A Day at the Beach for Aphrodite

A woman confronts the complicated memories of childhood summers at the lake house.


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Sari is gangly, angular as a wire hanger. I am round like two beach balls stacked one on top of the other. In the flickering images, we’re wearing matching yellow-and-white polka-dotted two-piece bathing suits.

That summer, we were nine going on ten. It’s only now, as an adult, that I think of our mothers shopping together: Sari’s mother, Eleanor Olson, long-limbed, sleekly muscular, intrepid; my mother, Roz Goldin, an elfin five feet tall, her pretty face dominated by wide, wary brown eyes, like one of Margaret Keane’s big-eyed waifs. My mother must surely have mashed her lips together when she purchased the extra-large-size version of the suit for me. She couldn’t understand how her daughter could be so large when she herself was so petite.

Nordic-looking Eleanor was equally comfortable on land and water, having spent her summers roaming the Indiana dunes, where she learned to be a lifeguard. My mother, who grew up in a boxy Chicago two-flat with conservative, nonswimming, immigrant parents, was dark, birdlike, nervous. It wasn’t until Eleanor and her daughter stood expectantly on the front step of our cabin — Sari in her new bathing suit — that my mother slid my suit out of her bottom dresser drawer, with the tags still on. If I’d known then that my mushy belly would morph into flat, enviable abs as I lengthened into my teens, I might have spared myself the humiliation of my mother’s knitted eyebrows.

Wrists limp, knees high, we’re prancing like show horses through the jade-gray waves.

I place my cursor over the two vertical bars on my laptop screen and stop the action. For once I’m grateful for my younger brother Bo’s geeky technical skills, grateful for the thumb drive he put our father’s old home movies on. It has been a little over a year since our parents’ car accident, and Bo and I have been commiserating about our recent nostalgic fervor.

The lake house is quiet. Its old heart beats out faint but steady. Winds off Lake Michigan issue a familiar welcoming moan through the loose window screens. An echo of a conversation I can’t quite hear teases me from the next room. It’s not my parents’ and Eleanor’s haunting presence I feel so much as the screaming presence of their absence. When I first arrived I couldn’t do anything except stare at my feet and sigh.

The cabin is in disarray. Items of furniture that have already been donated have left holes behind them in the small house’s interior decor, like missing puzzle pieces. Flat brown cardboard packing boxes lie in a pile by one wall, waiting to be assembled. It’s too warm in the house. My fleshless mother thought artificially cooled air didn’t belong in a lake house. The ceiling fan does what it can, but it’s never been enough.

I take a cold bottle of beer, courtesy of Bo, out of the refrigerator and roll it across my forehead.

I don’t drink beer much anymore, but today I have given myself permission to do things I don’t normally do. Like swim alone in the lake before sunrise. Like drink a beer before noon. Like look in my deceased parents’ closets.

The clothes are hard. Scents linger. Folded notes and wadded-up tissues have to be removed. Stained items, frayed items, no matter how sentimental, have to be tossed into a black garbage bag. I remind myself I’d persuaded Bo, begged him, to let me have this — a last, sweet inhalation; a moment alone with the lovely remnants.

Sari’s pulling herself along the shallow, foamy part of the beach with her hands in the sandy bottom, her skinny legs stretched out behind her like a mermaid. The strap falls off her shoulder as she waves at the camera. She smiles and reveals a new toothless gap. Now she is standing at the water’s edge. Someone calls to her and she turns, pushing long strands of wet strawberry-blond hair out of her eyes. The camera pans to the left. I’m waving at Sari, pointing to the bucket at my feet. The camera continues panning over to Sari’s mother, who’s wrapped in a towel.

She’s saying something, but there is no sound in these old home movies.

She turns away from the camera, rotates her head back, and drops the towel suggestively off her shoulder.

The summer before the one captured on film, I’d closed my eyes and floated on an inflatable pink doughnut that drifted too far from shore. I was always the first one in the family to wake up. That day I’d padded around the cabin in my swimsuit, waiting for permission to go out. As my grandfather was leaving to pick up the morning paper, he’d patted my head and given me the thumbs-up. I’d banged the screen door and flown to Sari’s cabin. When our bare feet touched the cold, stinging water it sent bolts of lightning straight up our shins. We’d squealed and swum in the shallows until our skin turned pruney, and later raced in the sand from the rocks to the pier. I’d run faster than the year before and Sari almost hadn’t beaten me. Eventually, a few colorful towels and umbrellas dotted the beach.

By the time our mothers unfurled their blankets, the sun had been nearly overhead. Sari fell asleep next to her mother. I hadn’t felt tired and decided to float in the water for a while.

Sleep is tricky sometimes. One minute you’re singing a song in your head with your eyes closed, trailing your fingers in the water, and the next your friend’s mother is rescuing you from the depths of the lake while you choke and sputter and flail and accidentally break her nose with your elbow. There was blood in the water, but Eleanor calmly retrieved the plastic doughnut, slipped it over my head, then coaxed my arms — the ones with the deadly elbows — into the ring and towed me safely back to shore.

The next day, with a blue-black eye and a small bandage on her nose, Eleanor took me back into the lake and taught me to dog-paddle, then gently held me aloft in the waves while I practiced my backstroke, humming as we twirled and bobbed, her version of getting me back up onto the proverbial horse.

She smelled of jasmine and cocoa butter, and she repeated our watery dance for a few days until I told her I wanted her to be my mother, and she told me I was ready to swim on my own.

There had been a new family rule after that: no floating devices in the lake.

Now the camera pans up to the sky and catches the sun through the trees, and for a moment it looks like a Claude Monet painting; then back down the camera goes, trailing along the ragged embankment, up the narrow stretch of rocky beach that contains our small clapboard house, and back to my brother skittering in the sand, with a plastic shovel and a red metal bucket.

