Oysters have a reputation. They get around and they get you to get around. So you might have read the title of this post as a euphemism. But it is not. It is a lament.
When my mother called to tell me that she had a horrible stomach bug from oysters I didn’t really believe her. I thought of all of the times we discussed our lives of privilege and wondered if complaining over oysters was perhaps the pinnacle of whining on the yacht. Then, as my kids say, I searched it up on the internet and found that the vibrio virus was real. At this stage in her illness my mother was more on the yacht’s lifeboat on choppy seas, so offered sympathy. One of the most fascinating parts of my mother’s Cape Cod community is the local fishing trade. With the addition of environmentally conscious fish farms the life of the fisherperson has not changed in hundreds of years. Except that there are fisherpeople…not just fishermen. In the summer I watch their barnacle covered boats leave the old wooden piers and appreciate this continuity. The century long connection to the sea and the effortless way local eating nourished the families on this spit of land well before it was on trend.
If there is ever a time that this workforce is celebrated beyond the sunrise cruise and the sunset cocktail it is during Oysterfest which was cancelled last weekend because, as my mother told me, the oysters are tainted. “I didn’t know oysters had taints” said Steve and I remembered why I married him.
Unlike the usually 24 hour wretched and wretching food poisoning these “delicacies” are carrying a bacteriovirus. It isn’t this risk that keeps me from eating oysters. Even oysters pure as the saltwater they came from disgust me. How can I not like an erotic food that has names like “naked cowboy”? Easy. Eating oysters is like swallowing someone else’s skinned tongue. Which is less of an aphrodisiac than a tongue that still has its skin. The fact that you need to open your throat and shut down your gag reflex should speak to their lack of deliciousness. If they were good we wouldn’t be gulping with the speed of a Jagermeister shot. Even so I enjoy watching other people slurp them down with relish…or at least with mignonette.
Last summer Steve and I had a date night in Welfleet, home of the world famous oyster and fest. Wanting to leave the house before our dinner reservation we took a seat on an outdoor hilltop patio overlooking the small town. Steve was wearing my favorite shirt and we held hands across the pebbled glass table not saying much. He ordered some oysters and I took pictures of the moment that I thought represented vacation more than many others. Turns out those are not moments I choose to remember. After finishing our drinks we took a short walk and ended at our favorite restaurant where we finished the night having one of the worst fights we have ever had.
Years ago (almost 13) I would rant and he would listen in silence. I would spit and he would swallow. Yet for over a decade we have worked on this. I practice pausing and speaking rather than spilling out a rant. Steve has worked on responding in the moment so we can work things through together instead of holding things inside.
But this dinner brought us back to our early days. What started as a conversation ended as a stalemate. He in stony silence, me spewing sentence after sentence trying to incite a response.
Months later I can barely remember the content of our argument. But I do remember the oysters beforehand and I would rather have a bad association with them than with his turquoise shirt.
To sum up. They make you sick. They bring on war as much as love. They are gross.
Three strikes oysters…three strikes.
But then again maybe I should just suck it up and suck one down…there should be no whining on the yacht.
We started in Vermont. I was sort of crushed by it. Unlike last summer where Vermont was wearing its sunshine finery it was grey and chilly for most of this visit. Last year we went tubing on the lake, to outdoor concerts, and BBQs at the yacht club (whatever you are picturing when you read the phrase yacht club you are incorrect- it is quite un yacht like.) This year we shivered. Even so as we branched onto Falls Rd at 11pm past the literal country store with its sign for Maple Creemees I began to cry. And it wasn’t 100% because I forgot to take my pills that day. It was for a time and place lost to us. It was for my little boys who had grown medium and a town which was a postcard come to life. It is a place where I knew individual trees and had helped veterans craft the message for their monuments. Now we were outsiders.
Except of course we weren’t. In the light of day (slim and grey as it was) we were swallowed back. Breakfast on the farm, sitting by the pool, eating in restaurants owned by friends the farmers market. It was the same stuff, just a little colder. Steve sent me a video of the boys sliding down the stairs of city hall in Burlington after a lunch at Flatbread. The stairs had gotten smaller. Of course they hadn’t. It was the boys that had gotten bigger. Almost too big to slide. Walking with Oliver’s hand in mine he remembered things. So so many things. The video he filmed to educate crossing guards, the tree he fell from, the bridge he built, the favorite food spots, the trick or treating. He didn’t remember the days inside in the cold, or the time the smoke from a Montreal fire drove us inside from the playground. He didn’t remember all of the days that were the same as each other as we worried about what was for dinner and whined about bath time. We had frozen Vermont into its best bits. So I traveled the whole emotional spectrum as I drove the familiar roads past crumbling barns. My sense of place was lost, then found in memories. As usual I dragged my family to real estate showings. At the first house Oliver wept. Please, he pleaded, please can we move back. I didn’t bring him to see any other houses.
