Here’s the story in it’s entirety, in case you missed it! (Originally published in Storyteller Magazine, Fall 1996; reprinted in Ottawa At Home, September 2004)
by Deb Loughead
My mother was always dancing. Music, any sort of music, made her body move. Soft, romantic melodies, and she would sway and swivel gracefully as she stirred porridge at the stove or did her ironing. A big band’s brassy swing, and she would jive with an invisible partner.
It was the sixties, though, and while our older sister Sonja was hooked on the clean-cut image of the Beach Boys and their sun-and-fun fantasies, our mother grooved to the bad-boy beat of the Rolling Stones. Whenever one of their songs came on the radio, Mother turned it up full blast. The three of us children would watch in a sort of stunned fascination as she shrugged and shimmied around the room.
Father was a classical music buff. Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi– sonatas and symphonies soothed his soul. He always claimed that bird song was the classical music of nature, but our Mother’s rock music he compared to the savage fury of a tornado. “It doesn’t last long and you count your blessings when it’s over,” he liked to say. “Then you try to assess the damage.”
If he ever happened to wander into the kitchen when Mother was in one of her Rolling Stone stupors, he would pause for an instant, watch her with a look of disgusted dismay, then turn off the radio and ask: “Haven’t you got anything better to do, June?”
It was Father’s idea to motor east across three provinces and spend a summer at the sea. “It will rejuvenate us,” he said. “Think of the sea birds careering over the foamy waves, the shore birds scurrying along the beach on their delicate legs.” “Think of the work,” Mother said, “and think of the hours we’ll have to spend in the car.” “We won’t know anyone there,” said Sonja. “It’ll be a bore, and Peter and Laura will drive me insane.” But my younger brother Peter and I were eager for any adventure that would spare us the tedium of those dragging days of summer in the city.
I think the thing I remember the most about our drive to the east coast that summer was my parents’ bickering over the music on the car radio. It was tinny to begin with, and barely audible even in the front seat. But Mother was constantly spinning the dial, searching for a rock station. And despite the constant crackling and poor resonance, she would sing and sway to the throbbing beat as we sped along the endless miles of highway. Mother would turn it up, Father would turn it down. She would turn it on, he would turn it off, mile after mile.
As we neared our destination, Father would often skid to a halt on the dizzying edge of some cliff-side stretch of coastal highway. He’d leap from the car, fling open our doors and point out a pair of cormorants preening themselves on a sun-drenched rock in the bay. He would stand staring in rapture, then read aloud to us the description and habits of the bird from his tattered field guide. While he was distracted, Mother would quickly find her station once more, and the battle would begin again in earnest as soon as he climbed back into the car.
Finally Father gave Mother the daunting task of following the road map. He instructed her to trace the path of the thin grey lines, a cobweb of weaving country roads that would lead us to the coastal town where he’d rented our summer cottage. He smiled proudly and patted her knee each time she peered over the rattling map and said: “Right turn at the next intersection, William,” or “straight ahead through these lights.” Everything was fine, until he realized we had passed the same gas station three times and were driving in circles. Then he yanked the map from her hands, studied it for a moment as he drove, and set us quickly on the right course. Mother just stared out the window, twirling a tendril of chestnut hair and humming to herself, ignoring Father’s barrage of impatient remarks for the rest of the journey.
Our clapboard three-bedroom cottage on the beach was grey and weathered, and smelled perpetually of mildew. My brother Peter and I loved it at once, and the windswept days of freedom that it represented. Sonja sulked at first, but soon she grew fascinated with the canvas of the wavering seascape. She would lie on the warm sand for hours, mesmerized by the rhythm of the sweeping waves.
Mostly I remember the sand…sand everywhere. Sand in our sneakers and crunching underfoot on the kitchen floor. Sand in the scallop chowder at supper, and clinging to our scalps. Sand between the sheets at night. It was a nuisance only the first week, but once the sand had become permanent, once it had settled in our hair, crept between the cracks in the kitchen floor, and left a constant gritty coating in the bathtub, we didn’t even notice it anymore. It was as much a part of our lives at the sea as the ceaseless ebb and flow of the tide, and the stiff breeze that snapped the clothes on Mother’s line, and sent the sailboats scudding past our beach-front cottage.
