letterhead detail

What Nostalgia Whispers:
Summer's Evocations
of Childhood Pleasures

By Lawrence Biemiller

CAMP WINDSOR HILL, RANGELEY LAKE, MAINE -- Stopping by Kingfield on a hot afternoon, two friends and I find a couple of bikes and a scattering of shirts and sneakers beside the railing on the bridge over the Carrabassett. Teenagers are laughing and splashing each other in the middle of the millpond below; smaller kids, watched over by someone's older sister, are playing in the shallow water across from the spot where the mill once stood. A black retriever swims out time and again to fetch a stick, and a daring boy of 11 or 12 makes his way carefully along the top of the low dam. The Carrabassett spills over his toes, tumbling six feet or so down the dam's face and churning the pool beneath to a pleasant froth. Beyond the pool two more boys wade among rocks in the riverbed, hair plastered to their foreheads and wet shorts clinging to their hips, as a girl watches from a boulder at the water's edge.

The Kingfield dam

It's a picture-perfect scene, an almost mythic representation of summer pleasures. Somehow no fence prevents swimming, no sign warns of poor water quality or disclaims liability, no guard waves the daring boy off the dam. Kingfield's kids have a whole river to play in -- a river with a dam, no less! -- and there's not a single worried parent in sight. Nostalgia whispers at me across all the years of the diligent and responsible adulthood that began three weeks after I graduated from college -- across the accumulated envelopes of canceled checks, across the collection of old address books listing friends I've since lost track of, even across the memories of lovers, of breakups, of funerals. What nostalgia whispers is: Pull your shirt off. Kick away your shoes. Dive in. Play!

I don't, of course. Instead I show my friends Kingfield's vernacular architecture -- steeply pitched roofs, gables every which way, houses attached to barns by mudrooms. I lead the way into the paneled lobby of the Herbert, a little Edwardian hotel that, against all odds, is still standing proud and polished in a remote Maine town of 800 people. But when we leave for New Portland, next stop on the afternoon's tour, I look over at the millpond again, at the dam and the children now playing in the grass beside it. I try to conjure some memory of how it felt being a child, try to gauge whether I was really more curious then than I am now. But too many years have passed, too many memories have fragmented. What I remember are mostly the scenes captured in snapshots and stories told year in and year out at holiday dinners. My own childhood has vanished into myth.

Fortunately, there are kids here at the old summer house on the lake: two nephews for almost a week, ages 8 and 4, then a 6-year-old niece and her Iowa cousin, and a nephew who's not yet 2. They are part of the fourth generation of kids to come here, to race up and down the stairs, and play hide-and-seek in the bedrooms, and belly-flop off the floating dock at the bottom of the hill. My step-grandmother is part of the first generation; in a collection of old post cards in the living room is one she sent to her parents here from sleep-away camp when she was 9.

Now she's in her 80s and too frail to come up from Baltimore. So my stepfather stands by the phone on the desk and gives her a full report on the weather, and the temperature of the lake, and who's here, and whether there are bats in the house -- the house is 75 years old this summer, and it has plenty of nooks and crannies. While he's talking I poke around in the bookshelves and find a copy of The Jungle Book that's even older than the house. "Gretchen Hochschild," someone wrote inside the front cover, and "March 21/99."

Gretchen Hochschild was my step-grandmother's mother's maiden name. Gretchen and her husband built this house; at some point she must have brought the book for her children to enjoy. I open to a random page and become engrossed almost immediately in "Toomai of the Elephants," a lively story about the 10-year-old son of an elephant driver. I meant to read a couple of serious novels that I brought with me, and some volumes of poetry, and a book called Guide to the Aqueducts of Ancient Rome, but instead I spend several delightful hours on Kipling stories about animals and children. It is vacation, after all, even if I don't heed nostalgia's whisperings.

My 8-year-old nephew, Nathan, spends much of the week similarly engrossed -- my sister-in-law brought along a whole stack of books for him. Between chapters, he challenges everyone in the house to darts and chess -- even my mother, who loves Nathan dearly but couldn't tell a rook from a pawn if her life depended on it. Still, good grandmother that she is, she agrees to play.

When he can find no one to challenge, Nathan alternates between tormenting his little brother, James, and teaching him some of the important things you learn when you're a kid. Big this year, my sister-in-law says, are sorting and categorizing. M&M's from the jar on the living-room table must be sorted by color, of course, and by whether they're plain or peanut. The marshmallow treats in Lucky Charms cereal are sorted by shape. Clover, diamond, horseshoe, moon, star -- precise bar charts of marshmallow treats are constructed on the kitchen table every morning. Consumption follows the order of preference; luckily, there are enough categories of marshmallow treats that James usually manages to be "full" before he has to eat any of the cereal itself.

James, too, pesters everyone to play his favorite game -- this year it's "Sorry!" And he whips through a series of solve-the-mystery books that come with special pens to reveal invisible clues. His speed surprises me until I discover that he's only revealing the clues, and that Nathan is doing the actual solving of the mysteries. At meals, James entertains by dancing enthusiastically in the dining room, usually to songs of his own devising, and by scheming to win a silliness contest in which I have proposed to let him compete against my friend Alex. James has almost exactly the same bright-eyed smile as Alex, who just earned his Ph.D. in some kind of physics so arcane that several years ago he stopped trying to explain it to me. Even so, he may be the only adult I know who could give James a run for his money in the category "Silly dancing to songs composed on the spot."

What I realize as I watch James dance is that the most desirable of a summer vacation's pleasures are really childhood's pleasures -- freedom from responsibility, from nagging doubt, from the relentless certainty that you ought to be working harder, exercising more, eating less, mailing earlier in the day, changing passwords more often. In high school and college, that certainty is conveyed so subtly that most of us don't realize we're absorbing it. Then we get jobs and mortgages, and people praise us for working harder and harder and exercising more and more, and we forget about invisible pens and the wide-eyed wonder that Kipling describes so well.

The three other children don't arrive until the last full day of my vacation. Allison and her cousin have important and secretive little-girl things to do in their room with the door closed -- we hear giggling late into the night -- but A.J. and I become fast friends. A.J.'s only 20 months old, and he doesn't talk much, but he can screech like a monkey or growl like a lion. He's especially good at bringing people things: After dinner he finds the old tennis racket that is kept in the living room in case a bat appears, and he brings it to me several times. I kneel as he hands it to me, and I see in his beautiful eyes such innocence, such trust, that right then and there I would give anything to be a child again myself, to trust anyone that completely -- even at the cost of everything I've learned since.

Life isn't like that, of course. The Carrabassett doesn't run backwards over the Kingfield dam, and I don't get to be a kid again. But I suppose it's a good thing to know what I've lost in growing up, as well as what I've gained.

Photo of AJ

Copyright (c) 1998 by The Chronicle of Higher Education http://chronicle.com Date: 08/07/98 Section: Opinion Page: B2

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