Summer of 2015. I wander through the renovated barn purchased during the 1920s by my great-great uncle with the tips of my three fingers running along the wooden wall. I think about my grandfather coming through the barn door as a child with a basket of eggs under one arm and a broken wristwatch in his hand. “The chickens!” he might have called, “One of them broke my watch!” I smile as I hear the voice of my younger grandfather in a story I have heard over and over again. The floor creaks as I step from plank to plank and I wonder if this barn is sturdy enough to hold the memories within it, both buried and fresh. The smell of my mother’s spinach casserole follows me past the basement door, the watercolor paintings of flowers hung on the walls, and the piano that has been out of tune for more years than I have been alive. I close my eyes, guiding myself with my fingers against the walls that feel hollow, and try to picture my mother here as a child. I have seen photographs that help, ones of her with hair that frames her face the way my sister’s used to: like half a cantaloupe turned upside down and placed over her head. I keep my eyes closed and walk with my imagined 5-year-old mother, side-by-side through the creaky, decrepit building we both spent our childhood summers in.
Summer of 2012. The waves, hitting against the concrete dock I have spent the afternoon jumping off of, sound so close, as though the water is splashing against the inside of a glass and I am small enough to float in it. The waves coincide with the rustling pages of the book in my mother’s hands as the wind picks up and puts down the corners of the thin paper. The slab of concrete jutting out from the beach, put in place by the same great-great uncle who bought the barn, is covered in shade. Although this means goosebumps have formed on my wet skin, I want to stay and listen to the waves, the pages, and my mother’s breathing, barely audible over the breeze. I look out across the blue water in front of me, flat enough to be land, to the raft floating about one hundred feet from the dock. I think back to earlier in the day when my friend Isabel, her sisters Matilda and Phoebe, and my sister Leela jumped from it with me into the lake. From the moment my feet left the white wooden planks that have been there since before my mother was my age to the moment my body was submerged felt as though I was higher than I know I could have been. I was between summits of mountains, looking down at the water as though it was nothing but a puddle beneath me and my flying limbs. A few hours ago, when I jumped and reentered the water, I floated among the circles I had created and watched my sister’s feet leave the raft the same way mine had. For a moment, I could see the same look on her face that must have been on mine, one that showed she was between the mountains. Now, lying beside my mother, watching the raft slowly being chased by shadow, I try to find that same feeling of flying above the earth. I have only ever been able to find it here in the Adirondacks. Today it is easy; my eyes are closed and my breathing is steady as I lie between Lake George and my mother, reimagining the flight I found earlier.
Summer of 2003 or 2004. I reach through weeds to find the purple flowers that my grandmother once told me she likes the best. My fingers, as small and thin as some of the sticks they are avoiding, seem to be moving on their own, wanting to find the flowers I know will end up in a porcelain vase on my grandmother’s glass porch table. They linger over pods of peas and continue to move, but as they do I have a sudden memory of running through the house my grandparents owned in Summit, New Jersey, holding a plastic bag of frozen peas my grandma gave me so as to not ruin my appetite. “She spoils you,” my mom once said, but not with the tone she usually uses when she talks about spoiled kids in my class, but with a smile. I wonder if my grandma gave her frozen peas when she was younger. As I grasp the stems of the purple flowers and tug lightly, they break apart just above the dirt, and I feel satisfied. My other palm becomes sweaty as I slowly transfer picked flowers from one hand to the other and I wrap my fingers around the stem. My mother has walked from the dock past me, and I quickly grab a few more flowers before I run to catch up, tripping and catching myself over roots. She looks down as I reach her. “Grandma will love those,” she says and the pride I feel at this is too much to hide from my face. I don’t mind my still sweaty palm as we drive over the bumps in the dirt road, past the barn to our right, and the houses of so many other family members to the left. I am still smiling when we pull into the driveway of my grandparents’ large summer home and do not wait for my mother as I heave open the car door, race up the stairs of their deck, throw open the front door, and skip into the kitchen. Grandma is standing beside the kitchen’s island counter. She is about the size of my mother, or maybe even a bit smaller, and her hair is the color of the milk I mix my cereal in every morning. Her skin, sagging a bit under the weight of her illness and age, has lines running through it, some straight and some zigzagging, some wrinkles and some veins. She may appear weak to some in the way her body moves, as though each movement is happening deep underwater, but this never bothers me. I am distracted by a slight glow around her, one that, to me, she has never lost. “These are for you,” I say as I hold the flowers and sweaty fist out to her. “Wow!” she says as she takes them, her voice muffled from the cancer that has appeared in her tongue. “They are beautiful. I love them.” I feel myself fill with a mix of satisfaction and joy as I watch her fill up a white vase with blue drawings along its front and place the flowers in it. She asks me to set them on the table on the porch so that we can look at them while we eat dinner. When I return to the kitchen she is talking to my mother and the resemblance between them is clearest through their voices: soft, steady, never rushing to get their words out before the other. My mother watches my grandmother with a combination of tenderness and urgent need, as though she must soak up every word her mother places into the world. I listen to them intently, longing to be a part of what they have, not realizing that in sharing their blood and history, I am.