Father spent that holiday satisfying his bird watching obsession. Freed from the burdens of teaching university English courses, he prowled the wharves and the beaches day after day, equipped with binoculars, field guide and notepad. He was constantly in search of some elusive species that might have travelled off course, or strayed from its habitual breeding ground. Only rainy weather and the ghostly grey sea fogs that crept ashore unexpectedly, would drive our father indoors. Late each afternoon he would come tramping into the kitchen, hot and discouraged, slam the screen door behind him and heave a great sigh.
“I can’t understand it,” he would say to no one in particular. “Day after day, the same blasted species. If only I could see something new!”
Then he would sink into a lounge chair in the screened porch, light up his pipe and bury his face in one of the countless ornithology books that were always stacked up around him. Every few minutes he would scan the seascape with his binoculars for fear of missing out on the opportunity of spotting a coveted specimen that he could add to his lifetime list. Then he would turn his face back to his books. Only the top of his head was visible then, a balding dome with a book in front of it, and pipe smoke in a wreath above his head.
For Mother, life by the sea was really not much different from being at home. Her hands were as red and raw as they were the rest of the year, steeping in dishwater three times a day, scrubbing laundry in the tubs, or sweeping the stubborn sand from every room. But she never complained about any of the work, disguising her discontent with her coral lipstick smile. She even made a game of her sweeping, and danced gracefully with her broom as if it were an actual human partner. We called it sand dancing.
Mother wore pedal pushers and pop tops around the cottage to keep cool, so that her taut, slender midriff, and her tanned, muscular calves were always exposed. On days when it was really hot, she would put on her short shorts that crept high on her thighs and threatened to expose the bottoms of her buttocks whenever she bent over. Those shorts (as we always referred to them) made our father scowl and shake his head in embarrassment, and sometimes he would grumble “Whatever happened to dresses?”
Mother had a radio in the kitchen, since that was where she spent most of her time. My brother and I had a perpetual game of Monopoly set up on a card table in the corner that we returned to whenever we began to feel bored, or had had too much sun. Sonja spent most of that vacation baking in the sunshine, and staring at the sea. In fact, I think we saw more of the soles of her feet than anything else that summer.
Camping out in the kitchen playing games and keeping Mother company meant that we were there from the very beginning when that thing happened shortly after our arrival. We were sitting right there watching when it all started. And Mother was wearing those shorts.
We had been outdoors all morning, collecting shells in the sand, while Mother sat watching us from beneath the wide brim of her straw hat. Finally, some time aroundnoon, she had called out “that’s enough sun for today, children,” and dragged us reluctantly indoors. Sonja, as usual, ignored her completely.
The radio was blasting out “Satisfaction”. I’ll always associate the song with that day. Mother was standing by the stove, stirring up a rich, creamy fish chowder for our lunch. As she stirred, her hips undulated sensuously in time to the music, and those shorts crept precariously up her buttocks. The screen door slammed.
“Ready for lunch, Sonja darling?” Mother asked.
“I’ve brought your fish, Mrs. Whitman.” We all looked up. A man was standing in the doorway, unabashedly watching our mother dancing in those shorts.
“Oh!” Mother gave a quick little gasp and snapped the radio off. Her face was red. It was one of the only times we’d ever seen her blush.
“Where did you come from?” she asked with a smile. The fellow smiled back, and that was when it happened. Mother blinked her green eyes quickly, in a startled, bird-like way, and something changed in her face. She actually looked flustered, and she tugged discreetly on the bottom of her shorts. “Fish,” she said. It came out in a hoarse whisper. “You said something about fish?”
“Sorry if I startled you some, Mrs. Whitman. I’m Evan Stewart. I met your husband watchin’ gulls on the docks when I was bringin’ in today’s catch. He said you’d be interested in some fresh fish.” Evan stepped forward and shook Mother’s hand firmly. He looked straight into her eyes.
“Yes…well…fish.” She was having trouble tearing her eyes away from him. Peter and I looked at one another and shrugged. But just then the screen door slammed again, and there was Sonja, standing in the doorway staring at Evan Stewart in the same spellbound way.
