Summer House: Ch. 19


Sonya had wanted to take Elise to the mainland to shop for school clothes, but she got called in for a workshop the school board was hosting, for the teachers at all the island schools, on trauma-informed care.

“What do these sheltered kids know about trauma?” Elise asked.

But I knew that wherever there are people, there is trauma.

“Farming accidents, storms, fishing accidents,” I said, “not to mention domestic violence, substance abuse, sexual harassment, and bullying. Trauma’s everywhere.”

“I’ll just wear these clothes,” Elise said. “I only need t-shirts and jeans.”

But her shoes had holes, so she agreed to let me take her instead.

We left our car at the island terminal and walked on board, to the accompaniment of wolf whistles from workers on the dock.

“Those are for you,” Elise said.

I laughed. “I hardly think so.” It had been decades since anyone whistled at me, not since I’d perfected the self-assured stride that says, “Not available, not interested,” and certainly not since my hair turned white.

“They’d better not be whistling at me,” Elise said.

“Does it bother you?”

“Hell, yes!”

There had been a time, when I was around Elise’s age, and I was first feeling what it was like to inhabit a young woman’s body, with hips, a thin waist, breasts, when my best friend and I collected wolf whistles. We held a friendly contest. I never garnered more than thirteen a day, while she often racked up fifteen. We called a halt to the contest suddenly, after a saunter through a park filled with Hell’s Angels drew more than whistles. We stopped sauntering, kept our gaze on the path, and walked as quickly as we could without running back to our bicycles. As we raced off, our hearts beating, I realized I didn’t want that kind of attention, not from a biker, not from anybody.

Elise and I ordered coffee on board and sat looking out over the straights.

“What are the boys like at school?” she asked. “Are there many?”

“There are four,” I said. “They’re good kids. One’s the son of a fisherman. Another’s the son of the librarian. And you met Devon and Shire selling their mom’s honey and organic herbs at the farmers’ market.”

“Do they have girlfriends?”

The fisherman’s son did. I’d heard that dating for island teens was a slow affair–there simply weren’t enough kids living year-round on the island. Some of them met teens from other islands. Some held online romances. Some hooked up with summerers for short romances. But mostly, from what I’d heard, the kids waited to date until leaving the island for college or work.

“I think I like that,” Elise said. “Less pressure, right? Is it a clicquish school?”

It couldn’t be, with only seven, now eight, students in the entire high school. Besides, the school had been practicing its particular blend of Steiner/Reggio Emilia since before these kids entered kindergarten.

“It’s pretty egalitarian,” I said. “I think you’ll like it. When you’ve only got enough kids for one group, everyone pretty much gets along.”

“That would be different,” Elise said. “My old school was awful. There was this hall you walked down, in the math wing–it was called ‘butt-grab’ hall, because that’s what happened there. When you walked down it, the guys grabbed your butt.”

“That’s awful!”

Elise nodded. “So we had a buddy system. We’d walk in a group, and the ones in front held their binders in front of their chests, and the ones in the back held them behind their… behinds. And we walked like that. Safety in numbers.”

“You shouldn’t have to do that. You should be able to be safe in school.”

“One would think. The system worked, though. Then, in April, my friends stopped being my friends, so I had to walk alone. I was always late for math, then.”

“Couldn’t you report that?”

“Yes. And the report asks for names, and when I put down the names, that’s when my friends stopped being my friends, but the behavior didn’t stop.”

I flashed on my student Sasha and her complaint against Denny, my friend and former colleague. I felt thoroughly relieved, grateful, even, that her claims had been acted on.

“I hope we can find some decent clothes,” Elise said as we approached the shoreline. “I hate girls’ clothes. They make me look like this.” She scrunched up her lips, cinched in the waist of her t-shirt, and stuck out her chest. “Like I’m a target.”

“We don’t have to buy off the girls’ rack,” I said.

We walked from the ferry terminal into town. The road was shaded, with mushrooms growing alongside it. We fell silent, after our long conversation on the crossing. My attention went to the birds singing in the forest, vireos, nuthatches, and chickadees. Elise seemed lost in her own thoughts.

We stopped at Starbucks and then hit up the discount retail stores. On the boys’ rack, we found skinny black jeans, relaxed-fit stonewashed jeans, and a pair of baggy brown cords. In a record store, Elise found GOT7 and BTS t-shirts.  We bought black sneakers and brown canvas ankle boots. By the time we needed to catch the evening ferry, we’d filled four big shopping bags of clothes.

“I’m exhausted,” Elise said, as we boarded the bus to take us back to the ferry terminal.

We didn’t talk much on the ride back. I bought us veggie wraps for supper and we ate facing the front windows. The water danced with sun gems.

