This week I take a break from Write On the Water to introduce a guest author – Susan Kietzman, a friend, colleague and author of three novels. Susan’s latest book, The Summer Cottage, was released this past May by Kensington.
by Susan Kietzman
The only thing almost as sweet as summer, are the few months leading up to it, when we, still bundled in wool sweaters and long pants, daydream about the upcoming lazy days at the beach and refreshing swims in Long Island Sound. My mother and her two sisters share a cottage on the Connecticut shoreline, which as many of us who can – taking time from work and other routine obligations – travel to every year. It’s a simple place, across the street from an expanse of lawn that stops at cement steps that lead to the sand and water. The cottage reminds me of my childhood, as I have been there every year since I was born. It reminds me of family.
Family can be one of those loaded words, depending on who you’re talking to. There are those of us who have good childhood and adult experiences with our siblings and our parents. And there are some whose experiences are not, well, anything to write home about. Bad or good, however, it’s hard to deny the power and influence of family.
As small children, we learn just about everything there is to know from our family members, from the very basic but necessary physical tasks of drinking from a cup, eating with a fork, tying shoes, putting on clothes to the more complicated, nuanced, psychological, and emotional tasks of learning what it means to be right or wrong, how to give and receive love, what comprises the essential elements of good character.
When we are young, we look to our family members for comfort when we skin our knees, for a hug during a nighttime thunder storm, for friendship when all our real friends are busy, for the sense of understanding we feel only when we lock eyes with a brother, a sister, a father, or a mother. When every member of a family is still living at home, a bond among them forms – even during times of disagreement or distrust. When everyone is eating at the same dinner table and sleeping in bedrooms several feet from one another, when everyone is breathing the same air, they are more apt to connect, in one way or another.
The Thompson family, of my latest novel, The Summer Cottage (May 2015), is like these families. The book’s chapters flip back and forth between 2003 and 1973. In 1973, everyone is still at home – although their time together is growing short. Thomas, the oldest child, is 18, and poised to leave in the fall for college. Charlotte, at 17, is as recalcitrant as many 17 year olds can be. Pammy is shy and insecure, like many 13 year olds. And Helen, at 10, embraces every day with the innocence and honesty of a fourth grader. Their parents, John and Claire, are attentive: John is thoughtful and wise, and Claire is outspoken and competitive. She insists her children play sports, including, when they are at the cottage, family kickball. Helen loves the game because she loves being outdoors in the summertime, and she adores her family. Her older siblings are not as keen, as they view the game as imposed on them by their overbearing mother.
Almost as quickly as a back yard kickball game is over, so is this fleeting time of family unity. Most of us can remember when we left home for the first time. Like Thomas, we are 18. We graduate from high school and move to the next stage in life, and we, often cheerfully, leave our family members behind. We proclaim ourselves independent, with all the arrogance it takes to make that statement. Our parents’ values now seem old-fashioned and staid. And we lose track of our siblings because they have often moved away, too. A sense of relief fills the space we have been craving.
Years pass. Eventually, though, we often return to our family members – not always physically but certainly emotionally, when we realize that we don’t, after all, know everything. We return for guidance when life’s myriad choices confuse us, for help in crisis, for the retelling of stories that no one else knows as well as a sister or a father. Every summer, when I am able to hear both my brothers tell these familiar stories, I am already laughing three words in.
Family members share a closeness that is impossible to duplicate – if only for the history you share. Siblings and parents have known you the longest. They know your secrets, your foibles, your proclivities. They know your middle name. It is this closeness that reunites families after periods of separation.
However, sometimes adult family members need more incentive then good memories to put their pleasant lives on hold in order to attend a weekend reunion. It’s easy to get comfortable with how we do things. It’s easy to stay away from a parent who has been tough on us. In The Summer Cottage, Claire knows this about her children. Thomas and Charlotte live far away from her now. And Pammy, living closer, hardly visits. So Claire, who is ill and knows her death is imminent, decides that the only way to see her children again is to force it.
So they acquiesce to their mother’s wishes and return to the shore, along with the others who have entered their lives since 1973, knowing that July 4th weekend in 2003 has the potential to be wonderful, awful, and everything in between. And while Claire would like to think she can control their time together, it is really up to Thomas, Charlotte, Pammy, and, most of all, Helen, whose love for her older brother and sisters is the real reason they come.
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