2020: The Best Summer We’ll Never Have
I was mourning the loss of our yearly family reunion at the lake. Until I asked my 86-year-old mom to recount how the tradition began
Since COVID-19 came home to roost, my mom — like countless older people — has been sealed up alone like a silver-haired Rapunzel, going nowhere and seeing almost nobody.
The woman who birthed my brother John, sister Jamie, and me is completely self-sufficient and has more energy than we do on most days. But cloistering Carol in the New Jersey home where she and our late dad raised us has felt like our only choice: She’s 86 and has a slowly advancing case of pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease that catapults her to the top of just about every most-at-risk list.
I live closest to Mom, so it’s mostly been my job to drop off groceries every week to 10 days. While there, I blow kisses through the glass of her storm door. I’ve even taken her on the occasional socially-distanced stroll. But by and large, my primary way to put eyes on Carol and penetrate her dome of loneliness has been through nightly FaceTime check-ins.
Once Carol stopped putting her phone to her ear, she actually took to the tech like a digital native. But here’s the prickly truth: Within a week of establishing this new ritual (pre-COVID, a biweekly phone call was about par), we basically ran out of things to talk about. At least anything that was palatable.
“What’s new?” quickly became an absurd question. Our family Passover Seder — which Mom starts cooking for and obsessing about as soon as Hanukkah ends — was given the kibosh. And the twentysomething grandkids — all in flux and miserable — weren’t exactly a fun topic.
Mom and I are also not emotionally tight. Pre-pandemic, my role as a daughter has always hinged less on talking and more on doing — going for walks, cooking her dinner, lugging crazily heavy objects up out of her basement. I’ve never come to Mom with my deepest thoughts and most heart-wrenching worries. And while there’s plenty of that weighing on me in the age of COVID, this wasn’t the juncture where I was about to start.
That left fixating on the pain in Mom’s left knee and hip. Lamenting the crappy weather. And, of course, endless COVID-themed perseveration, including but in no way limited to when we could all come to her house for dinner again (who the hell knows); if Tilex is a good germ-busting substitute for Lysol (doubtful and, Mom, please stop spraying your hands with it); and if two face masks are better than one (not if you can’t breathe, and where are you going anyway?).
Most depressing has been mom’s ever-recurring question: “How is this summer going to work?” By this, she was asking how we kids planned to orchestrate the season so that our respective families can reunite at the beloved place where we have camped for generations.
The Narrow Islands of Lake George in New York’s Adirondacks. Each year that we touch back down on this wind-pounded, rain-soaked, pine-perfumed corner of heaven on earth has near-religious significance for every member of our family, from my tractor-driving brother in Colorado to my vegan 24-year-old niece Zoe in Manhattan. But recent years have felt particularly precious. And not just because, after decades of living in tents on rented campsites, my sibs and I finally purchased a rustic island camp to call our own. But because every summer that our matriarch can make it up to the lake might very well be her last. No one knows this better than she does.
John, Jamie and I keep spinning strategies for how we might make Lake George happen for Mom this year. Or maybe even next. But we keep coming up against the same heartbreaking reality: There is no responsible way we can. Even if we visit separately as families, how can any of us possibly ride in a car with Mom for hours, saturate her with our potentially COVID-y germs, and let her pee in roadside rest stops? If mom were to get sick and couldn’t breathe, where would we take her? Our cabin is on a tiny speck of an island, 25 minutes from a tiny town that is an hour from a tiny hospital.
While shredding my cuticles at 3 AM about three weeks ago (my new pandemic normal), Lake George memories snuck up and drenched me. Some of them so clear I could smell, taste, and hear them: The sweet, sticky ambrosia of warm peaches devoured from the can after a hike up Shelving Rock Mountain. My mom’s alto refrain of “Scarlet Ribbons” mingling with campfire smoke as I, probably about four, fall asleep on my sister’s lap. Waking each morning in our old orange and blue tent to the slap of lake water hitting rock and the soft hum of distant boat motors.
That said, much of our early Lake George years are hazy for me. As the baby of the family, a lot of what I know comes from stories repeated and likely embellished as time went on. The summer John, just two, floated off the island in his orange life preserver. The night dad rammed our flimsy wooden rental boat up onto rocks after a barbecue and the hysteria that ensued as water filled the craft and we tiny children screamed. How the water was at one time so clean and clear, we’d paddle offshore and pull up buckets of it for drinking.
Just before surrendering to Ambien, I came up with my own plan for Mom that night: If I couldn’t promise her a Lake George future, I’d travel back there with her into the past.
The next morning, I pitched my idea, carefully dancing around my true motivation. “There’s so much I’m not clear on about our family’s history in Lake George,” I told Mom, slugging strong coffee to clear my Ambien fog. “Why don’t we spend 30 minutes each day getting the details down?”
If Carol was onto me, she didn’t let on for a second. “Well, we’ve got to start with my father’s first visit in 1929 with his friend Henry Redstone. Did you know Henry was hopelessly in love with Grandma?”
Actually I did. I’ve heard about how her parents held off marrying until they found a wife for poor Henry maybe a thousand times. But this time, instead of rolling my eyes and telling Mom to move on, I put my fingers to the keys of my laptop and let her journey begin.
It’s a journey that has transported us both to a better place over these strange and lonely weeks. Electrified with excitement, mom has hauled out ancient family photo albums and scrapbooks and has even set up our ’60s-era slide projector. Each morning, she texts, eager to know when we’ll have our session because she has so much to share.
Each night, I sit down and tell her I’m listening. I’m listening to a woman whom I’ve known since first breath but have never been close with. I’m seeing that, even when we can’t be there, Lake George and its potent gravity are what pulls us — and our entire family — together. And I’m savoring the prescient words of my grandfather John, written to my grandmother on that first visit to Lake George with Henry Redstone, and read to me in my mother’s trembling voice:
“The glorious world of nature and its overflowing charm is the very soil of love. From it, only good things can spring. You belong with me here. I’m going to picture you here beside me sitting by the fire, my arms about you. I don’t know how much I love you until I see how much I miss you.”
Maybe there is a way we can do this, Mom. Whatever happens, you’ll be there with us. And Lake George will forever be with you.