“I’m gonna look so cool,” Elise said.

She was right. In her new clothes, she looked confident and hip.

“This was fun, Elise,” I said. “I’m glad I got to take you shopping. Thanks.”

She nodded. “Yup,” she said. “I think it’s gonna be my best year yet.”

As the sun set, the ferry moved into the golden path. In June, when I rode the ferry out to the summer house, I knew that this time of year, at summer’s end, I’d be riding the ferry again. Only then, I thought I’d riding it the other way, away from the sunset path, back to my busy life of conflict and demand.

But here I was, riding it home, and not alone, but with a new friend who shared that home. So many changes, such a short time.

Change isn’t always bad. And sometimes, good things happen after bad. The college would get along without me. Bernard’s dad would get along without his family. And in our new lives, in our new home, we’d all get on just fine.

<< Previous | Next >>


Summer House: Ch. 18


“I suppose I could work as a hostess at the restaurant,” Sonya said.

“They cut staff once summer’s over,” I replied.

“How about I get a job with the ferries? Serving food? I used to work in a cafeteria back in college.”

Ferry employees, including food services, all live on the mainland, I explained, since the ferries run out of Anacortes. They cut back during the winter, too.

“Babysitting?” she asked. “I could take the day shifts when Elise is at school.”

“It’s only the summerers who hire babysitters,” I observed. “The islanders don’t have need or resources. If kids are too little to stay home alone, there’s someone there to be with them or they’ve brought along. And by the time they’re six or seven, they’re allowed to be unsupervised, since it’s safe and there’s not a lot of trouble they can get into.”

“There’s always trouble for kids to find.”

But island kids were of a different sort, more self-reliant, less plugged-in.

“I guess we’ll just keep making jam!” She said, exasperated. “I know, I know! ‘The island farmers’ market only runs in the summer!’ You already said! But I’ll just make a bunch and head into Anacortes every Thursday, if only there were enough berries on the island left to pick.” We’d nearly harvested all the berry patches, leaving just a few up at the north end.

A few days after this conversation, when I went to the grocery store in the village to pick up some ginger for our stir-fry, I ran into the school’s K-8 teacher. She looked about four months pregnant, just beginning to show.

“I’m going to need a good long-term sub when winter break’s over,” she said, laying a hand on her belly. “You wouldn’t be available, would you?”

“Maternity leave?” I asked.  She nodded. Of course, I wasn’t available. I was retiring from full-time teaching, not picking it up again with a younger set of students. But Sonya…

I mentioned the conversation to her when I returned home. Her eyes lit up.

“Back in the classroom? I would’ve looked for a teaching position if we’d gone back to the mainland, and if it weren’t so close to start of school. I never dreamed there could be anything on the island!”

“Usually, a lot of teachers are interested in any positions that open–and they hardly every open. Most teachers here keep the job for life. But subs–and good ones–are harder to find. And certificated ones are nearly impossible!”

She called the teacher. Then she spent the afternoon filling out forms online and emailing references. A few days later, we received word from the principal, who oversaw the schools on all the three islands in the Straights, that she was approved. When the regular teacher went on maternity leave, Sonya would have the long-term substitute position, through the rest of this school year, at least, and possible into the beginning of the next.

“This will work out!” Sonya said. “We can make the jam fund stretch out until then. It’ll be tight. No extras. But we can do it!”

Of course, I kept to myself that I’d be covering utilities, and, if we kept up our current dining arrangements, the grocery bills, too.

A few weeks later, just a week before school started, we received a frantic call from the principal. The teacher woke up bleeding and was air-vacced to the hospital in Bellingham. They were able to stop the bleeding, everything seemed OK, but it was now deemed a high-risk pregnancy, requiring bed-rest. The teacher wouldn’t be starting the school year. Not only that, but she and her husband decided to move to Bellingham, since her specialists were there.

The school needed a full-time teacher to start the year. Was Sonya available?

It would be the class Bernard was in, but she’d already talked with him about it, when she was preparing to sub, and he seemed excited, if a little bashful, to have his mom for a teacher.

After interviews with the county school board in Anacortes, meetings with the island school site council, and answering scores of questions about educational philosophy (“What’s the best response for dealing with classroom disruption?”; “How do you handle bullies?” ;”Do you use worksheets, at all?”), Sonya had the job. She signed the contract.

“I have a job,” she said, over and over again. “I’ve got a salary! I start the day after Labor Day. That’s Tuesday!”

I smiled to think how happy I’d been, just a few short months before, to make the decision not to sign my own teaching contract. And now, in my kitchen, stood a woman grinning ear-to-ear at having signed her own. It felt right to have a teacher in the house.

<< Previous | Next >>


Summer House: Ch. 17


“When is Dad coming?” I heard Bernard ask his sister.