His shoulders filled the doorway. A headful of tangled black hair framed his sun-browned face, and his eyes were the exact colour of the sea. There was a scar on his upper lip that looked like a permanent snarl, but there was one on his cheek as well, right in the dimple spot, so he was always smiling, too. A thought flashed through my eleven-year-old mind as we sat there watching this stranger who had just stepped through the door without being invited. Maybe he isn’t a fisherman at all, I thought with pounding heart. Maybe he’s really a pirate. Maybe that’s why Mother and Sonja have that look on their faces.
That was just how he looked, with his tight, black T-shirt and snug cut-off jeans, and those dangerous, sinewy muscles beneath his taut, tanned skin. But he wasn’t wearing pirate boots. I checked. Only a harmless pair of tattered sneakers, missing their laces. It was a comforting sight. Perhaps we wouldn’t be robbed and murdered after all. But why were Mother and Sonja staring at him like that?
“He talks funny, Laura,” Peter whispered to me. He was staring at him with the same unrestrained fascination.
“Be quiet, Peter,” I said, nudging him. “And quit staring!” Then I realized that I was staring too.
Mother fetched her purse and paid him for the fish. “Thank you, Evan,” she said. “This haddock will be wonderful for dinner.”
“My pleasure, Mrs. Whitman,” Evan said. “I’ll be glad to bring some for you again.” He was still looking into her eyes.
“Yes, well, certainly Evan. I’d like that. Later this week, maybe?”
“Okay then. I’ll be back in a couple of days.” He turned to leave, but stopped in the doorway and flashed a smile at Mother again. “You like the Rolling Stones, do you Mrs. Whitman?”
“Yes, I do, Evan,” Mother said. Her eyes never left his face. “Do you?”
“My own personal favourites,” said Evan. Then he gave her a long look of approval, his aqua eyes sweeping over her lean, tanned form without the slightest hint of embarrassment.
“You’re a good dancer, Mrs. Whitman. Some good.” The screen door slammed, and he was gone. Mother was still standing there, gazing at the doorway, when the fish chowder boiled over.
At dinner that evening, as Father cleaned the last morsels of haddock off his plate, he said “Nothing compares to the taste of fresh fish. It’s good, isn’t it June?” Mother just stared at the doorway again and said “some good.”
Two days later Mother was wearing those shorts again, even though it was a rather cool day. This time when Evan arrived, her smile was spontaneous, and she had a look of reckless joy on her face. This time, along with the fish, Evan brought Mother a bouquet of wild lupines that he’d picked along the way to our cottage. He confessed it proudly, then handed the flowers to her with a look of school-boy innocence. But there was something more in those aqua eyes of his, and Sonja pulled a chair up alongside our Monopoly table and took a sudden interest in the game.
From that day on, whenever he delivered the fish, Mother asked Evan in for lunch and a cup of King Cole tea. And she told him to call her June. One day he brought her a cookbook of East Coast recipes, another day a basket brimming with wild berries. Sometimes he brought us children curious shells or lobster claws, or tiny living crabs that had gotten tangled in his nets. He was friendly and open with all of us, relating tales of his voyages “out to sea” in his father’s boat, storms he’d encountered, rescues he’d assisted in, friends he had lost. He spoke softly in his lilting East Coast accent, his voice washing over us like a warm tide. We were all drawn to his salty, sunburned smell, his reckless smile and his astonishing aqua eyes. And always, day after day, Mother’s radio station would be playing on in the background.
As Mother grew more accustomed to his presence, she would go about her household chores, washing up dishes, baking dessert for dinner, or sweeping sand out the door. And she would sand dance with her broom, fully aware of Evan’s eyes following the graceful curves of her body as she spun effortlessly about the room. Sitting inattentively at our Monopoly table, feigning interest in the game, Sonja would watch them furtively, and frown.
It was on one of the days when Mother was sand dancing that everything changed again. Evan cut in on the broom. She was only flustered for a moment, but as Evan’s hands gripped her waist, the thrill of actually dancing with someone overcame her, and she threw back her head, shook her chestnut mane and laughed out loud.
“He wants her,” Sonja whispered to us with alarm. We didn’t know what she meant.
“Yeah. He wants to dance with her. Aren’t they great together,” I said. Peter and I started to clap, and Sonja stared at both of us with horrified amazement.
