I lie down beside Hilly on the raft and she begins to read Dune to me unprompted, picking up where her own silent reading left off.
Lying with my eyes closed, I can hear Olive paddling around in the shallows with the waves lapping against her little floatie tube. She happily chats with Lizzie and Mawney while Claire relaxes in the background and my mom putters around on the porch.
It’s been five days of this. Lake swimming and family time; meals prepared and eaten and cleaned up; watching all of these moving pieces coming together to form an ecosystem we’ve been building since the day we were born.
We get together like this every year. We call it The Rumpus.
During this week, I watch Olive most of all. I watch her drifting from one aunt to the next, absorbing their personalities, basking in their devotion.
She’s learning from them as I have. Starting to lean on them as I have.
She will become stronger for having known them. As I have.
Most of all, she sees a different me during these trips. I’m looser, more relaxed. Makeup gets discarded and legs go unshaved. I say yes more, laugh more, my work schedule is lighter (though not completely empty) and I have built-in care for her when I do work.
I feel like I get to step outside of myself for a week. I sleep late, lose track of her, gratefully hand off some of the more onerous parenting duties to my sisters and my mom. They help her brush her teeth, read her stories, occupy her imaginative mind for hours every day.
I’d forgotten this feeling, the feeling of having someone else share the load. The feeling of being able to say “You’ve got her?” and then walking away to read, or swim, or go back to sleep for an hour.
She helps my mom wash dishes, pulling a wooden chair up to the sink. She fights her bedtimes until she can’t stand it anymore, desperate not to miss a thing.
A few months after I’d separated from her dad, my great-aunt Madeline took her to the Build-A-Bear workshop. There, she picked out a monkey named Lady and watched as I recorded a good night message inside of it for her to play when she was away.
The store had a computer which let you “program” your animal’s heart, choosing five attributes from a list of dozens. Did we want Lady to be adventurous? Funny? Smart? Kind?
This is how I feel watching Olive with my siblings. I want her to absorb their best qualities- Lizzie’s gentle empathy, Claire’s stubborn tenacity, the wild way Hilary bucks convention, and how purposefully Mawney walks in her own life. I want her to take care of her little cousins with the strength and intelligence that my brother provided us.
And I want them to see it too, see these parts of themselves in her. These weeks are just paradise, a crush of family and love and the gratitude of seeing it all laid out before us, piece by piece.
Before we came here, we spent a week with Olive’s paternal grandparents and the aunts, uncles, and cousins on that side of the family. She drove a boat and learned to fish, ate more cake at her cousin’s birthday than I ever thought possible and walked around starry-eyed over her cousin Paxton, who she’s always adored.
It didn’t take long to slip back into the familiar patterns and meals and topics of conversation. The whole week I kept thinking how incredible it is that Olive has this kind of family not just once, but twice over.
I mean, how lucky are we? There’s a weight and meaning behind those words that I’ve felt more in the past three months than I have in a long time. We are lucky in life, Olive and I. Lucky to live and work and play like we do. Lucky to love and be loved by the people we do.
I know this, and I try to make sure she knows it, too. But sometimes it takes a week or two at arm’s length from your life to remind you just how much you love living it.
And sometimes when you’ve had everything fall apart, it makes you appreciate it that much more when it’s put back together again, stronger and more beautiful for having broken.