“I don’t know,” she replied. It was the first time she told him she didn’t know, rather than saying he wasn’t coming.

“Why don’t you know? You know everything! He isn’t coming, is he?”

Bernard raced through the kitchen and out the back door.

“I don’t know what to tell him,” Elise said.

“You told him the truth,” I replied. “That you don’t know.”

“Yeah, but it leaves out a big half of the real truth, which is that we’re not a whole family anymore.”

“There are all sorts of ways to make a family, Elise.”

She looked at me with a flash of hope before her eyes clouded over and she shuffled up the stairs.

That evening, after Bernard was tucked in, and Elise, who’d discovered my Jane Austen collection, was nestled in her room with Mansfield Park, Sonya and I sat in my kitchen to share a pot of mint tisane. We brewed it from our own garden mix of spearmint, peppermint, Bergamot mint, and apple mint.

“We can sell this,” Sonya said.

“It’s good mix. Maybe a bit sharp. I think we should add some basil–round it out.”

“Or chamomile.”

We looked out the window at the narrow garden between the two houses. A porch light hid our reflections, illuminating the canna lilies and hanging fuschias.

“I need to figure out what we’re going to do after Labor Day,” Sonya said. “It’ll be here so soon.”

“Stay here,” I said. She looked at me, as if I’d said it too suddenly. She didn’t know that I’d devoted hours to thinking this through. What I wanted, what I really wanted, was to let them stay rent-free. I didn’t need the other half of the duplex empty all winter. I really didn’t want to rent it out to anyone else. I didn’t need the income–not really. Not with my only housing expenses being property tax and insurance. I had so much, more than I needed, and I wanted to share.

“Are you kidding?” she replied. “There’s no way  I can afford this! We’re only able to be here this summer because he paid the summer rent. There’s no way I can continue with this on my own. No, we’ll move back to the mainland, to some one-room apartment, while I figure out what I’m going to do.”

I wasn’t new to being in a position to share what I had, and I’d learned through experience that even with the best intentions, generosity won’t always be received.

I’d ruined friendships before through giving. I had a student once. He took all the classes from me he could, then during the last few years while he focused on his major, when he was no longer my student, we became friends. He dropped by several times a week during office hours. We took long walks through campus together. We talked about Thoreau and Margaret Fuller and finding ways to live a true life in a false world. During the end of his junior year, he feared he’d have to drop out. He’d run out of funds. I had extra. I found a way to pay his tuition, anonymously. He discovered it was me. My gift allowed him to finish his degree. But it ruined our friendship. We always played that we were equals–peers. And, of course, as humans, we were. So when we were together, we were together as two humans. But of course, I was older. I had completed my degrees. I was a professor. And, he now felt he was in my debt. The power differential between us got jammed up. He stopped coming by as often, and when he did, he felt obliged to ask my advice, as if he were asking permission, and I felt reluctant to give it, as if it would be construed as a directive.

I didn’t trust the power differential between Sonya and me to withstand the gift of free rent. I needed things to feel equal between us. There needed to be an exchange, something flowing two ways.

I researched winter rental rates. I thought carefully about what she might be able to afford, so I was prepared when I suggested that she and her family stay here, and ready when she protested that she couldn’t afford it.

“You’re thinking of summer rates,” I said. “Winter rates are lower, especially if it’s a year-round lease. Saves me the trouble of having to find new tenants.”

“What are you talking?”

“Five-fifty a month.”


It was high enough not to feel like charity, but low enough to be affordable, with careful budgeting and good late-summer farmers’ market sales.

“It’s a lifestyle change,” she said. She looked inside her mug of tea and sighed. “You know I love it here. I’ll have to talk with the kids. What’s the school like?”

The island had a two-room school for twenty-five students, eighteen kindergarten through eighth graders in one room, and seven high school students in the other. Two teachers, one for each mixed-grade class, provided the main instruction, and specialists in various fields offered extra instruction. I’d been asked to provide writing and literature courses for the high-schoolers, and Shingo had agreed to teach art workshops for all the kids.

It was a progressive school, with an integrated, project-based curriculum tied closely to the island community, reflecting the peculiar blend of hippie/new-age/artist/drop-out and rural subsistence lifestyles that formed the peculiar culture here.

When I compared it to an amalgam of Rudolph Stiener, Reggio-Emilia, and John Holt, Sonya caught my meaning immediately.

“Now that sounds like my kind of school!” she said. “I’ve been searching for a school like that for Bernard back home, and the closest I could find was a Montessori magnet school run by the district.”

“Do you have an education background?” I asked.

“I do!” she replied. “I used to be a teacher before Bernard was born.”

<< Previous | Next >>