon finally takes his nap (not in his bed, not in my bed, but on a stack of quilts on the floor in the closet), Ada plays with the dogs and trails her grandparents as they hang up the swings. I bring my knitting outside and proctor the dogs’ rumpus down at the wallow that was meant to be a pond but never quite filled. It’s a big deer print of shallow water in the woods, with real deer prints all over the muddy isthmus between the pools.
Ada joins me to watch the dogs run and splash. The sun is strong and we make for the shade of the rising ground beyond the wallow. I’m barefoot and I follow gingerly, avoiding the thistles, the trailing blackberry, and then the baked ridges where the interstices of dog toes have printed the clay and dried hard and sharp.
A tiny flash of movement on the ground I’m watching so warily—it’s a tree frog and I’m calling to my girl with such urgency that I can see she doesn’t know whether there’s wonder or trouble. She hops after the tiny frog and her quick fingers dart to encircle him. It’s her first time catching one and she’s deft but gentle, aware that he’s fragile and as keenly alive as she is.
The dogs are stampeding around the east wallow so she releases him at the edge of the western pool, which is full of his tadpole cousins, some already sprouting hind legs. She is fizzing with excitement—we both are—and suddenly there’s another tiny froglet leaping just ahead of her sandals. They’re sheltering in the deep cracks in the clay, down where the mud is still damp and cool, and we marvel at their wee black eyes and pert snouts and extraordinary tiny toes.
We wash the muddy dogs. I manage two more rows on my lace shawl before I hear wailing from the closet upstairs. I carry my sweaty, dozy boy down to view the installment of the see-saw, newly improved with handles.
We play outside. We go for a walk down the hill and back again, sampling salmonberries, thimbleberries, trailing blackberries and blackcaps. I give a lecture on nettle identification. (The dog doesn’t listen and suffers for it.) These are the bones of an education for island childhood. There are all kinds of delights if you know where to look, and one or two things not to touch.
Home again, we make salad and cook the pasta. Dad mixes gin and tonics. The kids play with the napkin holders carved in the shapes of African animals. And then it’s bedtime. We read Paul Bunyan and Horton Hatches an Egg. We sing “All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir” and “The Marvelous Toy.” We kiss the grandparents and try to wind down for the night.
The yawning windows admit the purling gyre of thrush song, the insistence of robins, and the occasional breath of cooler air wafting upslope through the trees. The children are a welter of damp curls and sticky limbs, still too hot and full of the day for sleep. The light lasts here at midsummer; not as it does in the simmer dim of Shetland or the neverdark of the highest latitudes, but longer than my little ones’ internal clocks can compass.
I lie down with them in turn on their twin mattresses, lightly stroke my girl’s bare arms in the way she likes. She murmurs and nuzzles and then collides with sleep, plunges abruptly into snoring, slobbering slumber. My boy is wide awake, owl eyed in the cool blue light. He makes room for me in his bed. We lie face to face and I close my eyes, setting a good example.
He whispers things into his memory bank: shards of song and science, snippets of myth and hypothesis. Some spiders live in spider webs and other spiders live in the dirt. Once I saw a tiny spider web and it had a black spider. His body was black becept his feet was dark brown. Spiders don’t have a tail. A frog doesn’t have a bottom, so how does he pee?
I peek and he is staring out the window at the sky. The divided lights and madrona branches are reflected in his wide pupils. I remember this. He has slipped backward into my own childhood and we are one three-year-old, awake long after bedtime and watching the cast of the summer evening in the woods on a little island surrounded by the sea. Quarters of hours sift by and still he’s whispering. Tickle, fickle, pickle. Dog and frog rhyme. I’m a big girl and I can help him dig a lot of clams fast so we can hurry up and go to Buck’s Harbor. Every set of utterances is stoppered with his thumb.
An hour has passed when he surrenders, drifting gently into stillness and quiet. Mt. Baker is beginning to slough the abalone colors from its flanks and the sea and sky are about to meld in the queer precise evenness of twilight. I put the heavy blue Dutch ovens in to bake the sourdough loaves for tomorrow, sit in the gathering dark in the living room and watch the lighthouses wink on across the strait. All is not really well, not with all the trouble in the world and the claws of cancer once more reaching for people I love. Perhaps this summer idyll is my way to push back against the helplessness. There’s so much I can’t do to keep my folk and other people’s equally cherished folk safe. But I can give my little ones this remarkable place, these ordinary blessed days of frogs and thimbleberries and homemade bread and the summer sea. And maybe that’s enough for right now.