Sometimes we see deer in a clearing, sometimes an owl holding court on a branch. The great, old oaks, Spanish moss hanging from them like tinsel from a Christmas tree, seem to reach out to one another like lovers from either side of the road, forming a canopy overhead. The night soundscape — the frogs groaning, the tree crickets and katydids thrumming — increases in intensity as the darkness thickens and the fireflies appear, knitting patterns in the trees.
When we emerge on the other side, there is a marsh stretching for miles, the last remnants of sunset painting the horizon dark shades of pink and purple. As we are soaking in the view before full dark drops the curtain on the day, a big blue pick-up truck suddenly rumbles up next to us, the woman driving reaching across to roll down the window. It is not unusual for us to encounter three or four trucks, usually hauling boats. People often wave, but do not usually stop to chat.
“Howdy,” she says. “You folks might want to be on the lookout for rattlesnakes. I just killed a big timber rattler about five or six feet long back up the road a ways.”
My first thought is for the frogs, but for a snake that size, consuming poor little Eddie or Gloria would be like eating a couple of Tic Tacs.
“Thanks for the heads up,” I say. “We will sure be watching our step.”
We always do. We are anything but careless on these walks, not from fear of tremendous poisonous snakes, but from fear of missing something that we might end up talking about for years. I am old enough to know how unpredictable those things can be — the memories we keep and share, the ones that fade to black. I have almost no memory at all of my high school graduation ceremony, but I can remember vividly the taste and texture of the chuckwagon sandwiches and the cafeteria ladies that used to give them to us on green plastic trays. You never know what will stay with you, or why.
I wonder if we will remember this as being the year that our daughter chose to stay back on our evening strolls on Steamboat Landing. It wasn’t anything dramatic and did not take on the character of a “statement,” yet it feels meaningful. This will be her last year with us before she heads off to college. In just a few weeks, she will be submitting applications to four or five universities. When we return from next year’s visit, she will be packing to leave for one of them.
We can see the change in her. Sometimes we can feel it. She’s not as mean to her brother. She broke up with her longtime boyfriend and didn’t obsess or mope about it for weeks. She does things — some things at least — without having to be prodded. While we are out looking for tiny frogs, she is back on the sofa reading Edith Hamilton’s book on mythology, a required text for her English class this year, marking the pages with elaborate annotations.
It’s that, but it is also something else, perhaps a preview of what and where we’ll be a year from now — three of us left to redefine the days and ways of our family life, missing her in moments big and small. This is kind of a rehearsal of that.
Jack insists on bringing the frogs — four of them, one for each of us — back to show her. She has always been crazy over anything cute, and what is cuter than a frog the size of your fingernail? Sure enough, she squeals with joy when she is given her frog, who she promptly names Edith. She cups her hands as if she is holding a bowl of soup, creating a little valley for Edith to explore.
I see in her face the same unalloyed joy I saw when she was 4 years old, marveling over the fiddler crabs skittering all over the sand at Bay Point, or watching the dolphins at play less than a hundred yards off shore. It is an expression uncomplicated by the burdens of choosing a major, breaking someone’s heart, figuring out a budget, or solving problems on her own.
She tells us that she is really bonding with Edith, but she has no sooner said it than Edith jumps, landing safely on her feet, pausing for one beat, then jumping again into the wet grass, out of sight, free and clear.
“Well, there she goes,” she says with a shrug and a smile. “Bye, Edith. Have a great life!”
“She’ll be fine,” I say, swallowing my heart. “She’s only doing what she’s supposed to do.”
Time for key lime pie and game night. Edith Hamilton will have to wait.