Summer of 2006. Leela and I are silent in the backseat as my mother peers through the window of her car to the gravestones. Her eyes narrow as she tries to find the one she is looking for and go back to their normal position when she realizes we have not gone far enough. I keep wishing we will find the stone already so we can go back to the barn, throw on our bathing suits, and run into the lake that always seems to be able to relieve me. As the car pushes forward, past what are only stones to me but are everything to someone else, I think about the cold rush I feel when I first let my straight legs bend so my head lowers and is taken over by the water. I long to sit on the sandy bottom of Lake George and open my eyes so I can see blurry outlines of the mountains that let me feel small and merely a part of the earth. Instead, I watch my mother anxiously. The car slows as she pulls into a spot and although I know she must have found what she was looking for, I don’t want to get out of the car. But as though there is a magnetic pull between my mother and I, I follow her through the grass to the stone with my grandmother’s name. Anne Sanborn. I feel lighter when I whisper the name under my breath, feeling my middle name in my grandmother’s first. I have seen the movies and I prepare to stand in this graveyard for a long time. I expect my mother to get down on one knee in front of the stone and begin to tell my grandmother about her day, as though the elderly woman were sitting on the ground with us instead of buried beneath it. I expect her to cry and ask my grandmother why she left so early, long before she would have the opportunity to meet all of her grandchildren or watch any of them have children of their own. But my mother doesn’t do this. She places the flowers on the earth in front of the stone and stands up straight. Although we walk among the other stones to find names we recognize, those of people my mother knew but I have only ever heard of, we are back in the car within minutes. On the way home, my mother asks if either of us want to go for a swim.
Summer of 2014. I feel my skin baking beneath the sun and reluctantly appreciate my mother for reminding me again and again to reapply sunscreen after I swim. I look out at the boathouse about a two-minute swim from the dock through my dark brown sunglasses and the world has been dipped in iced tea. Wind is almost nonexistent and the water is still. My family members chat around me—third cousins and cousins once removed, people I wouldn’t know if it weren’t for my great-great uncle buying this land along the lake so many years ago. He bought houses to place all of his children and grandchildren in, and a barn for his sister and her children. And her children’s children, and her children’s children’s children, but he could have only hoped for this at the time. I think about when I was younger and my friends and classmates talked about magical places, like castles or far away islands, and how I never needed to imagine those places because I always had Lake George. Even when this place was dark for me, plagued with memories of loss, it was magical. The lake is long enough horizontally for me to pretend it never ends, that there is no way I will need to reenter the real world of school, work, and future. But vertically, it is small enough for me to see the other side—not specific trees or boats, but outlines that assure me they are there. The few times I have reached the other side, about two miles away, I have seen there are few people or things. Everyone lives on the same side of Lake George as my barn. I am so distant from the world I know during the other eleven months of the year, but still close to the people I see only once a year, and the tension of that is what I find magical. As I listen to the clatter of needles while Isabel’s mother knits to my right and the laugh of my mother, always surprisingly loud given her soft voice, I imagine them as Isabel and I years later, still only seeing one another once a year and sharing stories of our own children. “Mallika, what are you planning to do after college? You must be almost done,” my great aunt Joan calls to me from beneath the brim of her visor. Her head always juts out in front of her neck making her seem accusatory in whatever she says, but I have always had a fondness for her. In the years after my grandmother’s death, she repeatedly told me about how they worked at the YMCA on Lake George during the summers when they were college students. She always seemed to leave me on the concrete dock, where this story was usually told, as she spoke of being a waitress while my grandmother was a hostess. “She always got to wear a pretty dress to work, and the rest of us were so jealous of her.” The story would always end with her saying what a wonderful woman she thought my grandmother was. Once, and the only time, I thought I saw her eyes tear up a bit. “I miss her,” she said. Now, sitting on the dock with Aunt Joan while the water seems to crinkle against itself with small movements, I wonder if she sees bits of my grandmother when she looks at me, and I hope she does. “Not sure exactly. I’m studying abroad in France this year, and then have another year of school, and then I’m done with school. Then… I’m not sure.” I try to picture my grandmother in a dress in the dining room of the YMCA welcoming guests. It would have been one of the summers she worked there that she met my grandfather. I wonder if when she met him if she had any idea of the life she would have with him, of the children she would bear and the summers she would spend with them on the lake. I wonder if she had as much doubt about her future as I have about mine while I watch Aunt Joan nod at my answer.