We decided to re-claim a little slice of Vermont. We would spend summers in Shelburne and all of the other seasons (which magically actually do reveal themselves as three) in Denver. So 15 minutes before we hit the road for the cape Steve and I whipped through a 2 acre property with a huge yard and woods to the river and decided to put in an offer. So much for putting our move in perspective. We drove for about 45 minutes in silence to make sure my excitement wasn’t going to unduly influence him. We stopped at our friend’s farm to see her piglets and take 2 dozen gorgeous eggs to the cape. She calls her farm “Next Chapter Farm” which is perfect for her and, I felt, instructive to us. As we drove away Steve turned to me with a shining face. “I think we should do this. I think this would be really great for our family.” So I sent the text and we made an offer. Two houses…and hopefully two homes.
As our rental car crunched on the gravel of the beach house driveway that evening I wondered if my mother would be there. For 14 years she would meet us at the end of the weathered grey walk making the same chirping excited sound as she reached both for a hug and a suitcase. Then last summer it was different when her partner was in the hospital and she on crossed the bridge from Boston to the cape one time all season. They both have houses here. It was where they met. This year he is as well as a 90 year old can be, walking the dunes down to the water, working, enjoying the ice cream. Even though there is no hospital she doesn’t live here anymore. She lives with him. When she leaves us to go to him she says she is headed home. Then she pauses in confusion. “I don’t know what to call it.” She tells me. But I know what she means. He is home to her.
We stay for 2 weeks on the beach. The low tides are not quite low enough to find as many critters as usual, so Leo doesn’t kill any wildlife. This time he finds them washed up and dead. Decaying horseshoe crabs and smelly fish spines. It was a huge spine. Despite his scrubbing it had to leave the house as well. We host a few people. Cameron, who always sparks a debate in our family about whether he is a kid or an adult, brings a friend and they take the boys kayaking. Leo seems particularly dedicated to slotting people into age groups. At 9 almost 10 he has researched the phrase “tween” and decided that the majority of sources grant him that status. I am tempted to agree as he tries on teenagehood much more frequently than his unflappable brother. Finally he has a ranking system in place. Infant, toddler, child, tween, young teen, teen, young adult, adult, and old. It is a verbal version of Ombre, the divisions growing further apart and darker as he continues.
We have lunches on the deck with new friends and old standbys. Steve makes his office wherever he lands. We have a bonfire on the beach with five families.My father has been gone for 16 years and the best of his work and collection is out in the world. He has pieces at the Metropolitan Museum, the MFA, the Smithonian and many more. Including the cape basement. I hold my breath and head to down to the safe room to inventory my father’s art. This was once a collection that we curated together. (Not the new overused version of curated but the actual literal use of the word.) Now it is a chore. Or many chores. I photograph and label. I dust and sneeze. I think about legacy. What he left for us when he left us. Mostly I think about just getting this done and getting back to my book. I rarely read here, generally the house is full, vibrating with the breathe and plans of a dozen people. For all but a small handful of days it is just us here.
My mother watches the boys one night while Steve and I head out to dinner. We start out with oysters in Wellfleet village. Or he has oysters. Despite my love of steamers and mussels oysters still feel like I am swallowing someone’s detached tongue. After wandering the shops and somehow managing to leave empty handed we drive back to Truro for dinner. We go to our favorite spot. The one where we decided to have the third kid that never came to be. The one where we held hands across the table because we couldn’t stay apart. This time we fight. It is so rare for us to fight that we barely know how to do it. I find myself aware of the family at the table next to us. I am worn thin and uncharitably begin judging them. I don’t know what they are doing here in the outer cape, which is scrubby both with pines and people. This family is polished. For all I know this is their big night out and the kids were in flip flops and three day old t shirts just hours ago. I want to send them to the Vineyard where “casual” is carefully constructed. Undoing its essence. Instead I pull my attention back to Steve, back to our discussion. We are not sure about the Vermont house. We are not sure about his work. We are not sure about our priorities. Not only do I recognize that these are problems of privilege, but I also remind myself how lucky we are that this is such rare confusion. We generally disagree about things so minute as to be funny. Here I am not sure we are disagreeing at all. By then end of dinner we have not resolved anything. Probably because there is nothing to resolve. Yet the energy has left the fight. There is no electric field pushing us apart the way it normally pulls us together. We drive home quietly. Usually we take a meandering route through marshland and oceans. This time we had straight back. Home.
