Like many people living year-round on Martha’s Vineyard, my family and I spend a portion of our summer doing the “island shuffle.” Every year, we rent out our Oak Bluffs home for at least a few weeks. Unlike many people on the island, we're lucky enough to have two incarnations of home to spend that time.
We usually start these weeks away by staying at my childhood summer home. The Crystal Palace is a charming Victorian in the center of Oak Bluffs where my parents and aunt still spend every summer. As a child, summer meant cousins. My brothers and I longed for the days of July and August when we and our cousins spent endless days eating peanut butter sandwiches on the beach and evenings eating soupy ice cream on the back deck. As we grew older, summer meant nights spent checking out boys at the Game Room and driving up and down Lambert’s Cove Road looking for beach parties. From the enviable sun-dappled cantilevered front porch to the storybook tower, every nook, cranny, and corner of the house holds a piece of our families’ shared history, and continues to be a gathering place for us six cousins and our growing families.
Next stop on our shuffle is Ireland to visit my husband’s family. We spend the weeks in the bustling coastal town of Kinsale in County Cork, living in the small stone cottage where my husband’s grandmother spent most of her life. Much like I spent my childhood summers on Martha’s Vineyard, my husband spent his summers with his grandmother in Kinsale. From the overgrown garden where his grandmother and great aunt used to pick raspberries to make into jam, to the outhouse the men were expected to use (despite the working toilet inside), to the giant kitchen fireplace where the women used to cook, the house is a trove of memories and history. We spend the month visiting family and reconnecting with old friends, walking along the harbor front, eating Irish potato chips (crisps) and French fries (chips), and sampling the local pubs. As the Irish would say, the town and house are “lovely” but by the end of the month, I am longing for our light-filled Cape on a quiet dirt road.
Finally, it's time to move back home. For much of the year, we take the house for granted or think about the various improvements that could be made. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a deck? When will we ever be able to finish the basement? The hallway could use a fresh coat of paint and the medicine cabinets are falling apart. But upon returning after a stretch away, the house is newly discovered. My eight-year old daughter rushes from room to room, exclaiming over items she’s forgotten but now realizes she missed. “My bed,” she cries, lying down on the mattress that knows the shape of her small body. “My tree,” she yells, climbing the Japanese maple that grows in our front yard. I know the way she feels. I want to do the same. “My kitchen!” I cry, running my hands along the vast expanse of counter-space, massive when compared to the tiny Irish kitchen I’ve cooked in for much of the summer. “My couch,” I sigh, sinking into the soft worn sofa that has known many strangers over the summer months but still seems to welcome me back. Much like my children, I want to chant “Mine, mine, mine,” sprinting from room to room and pointing at everyday overlooked items throughout the house that take on a new significance after the long separation.
Though the island shuffle inevitably brings headaches, I know that we are blessed in that it also brings us a rare gift: the chance to return to the homes that shaped our childhoods and a chance to return to the home we have created as adults.
Vacationing with a four-year-old is a bit of an oxymoron. The two words just don’t go together. I know this already, yet my expectations and reality continue to collide. As my family spends three weeks in Ireland visiting family and friends, I’m getting another reminder. My other daughter is eight now, old enough to keep up with many of the activities my husband and I enjoy—going for long scenic walks, eating out, browsing in bookstores, lounging in cafes. This isn’t always so for the four-year-old. Today, on a beautiful (yet somewhat long) walk, I felt my agitation rise with her every whine and fuss. My husband and eight-year-old wandered ahead, while my youngest cried every time I let go of her hand. Ever the vigilant family photographer, I continued to take pictures along the way, and from these shots, it looks like an idyllic outing. And it was, except for my frustration.
The problem is wholly mine, I realize. She’s only doing what most four year-olds are programmed to do. Her legs are short, she tires easily, and her desire to be close to me trumps everything else.
Since our trip began, I’ve been asking the girls what the best part of their day was.
“Going to the model train exhibit,” the eight-year-old said.
“Holding Mommy’s hand when we walked,” the four-year-old said.
For me, one of the hardest parts of motherhood is being able to comfortably fall into it and let go. Too often my first instinct is resistance--walk faster, stop complaining, finish your dinner, for god’s sake, just try the carrot! Much of this is leftover from those early years when every hour of the day was a physical exhaustion. I was not built for that stage of parenting, and while I did my best, it was a challenge not to be subsumed by it. I envy the women I see who so clearly adore spending time with their babies and toddlers, who just fall headfirst into their time together. For me, my mind was always going a million miles an hour, soaring far from the moment, even while I loved my children fiercely. I acknowledge this now with equal parts shame and relief.
We’re exiting that stage. The daily trials are simple and painless compared to the days of sleep deprivation and never being able to take my eyes off a running toddler. Yet my mentality is a step behind these advances, and I’m still quick to anxiety or exasperation. I need to learn to slow down, rather than persuade them to speed up. There's no need to hurry, I must remind myself. I see the speed in the grown up shape of my eight-year-old's face, her mouth full of holes where her baby teeth used to be. I see it in the growing peace in my house when each child heads to her own room to play. I need to take a lesson from the four year-old, who meanders at her own pace, never in a hurry, perfectly capable of getting lost in the moment without worry of what’s ahead or behind.
“What was your favorite part of the day?” I asked her last night.
“When the sun came out,” she answered with her easy smile.
Oh yes. There it is.