Summer of 2002. The day is picturesque. The field behind the house my grandparents built just months earlier, a fifteen-minute walk from the barn my grandfather inherited with his brothers from their mother, looks similar to the lake I know is just past the trees in that it is flat and goes on for a while. I could run through it without being interrupted just as I could swim through the lake. The photographer is talking to my grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles while Leela and I sit in the grass, pulling at the individual blades. Audrey, who was just born that year, is in the arms of her father, my Uncle Pete. Her bright red hair sticks out of his embrace just at his elbow. There are clouds, but not ominous ones; they look as though they are made of cotton. The cloth of my purple dress covered with flowers is soft against my skin, like the clouds would be if I were among them. I listen to where the photographer tells me to stand and feel them behind me: two parents, two grandparents, two aunts, two uncles, two small girls. I hear the click of the camera and feel safe while they surround me like Tongue Mountain, Black Mountain, and Sunrise Mountain, all of which I know are behind me as well. I look past the photographer to the house my grandparents built together to make sure they will be forever present in the Adirondacks. As the photographer snaps, I feel this instance being captured. I wonder where this picture will go, in whose house it will hang, how long I will be able to remember this moment.
Summer of 2010 or 2011. Someone else’s cars are in the driveway of the house my grandparents built and my grandfather sold just after his wife died. I see figures moving through the kitchen windows, but I don’t look for too long because seeing their faces will make them real. I can see the field past the house I spent days running across, trying to reach my grandparents’ front door before my parents rolled into the driveway. Now I know that they always drove slowly to ensure I would reach it first. The wind chimes and garden decorations look strange in the garden I watched my grandmother pick at, and I remember the tinkle of her metal chimes and the stone owls she placed among the hedges. As I stand in front of the house, I think back to cleaning it out, sometime in February after my grandmother died, the last time I had been in that house. As my mother and uncle moved boxes of my grandparents’ belongings downstairs, I sat among forgotten items in a storage space. I rustled through a box of papers and when I saw “Dear sweetheart” scrawled across the top of one in the same handwriting my grandfather used to use to write letters from Santa, I pulled the paper out and looked at it. As I read on, I discovered it was a love letter written from my grandfather to my grandmother after they had met during the summer, when they were apart from one another during the school year. Now, standing in front of the house they had built together, the one my grandfather had to sell because the memories of his wife wandering through it fluffing pillows and tidying tables was not something he could handle after losing her, I can only remember one line of the letter: “I’ll see you soon.” Water had gathered at the corners of my eyes when I read it, but I had quickly wiped it away, not wanting my mother to see. Water gathers there now too while somewhere far away, in a different time than mine but the same place, my grandmother splashes through Lake George with my grandfather, just getting to know him. Black Mountain hovers over her then as it hovers over me now.