It isn’t though. All vacation my mother has been telling me it is “my house.” We are sleeping in the master bedroom, we are changing light bulbs and washing windows, we are ordering water filters for the fridge. We are acting like it is home…but it is not. It is a magical lovely family place. It is a place to share. Pushing open the door revealing the huge windows with views of the bay from Plymouth to Provincetown I see my My mother and Robert rocking next to each other watching the sun begin its nightly bedtime routine. The room is cast in a rosy glow. They tell us of an afternoon of totems on the beach and report on the unsatisfying amount of protein and vegetables the boys ate. We stand for a few more moments watching the sun slip away. Then it is time for them to go home. I thank them and they make their way slowly to the door. It reminds me a bit of walking down a long hallway towards a stranger. When do you wave or nod? Too soon and you need to duck your head for your final approach steps. It is hard to get the timing right on their departure. I thank and hug them over by the rocking chairs but it is several minutes of moving to the front door. I re-thank at the threshold and again there is a pause, my mother holding the door for Robert then heading down the walkway with his things. The reverse of our arrival.
Fully packed we take less than the normal amount of sand and head to Boston. I grew up a few miles outside of the city but it never felt like home. I left as soon as I could and have never returned for more than a weekend. I know it is a city many people love. It has sport and architecture and education. It has a park system designed by Olmsted, of Central Park and Shelburne Farms fame. It is smaller than NYC but somehow not more humble. We meet friends for dinner in the South End. Drew is unerring in his pick of great eateries. In Denver he takes us from low to high East to West each meal more exciting than the last. His partner is in Boston for the summer. He is a Boston virgin and is clearly charmed. I know they will move here in a year. Drew grew up a town away from me and it still feels like home to him. In fact the restaurant he picked is “in the neighborhood he would live in.” It has a park with a fountain, and behind the 1800s brick facades I see the glass angle of the Hancock building. I do something I never do and swim in the hotel pool with the boys. I understand the idea of baptism. Moving from one place, one stage to the next.
The next morning we fly to Indian River. Well, obviously we don’t fly to Indian River because that is impossible. We fly to Travese City and drive 2 hours to Indian River. This is where Steve grew up. He takes us to the green docks on the river where he cooled off in the summer. He showed us state parks and lakes. We slept in his childhood bedroom and Leo sorted through his baseball cards realizing with dismay that the Rockies were not represented (which might be the first time anyone really wanted a Rockies card.) The boys had a great time. It was hard for Steve. He lamented lost trees. His wooded neighborhood had been truly stripped bare. Behind his mother’s large lot there was mini-storage and one of those frighteningly large power poles. Along with these changes came upgrades. There was a rail trail that led 50 miles in either direction. The small park had a fresh playground. The main change though was that his father wasn’t there. He died over 3 years ago but this was only our third trip back. I know he could see him there. Echoes and memories. Also there were tangible signs of his absence. The siding was peeling and the septic needed repair. Steve’s happiest moments in Michigan were when he was sweating in the sun tearing apart the deck to reveal the septic system. It was ready to be repaired now.
On our last day in Michigan we went to the cemetery to visit Steve’s father’s grave. It is decorated with flowers but not by a headstone. I imagine that permanent marker would make things just that. Permanent. His grave is in a shady spot adjacent to a golf cart path. He was a golfer, and a coach, right up until the end of his life he was the volunteer greens keeper for the course that flanks the cemetery. They have brought him home.
Now we are back. I am back in Denver. I already weeded most of the front garden. I walked to the back patio to look at the lemon tree and hibiscus, the tomato and sweet vines, the snap dragons and tall grasses. They were all alive in their pots. My cousin and 4 other families had tended them while we were gone. Now we can take care of them. We are home.