After that they sand danced every day. Whenever the screen door slammed at noon, Mother would look up with a new spark in her eyes and an eager smile on her full coral lips. Something was going on between them, yet our presence made it benign in a way–something that would never truly take root. On the day he slipped his hand up the back of her pop top and she let out a startled gasp, Sonja whispered “cool”, and the three of us watched in stunned silence. She didn’t move his hand, either.
Where was Father while all of this was happening? Watching birds, of course, as inattentive as ever towards our mother. He had contacted ornithological societies in the region and was always racing off to reported sightings by other avid birders. He was gone most of the day, but on the days that he did arrive early, the slam of his car door would alert Mother and Evan. They would part nonchalantly if they’d been dancing, and sit innocently at the table to continue their idle chatter.
“Father is clueless,” Sonja whispered to us once, after he’d virtually exploded into the kitchen, his face joyous and animated, and begun describing to all of us the coveted specimen that he’d spotted earlier that afternoon. “Totally clueless,” she said.
“Why?” I asked, and she stared at me in disbelief.
Even though Father had begun to question the over-consumption of fish at our meals (fish sandwiches packed for his bird-watching expeditions, fish chowder, fish baked, barbecued, fried, broiled, fish salad, fish everything) he even went so far as to ask how Evan was doing, and to comment on what a charming lad he was.
“Oh, he’s charming all right,” Sonja would say, and Mother would stare her down with an icy smile and add, “He certainly is, William.”
I suppose Peter and I were as naive and unsuspecting as our father. We enjoyed Evan’s company and his fond attentiveness, and it wasn’t until years later, when I understood what irrepressible longing was all about, that the true intent of his visits became clear to me. But it all ended one day, just as suddenly as it had all begun.
As usual, they were sand dancing after lunch. It had become a customary part of Evan’s visits, but now there wasn’t any space between their bodies. He had trouble keeping his hands off our mother by the end of the third week, too. His eyes seemed to absorb her, to drink her in like some powerful elixir. His gaze was heavy and penetrating, full of an emotion which Peter and I couldn’t understand. Mother absorbed his attention like a dried-up sea sponge, and it was beginning to overpower her as well.
Sonja was asleep on a towel out in the hot sand—a part of her lazy vacation routine. So when the screen door slammed, we all thought she coming inside to cool off. Evan and Mother just kept on dancing, and Peter and I didn’t even glance up from our Monopoly game, until we heard Father’s voice.
“I ran out of gas down the road and…” He stopped.
We looked up to see Sonja standing in the doorway behind him, in shocked silence. Mother and Evan froze in their steps. Mother’s eyes had the look of a wary sparrow. It was clear that they had been touching. Father saw Evan’s hands dropping quickly from Mother’s waist. He stood watching, assessing the damage, perhaps. And something changed in his face, a flood of insight that rushed in like a tidal bore.
Father took a measured step forward and set his field guide carefully on the countertop. Then he did the proper and gentlemanly thing. He cut in on Evan with a polite bow. From where we were sitting, we saw Mother’s shaken face blossom into a coy smile, as Evan, flushed now, stepped aside. And then our father did something completely contrary to his nature. He pulled Mother in close, placed his hand on her buttock and gently nuzzled her neck!
“William,” Mother whispered, and I saw her blush for the second time in my life. Evan slipped out the door without slamming it. We didn’t even see him leave.
Father never objected to Mother’s music after that. Sometimes he even danced with her right there in the kitchen, the two of them swirling and sliding barefoot across the gritty floor, laughing and embracing as they second-guessed each other’s moves. She took to wearing filmy cotton dresses, and those shorts were put into retirement. And he invited all of us along on his bird watching expeditions, an opportunity which Sonja politely declined, but Peter and I leapt at for the sake of going somewhere.
Even though our father never did learn to dance a step without looking as clumsy as a blue-footed booby out of water (as he described himself), and even though our mother never could tell a plover from a sandpiper, somehow the final weeks of that summer by the sea brought all of us closer together.
My most vivid memory is the sight of Mother in a billowy sun dress, sashaying barefoot across the sand beside Father as we set off to watch birds. With one hand she clasped her straw hat in the brisk sea breeze. Father? He had his field guide tucked under his arm, as usual. And he clutched our mother’s free hand as if he feared she might flutter off suddenly, like one of his coveted specimens.