Summer of 2005. All of the adults are wearing dark colors. I stand among them in front of my grandmother’s headstone wearing bright pink. While my parents, aunts, and uncles spent the morning walking this way and that, remembering one thing then forgetting it while they moved onto another, and making sure everyone had a way to get to the memorial, I fretted over my outfit. “Grandma would have wanted you to wear something happy,” my mother said to me as I picked at the pink threaded flower petals. This made sense to me, but I still felt out of place. Now, I feel out of place because I am not crying. Around me, men are standing straight with their hands behind their backs listening to an older relative I have interacted with a few times talk about how important my grandmother was to us all. Some women are crying, my mother among them. I stand next to her trying to keep my head forward and my mind focused on the tombstone and what the man is saying about who lies beneath it, but my eyes and thoughts are wandering. There are so many people here with their heads bowed thinking of the woman whom I had been trying to name with the first word I had ever spoken. So many people who had known her when she was young, and for that I am extremely jealous of them. So many people who had listened patiently while she tried to speak clearly after her cancer progressed, and for that I feel forever in debt to them. I have never heard one person say anything negative about her, and as I look out at the crowd of people who have flown from far to be here, I understand why. When I hear my name called and a small push from my mother, I walk towards the tombstone with a sheet of paper in my hand. The older man smiles and nods at me to begin. The words of the poem I have written come out easily as I have said it so many times in my head. I don’t take time to look out at the faces watching me. I know Isabel is there, and I envision jumping from the raft into the water and swimming back and forth from the dock to islands with her later today. My father is there and I know soon he will sit on the dock with me and let me make fun of him for not being able to swim while I jump in and out of the water and he smiles, allowing me to boast with my kicking legs. Three of my grandmother’s four sisters are there, standing with the families they have created over the years, watching as the youngest sister is missed by people she cared for and the mountains and trees she loved. I don’t look up while I read to look for her, but I feel my mother there. I know her eyes are following my lips while I recite the lines that made her cry when I first wrote them, and I want to promise her that grandma is still here. I can feel her breath in my lungs and in the wind that rustles the leaves around us.
Summer of 2015. The barn creaks under the weight of our footsteps and our panic as my mother, sister, and I hear the news of my grandfather’s heart attack. I walk from wooden plank to wooden plank as my mother speaks on the telephone. I try to separate myself from this, to let my mind jump and land yards away in the lake I have left so much of my pain in, like stones on the sandy earth beneath it. My sister’s eyes are wide as she watches my mother speak with words that interrupt themselves. I have never heard her stutter this way. She hangs up the phone. “I don’t know what to do,” she says, looking straight into my eyes. I watch the calmness she has always exhibited without trying, something she inherited from her mother, become lost within her for a moment, and I feel a sense of urgency. I want to hold her, to tell her everything will be alright, that she will not lose him, that she can be small again with hair like a cantaloupe and a smile that doesn’t falter. But I couldn’t save her from losing her mother, and I cannot save her from the possibility of losing her father. I watch her hurry up the stairs and turn to the front door of the red barn. I open it and step out onto the wooden porch with flower pots my grandfather used to give me a few quarters everyday to water. I hear the porch, built long before I had ever been imagined, creak and the wind whirl around me. I think about how when people are feeling the inevitability of loss they pray, and I consider it for a moment before realizing that I don’t know how. I look up to the blue sky, just a few shades lighter than the lake looks behind the trees and don’t ask for a god to hear me. I ask for my grandmother, picturing her flying among the clouds, limbs spread wide as they would be if she were swimming. I look at the tips of the mountains I have seen for my entire life and wonder if she can hear my thoughts. I want to know if there is anything she can do, any way she can keep my mother from feeling the pain of another lost parent. Although she won’t answer I know that if she is anywhere, she is here. I open and close my eyes slowly, overwhelmed by the fear of more loss, and the mountains seem to move back and forth ever so slightly, reminding me they are still here. I feel a light wind on my bare shoulders.
Summer of 2005. I lie on my back as the cool water holds up my body. I press my arms into the flat the lake and they emerge easily as I propel myself forward. Beside me, my mother does the same. Although she moves faster, our bodies are in synch, both throwing water droplets towards the sky. I am halfway across Lake George and a day past my grandmother’s memorial. As I gaze at the tall green mountains interrupting the skyline in front of me, I wonder where my mother’s mind is. Is it with her younger self while she swam across the lake for her first time almost thirty years ago? Did her mother swim beside her too, row the boat next to her as my aunt is doing now, or cheer from the dock? I pretend I am with the younger version of my mother as she swims across the lake for the first time so many years ago. We struggle to keep breathing as our limbs grow tired and our lips push water away from our mouths. We swim with the same rhythm, our legs kicking as one.
Mallika Mitra studies English with an emphasis in creative nonfiction at Kalamazoo College and will be graduating come June. Originally from New York, she is the editor of her school newspaper and leads backpacking and canoeing trips in the Adirondacks.