Anna likes the feel of sand in her hair. I can tell by the way she is playing with it, weaving her fingers through the short, tangled, dirty tresses. Her summer hair, I call it. I wonder when it was last brushed.
Lauren comes and sits next to her on the beach, plunking her little body down, immediately crossing her legs underneath her. Both of them are wearing long-sleeved bathing suit tops with their legs and faces and even the tops of their ears coated in sunscreen to protect their delicate skin. They don’t get much sun exposure—why would they?—we live in Canada, where summers are depressingly short.
Anna is sitting with her knees up, her toes in the sand, studying her hand as it glides over top of the beach around her in a half-circle motion, rhythmically, again and again, while Lauren talks to her excitedly in her 6-year old voice. She is chatting about building castles and moats and filling buckets of water from the lake. Anna looks over at her little sister and her freckled nose crinkles a little when she half smiles, exposing one of the gaps in the top row of her teeth. I always thought they looked like perfect little rows of tiny chiclets, Anna’s teeth. That hard, glossy gum I ate in my childhood that looked so white and was rock hard and shaped into rectangles.
Her smile is changing now; her mouth sprinkled with grown-up teeth that look awkward and giant on her small face.
Lauren has brought things to share with Anna—plastic sand buckets with the handles missing, yellow and blue and orange shovels of all sizes, dirt-encrusted measuring cups that a parent brought down to the beach and never brought back up again, old plastic water bottles.
They are pouring over them, picking through the pile, deciding what is needed to tackle their next project. They will play for hours, maybe stopping to eat a snack—a freezie, if I’m feeling generous. Their chins will be stained with red or blue juice, tiny pieces of sand will stick to the corners of their mouths and their cuticles and fingernails will remain brown from the mud and dirt all day.
The lake brings them together.
I watch them from the shade in my usual spot on the small beach. It’s not really a beach, I suppose. It’s more of a tiny swatch of land covered in sand set on Sturgeon Lake. We play on this beach and swim in the lake every summer. Anna was 18 months old and Lauren was still growing in my stomach when we first came to the little cottages in Bobcaygeon. Their youngest sister was not even a plan yet.
Our family of five takes up one of the six small cottages set up in two neat little rows facing each other. Our friends, all with kids, fill the others. The cottages are divided by a strip of land covered in pebbles and grass and by the shared beach where the kids play while the grown-ups sit and drink beer in the sun.
“I get the side of the bed by the wall!” Anna bursts into the cottage when we first arrive. We are all dusty and weary after a long car ride in our overfilled minivan. She runs for the bedroom the three girls share, Andrew following behind to push the two twin beds together that they will sleep in. As long as they’re little and can fit, they will sleep side by side, three in a row, where they will argue over who has to sleep in the crack where the two beds come together, whispering and giggling long after we tell them to close their eyes and go to sleep.
We unpack groceries and put clothes into drawers, finding our usual spot to set up our electric fans, plugging in the baby monitor we still use at night down by the fire where the adults gather after all the children are exhausted and spread out in their beds. We act like we’re in high school again, sitting on wooden benches, wearing hoodies while we talk and laugh and drink more beer and wine like it was a May long weekend. We stay up much later than we ever would at home.
Each summer we seek out the same routines, doing everything the same way, year after year. Breakfasts are eaten down by the lake, while lunches and dinners are served on the picnic table that sits on the front deck of our little cottage. After washing up, everyone piles into their cars and minivans to make the short drive to the dairy for giant ice cream cones. The kids choose the neon blue and orange ice cream with chunks of hard bubble gum sprinkled throughout. We always visit the little shops in town, buying touristy t-shirts and new shoes for the kids to wear in September. We stop at the bakery for butter tarts and cookies and fresh bread. We’re comfortable with the familiarity that has settled into our daily lives here.
In the afternoons, Anna and Lauren play with the other children, running from cottage to cottage, kicking off sandals and Crocs into piles at the front door of each cottage and then running back out again, the screen door slamming loudly one, two, three times before coming to a close. The children wear a path in the grass down to the beach.
They always come back to the beach.
“This is good,” Andrew says to me. He is reclining in his Muskoka chair, decompressing. I can tell he is letting go of last week’s work, unwinding, allowing calm to settle into his bones. He closes his eyes, only opening them every once in a while to scan the water and find the girls.
Paige, our littlest, has crawled into my lap. Her soggy bathing suit bottoms leave my lap damp. I don’t mind. The water and the fresh air make her sleepy and she wants to be cuddled.
Anna is standing in the water, staring at her foot, bent over at the waist with her long arms dangling down beside her body. She is scrutinizing, thoughtful.
“Daddy?” she calls. Andrew opens one eye and looks down at the water. Anna always calls for Andrew first now instead of me, but I don’t mind. When she was a baby, I was the only one who could put her to bed or hold her when she cried. She would bury her face into my chest and neck, attached to me. And I would close my eyes and rest my cheek on top of her bald head, sometimes to cry and sometimes to sniff her head, content.
“What is this thing on my toe?” she asks. Andrew investigates her foot, bending over for a closer look as well.
“It’s a leech.”
I am disgusted as Anna’s eyes widen. A smile erupts across her face.
“I have a leech on me?? What does it do? How do you get it off? Will it hurt? Where did it come from?”
Andrew pulls it off, and shows it to Anna, the pair of them leaning in close, their heads touching as they stare at the little parasite. Lauren walks over and stands on the tips of her toes for a better look.
When the excitement is over, Anna turns and runs back into the lake, unaffected. The mothers all share a glance and shudder a little, but the children don’t break. They are back to playing and splashing.
“Mommy! Mommy! Daddy! Watch this!” Anna is in the lake with Lauren. Their lanky childhood legs are carrying their slender bodies into the water before they disappear below the surface and come back up again, whipping their heads wildly around to see if we were watching. They sit in the shallow of the lake to collect pebbles and weeds to decorate their sandcastles. They will soon tire of sandcastles and go swimming again, screaming with laughter when the grownups come in, flinging the children around, doing summersaults under water to impress the kids.
When the week is over, we gather up all of our things and pack them back into the van. It is depressing, but we know it has been coming. The adults all kiss one another on the cheeks while the kids wave madly as we drive away.
Anna’s voice comes from the back of the van. “Remember that leech?” I glance in the rear-view mirror and see her smiling and smiling. I open my mouth to answer her, but at the site of those perfect, small chiclet teeth, I feel a surge of sadness come over me.
I smile back at her, but I say nothing, in the end.