Summer was a rich time for an observer like me. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, I could swim, build drippy castles on sand bars, catch minnows in milk bottles, and watch. With wet sand sliding through my fingers onto a spire, I’d observe my mother a few feet away holding court from her white beach chair. She’d always be flanked by five or six women, her three sisters and a variety of friends. The men would be on the lake fishing or playing horseshoes nearby.
“Gertie, something smelled delicious as I came through the cottage,” her best friend An-nette would say. “Peach or rhubarb?” Cheerful, plump, Annette loved mother’s pies.
“Strawberry-rhubarb,” my mother would answer, spreading her fingers on the flat chair arm so her nail polish would dry. “You and George will stay for dinner?” It was hardly a question as no one ever refused.
Annette had a smile full of widely spaced square teeth. “We’d love to.”
My mother was a beautiful woman, not just in my eyes—everyone agreed. In the summer, thin and tan, with her hair in a long single braid, she always looked completely relaxed on the beach. But she worked in the mornings scrubbing, cooking, ironing, and gardening like a woman possessed.
Sand was the enemy. No sooner did we track it in onto the shiny Iinoleum, then she would send it flying out again. “Rinse your feet,” she’d yell. And we’d hose the big clumps off, but the fine sand would stick. And there were those secret caches inside our swimsuits as we’d peel down in the bathroom. In every other cottage on crystal Beach, sandy feet made shish shish shish sounds across sandy floors and rocking chairs crunched when they rocked. Not in my mother’s house.
The neighbors didn’t know what to make of her. No Jews had ever Iived on this part of the lake. They folded their arms, smiled thin smiles, and waited for vulgarity. They got our House Beautiful mother. Mrs. Whistler with her silver-blue curls and her red-nosed husband with his captain’s hat, sat on their patio sipping gin and watched my mother with growing respect. When finally they made friendly overtures, however, Mother was polite but cool. She didn’t trust gentiles.
By nine AM she’d be off to buy fresh corn, fruit, chicken, milk, and eggs from the local farmers. Then she’d stir the kitchen into a cloud of flour and sweet-smelling steam, beat-ers clattering, oven doors creaking, until miraculously the pie was cooling on the porch and several bowls and containers of main course were tucked under wax paper in the refrigerator. Then she’d be out in the garden sending weeds sailing over her shoulder as she made her way down the flower beds.
I bobbed in Mother’s wake as she sped through her morning chores. She would give me little tasks to keep me out of her way, a rag to dust already dusted baseboards, a piece of dough to shape into cookies, while she worked on the main event--pie.
“Tell me, about David,” I begged one morning. “How old were you when he drowned?” I was cutting a circle of dough with the rim of a juice glass.
“I must have been about your age--seven or eight.” She sighed but began the story one more time. I could never hear it enough. Even the hundredth telling couldn’t solve the mystery of that figure at the head of the row of boys and girls standing sideways with their heads turned toward the camera.
The faded brown tintypes sat on Mother’s dresser. Normie, the baby in Dottie’s chubby arms, then Donald, Joey, Gertie, Adele, Bessie, Eddie, and strong, straight and blond, David, dead at age 13, drowned in an old swimming hole. All the others were grown and familiar now--aunts and uncles who often sat around our dinner table with their own children. Who was this ghostly boy-uncle? Where was he?
She was just coming to the part where Mama (her mother) was running down the path--her full skirts flying, her hair falling out of its tight bun down almost to her waist, when the phone rang. We both paused, our floury hands in mid-air.
Two long rings. Then one, two, three--yes four short rings. It was for us. One more, one less and it would be for another party on the line. Mother wiped her hands on a towel and moved to the old brown box on the wall.
“Hellooo, she sang into the curved mouthpiece. Because of the cracking of static, she held the earpiece a few inches away and I heard a man’s voice say “Gertie?” She switched to the other ear and I went back to my cookies.
I asked idly, “Who was that, Mom?”
She was back at the board rolling the pin smoothly across the dough. “Aunt Hilda.”
I was transfixed. Back and forth went the rolling pin. I remember thinking that we could stand like that forever, me deathly still, mother rolling out her pie crust. Only the dough would grow larger and larger until it filled the room, us and everything. Fixed in the hard-ening dough, we would achieve a kind of immortality--like the tintype.
The new mystery to be solved was: ‘’HOW COULD MY MOTHER LIE?’’
She finished the pie and the story, and I cut out a few more cookies, but nothing was the same. I remember running down onto the beach to find my sister. She was lying on the sand reading.
I sat down next to her book, getting sand on the open pages. “Dammit Joanie, get away from me!” she held the book up and shook it.
“l just heard Mom talking on the phone.” I said softly. “She was talking to a man.”
“So?” She stared at in disgust.
“She said it was Aunt Hilda,” I was sure she’d be horrified.
“Go away, Joanie.” She picked up her book. I was dismissed.
I sat at the water’s edge later that afternoon and watched people arrive. Aunt Bess and Uncle Sam, Aunt Adele, Annette and George, Uncle Leonard, cousins Susie and Peter--the usual people walked down the stone steps and arranged themselves in usual ways on chairs and towels. My father and George played horseshoes nearby. I watched a horseshoe catch the stake spin around, and then settle into the sand. Kerchunk.
It had been George’s voice on the phone.
I didn’t consider why my mother might Iie to me about George. I didn’t really care. I knew that I hated him.
When I went swimming that afternoon, I went out farther than I had ever dared before. I saw my mother look up, saw her wave for me to come in closer, but I ignored her. I dog-paddled out a little further and then rolled on my back to squint up at the sun. If I turned my head just slightly I could see my mother walking out into the water waving harder now and calling me. I put my feet down, noticing how much colder the water was out there, and reached for the sandy bottom with my toes. I sank under water before I touched. Like a scene from a newsreel, I saw David struggling, his suspender caught on a loose board. I burst through the surface of the water and swam as fast as I could toward my mother.
She pulled me into her arms. “What were you doing out so far? You scared me to death!”
I put my arms around her neck. “l was just floating. I didn’t know how deep it was,” I lied.
Later, at dinner, everyone agreed that rhubarb-strawberry was my mother’s very best pie