Nothing about my summers in Califon, New Jersey, reminded me of home. Home, in South Florida, the sun felt raw, the mosquitoes were relentless, and the skylines were dulled by thousands of street lamps and high-rises stretched between Fort Lauderdale and Miami. In Califon, however, the sunlight streamed through mature pines. Windows could be left open, the curtains lifting on a whisper of crisp air. In the evenings, I could chase fireflies and watch bats dart through the purpling sky.
After a two-hour drive from Newark airport, I would know we’d reached my grandparents’ house when I saw the rust-red barn at the bottom of the hill. The barn was built in the 1700s and was held together by pegs hewn from tree trunks. Below the barn were two stalls for steer, and in the belly of the barn, my grandfather kept his tractors: a small riding lawnmower that I was allowed to drive and a large tractor for hauling and plowing that I was not. Every morning, when I accompanied him there to feed the steer and check on his supply of feed and fuel, I’d breathe in the scent of the barn, a sweet blend of sawdust and freshly turned soil.
I’d spend the two weeks in Califon each summer swimming in my grandparents’ above-ground pool, hosting tea parties for my grandmother’s doll collection with her china and silver serving tray. I’d snack on molasses cookies and butterscotch candies during the day, and ask for an extra helping of chocolate cake after every dinner. I’d fish in my grandparents’ pond with a rod I’d made out of a tree branch and string from my grandmother’s sewing room. Every day, if I wanted, I could wear the cornflower-blue dress with the white pinafore that my mother had made for me and lie in the grass, trying to blow all the dandelion seeds from a limp stem in one breath.
Once I was safely tucked away in Califon, a bucolic enclave with one grocery store and one post office, a place so small that most people from New Jersey haven’t even heard of it, I could live out all of my Laura Ingalls Wilder fantasies. The summer I was twelve, impatience threatening to be my permanent default setting, I’d visited all of my grandmother’s dolls, rode the tractor, and went for a swim, all in one afternoon. I’d asked my grandparents, “What now?” My grandfather smiled and lifted his eyebrows the way he would when he was teasing me, and said, “Well, looks like you about covered it.” We laughed then, and I remembered where I was, a place without expectation, a place that seemed to dangle in the ether between one summer and the next, waiting for me to come and snatch it up.
Only, of course, it didn’t. Eventually, my grandfather sold the steer for the last time, and the pond filled with mud. When I was in my twenties, I’d heard he was using a golf cart to make it down the sloping drive to the barn. And by the time I turned thirty, his grandsons, who lived nearby, had taken over mowing the lawn, and his sons had disabled all of his power tools. My grandmother stopped sewing, too, and all of the quilts and clothes she’d made were given to the grandchildren as keepsakes or else stored in boxes in her attic. Once I had children of my own, I’d only see them when they came to Florida, to the trailer-park retirement community in Lake Wales that they’d traveled to each winter to escape the cold.
Two years ago, when my grandparents were placed in a nursing home in South Florida, near my father, their trailer was sold. And last year, after my grandfather died, the house in New Jersey sold, too.
Every day there are certain things that I do: I clean the kitchen, wiping down the high chair and countertops, sweeping up the crumbs from the floor. I fold laundry while I watch TV. I shower, brush my teeth, work in front of the computer for eight hours. If you asked me what I had for breakfast on any given morning, I’d be hard pressed to tell you. What goes on during these routines of mine gets swept away and forgotten with a startling efficiency.
But those summers that I spent in New Jersey as a child still resonate. I can close my eyes even now and smell the barn and taste the grass and hear my grandparents’ gentle laughter. If I picture their neat little house on the hill, my body relaxes and the light that washes against my closed eyelids is that dappled sunlight I’d appreciated as we drove from the airport to their house.
We are all vulnerable to change, to growing up, and to growing old. With my grandfather gone and my grandmother in a nursing home, a victim of dementia, I feel that very acutely now. I know, too, that I have to find a way to give to my children the gift that they gave me: the freedom to relax, daydream, and play, for hours on end. I want my girls to have a childhood that makes its way somewhere deep inside of them, an experience that cannot be dislodged with age.
Today, my three-year-old is pretending to be “blondie-kitty-little-kid-girl.” She asks me over and over, “Who am I? Who am I?” and I have to tell her, to confirm that I recognize her as her imagined self. She licks at her paws and asks for milk. She meows. She needs help, she says, getting down from the tree, because, Mommy, she is “just a small kitty.” I’m grateful when she breaks from her pretend play so that we can get on with mealtimes and story time and bedtime. But I am also grateful that she has such a vivid imagination, something that I hope, at the very least, is a start to a childhood that she won’t want to forget.