Our father was a photographer. He was always telling a story with his camera: Here we are, have a look around, this is us on a good day. Or, as things turned out that day, a memorable one. His summer uniform consisted of white midcalf crew socks, tennis shoes, and khaki Bermuda shorts too tight in the seat because of all the things he stuffed into his pockets. I liked watching him unload his treasures onto the coffeetable at the end of the day: keys on a ring, wadded receipts, a silver money clip in the shape of a peace sign, pearly pink snail shells, his windproof butane lighter, and, on a lucky day, a striped peppermint candy or two and not their empty, wrinkled cellophane wrappers. The decorative breast pocket of his white polo shirt typically bulged with a pack of cigarettes. I can see him — a lit Marlboro dangling from his mouth, a disorderly tuft of blond hair curling over the camera as he filmed us — as handsome as any leading man.

Sari’s father, Glenn Olson, died of pancreatic cancer when she was six. The cancer had been merciless, and he’d gone out swiftly, like a blown match flame. He was a graphic artist, and he’d worked with my father on countless ad campaigns. Their friendship had led Mr. Olson to purchase the summer cabin next to ours. His death stunned all of us, but the blow crippled the naturally sunny Eleanor. The summer he died, Eleanor and Sari became ours.

Now my mother is looking at my father over lowered sunglasses and waving her book in the air, shooing him and his camera away from her and toward the lake, where Eleanor, tanned and fit in a floral one-piece suit, is standing in sparkling thigh-high water and shielding her eyes. Eleanor’s smiling in a shy way, as if she has a secret. She purses her lips and sends a kiss to the camera.

Emerging from the water, I would tiptoe to avoid stepping full-footed on the stones in the sand. I used to shiver in the bright summer air, air that felt hot when you sat and chilly when you were covered in a film of water and a soggy suit and the sun was hidden behind a passing bank of clouds. I always seemed to be untangling a slimy strand of seaweed from my toes. If I was dripping and there were no towels, I would have frowned, folded my arms over my chest, stamped my foot at my mother. Eleanor, always attentive, would have seen my little performance and laughed. She’d have shaken her head and waved her hand toward her cabin, giving me permission to go get myself a towel if I was too cold to bear up under the glorious midday sun.

It’s not that my mother, wrestling with words in her notebook, didn’t care. A minor poet, she was just tuned to a different frequency.

Sari and I would drag our blankets into a sunny spot on the sand, point our faces at the sun overhead, and stare at the veiny pink undersides of our eyelids. She would let me twine my fingers in hers while we talked about whatever boy had captured her attention that week. The blankets always smelled like tanning lotion and the spare tire inside the car’s trunk. When our skin felt as though it were shrinking in the heat, we’d turn over onto our stomachs, roasting like the chickens on the spit down at Danny’s Dive, our favorite beach hangout.

The camera pans out to the water. Now Eleanor reaches overhead and dives under the waves like a dolphin.

That day, the day in the film, I remember my body humming in an expectant way, a way that made me feel jumpy. Something was about to happen, I just knew it, like when I knew Bobbi Markowitz was going to try to kiss me behind the Thurbers’ toolshed. The feeling was exquisite and nearly unbearable.

The blanket I was lying on had wide, woven stripes of gray and green and turquoise. It was Eleanor’s. Earlier in the day, Sari and I had snuck in to get nose plugs. We kids weren’t supposed to disturb the grownups’ occasional naps — we’d seen the Gone Fishing sign they’d hung on the doorknob, which meant no disturbing them — but in summer rules were loose, and we wanted to practice our underwater handstands. I’d grabbed the blanket while Sari got the plugs. We’d stopped to gawk through the open crack of Eleanor’s bedroom door. The scene was like an abstract painting: bare legs, arms, a head where it didn’t belong, -Sari’s mother, my parents. As we fled on tiny, silent toes someone moaned. Sari and I never discussed it, but the deformity, the undecipherable obscenity of it, eventually wedged itself between us.

Later that afternoon, lying in the sand with my nose only a few inches from the blanket, I’d inhaled, trying in vain to locate Eleanor’s jasmine scent. I trained my focus on the weave, noted the small stitches, the alternating pattern of the colored threads. I considered the fact that everything started out as something else. One minute you were fleece on a sheep or a ball of fluff on a cotton plant, and the next you were shorn from the hide or plucked from the stalk and stretched and dyed and twined together for life with other threads, and before you knew it you were covering a tangled mass of glistening arms and legs in a bed or lying in the sun between a wet girl and the hot sand.

I’d written a poem, about the life of a thread, that fairly shouted out what we’d seen. I found it this morning in a battered red cardboard box alongside curling photos in plastic folders and craft projects missing their glue-stained pebbles and shells. It was written in blue and green colored pencil and titled simply “Entwined.”

Now my brother is blocking my sun and dripping water on my backside and I flip over. He’s holding a black inner tube with one hand and wiping his nose with the other.

I don’t know where he found it.

The tube is nearly as big as he is. “C’mon,” he seems to be saying. I sit up. The white parts of my brother’s eyes are pink from the lake water and the hot sun, and his irises look greener than algae. He has a wet, sandy mop of white hair and his little smile is crooked. I shake my head no.

He knew about the rule. No floaties.

“Pleeeeeeeeease,” he begs, hands together in prayer. I point to the bag on top of the blue-and-white cooler. He turns his head.

He sensed the misdirection, but cherries were hard to resist.

He drops the tube and races across the sand with his chest puffed out while I dig a hole for the stems and pits. Now Sari is with us, and red cherry juice, like blood, covers our hands. We race to the water’s edge, stop ankle-deep, and bend to wash our hands. We splash each other with lake water. Sari’s tanned limbs seem impossibly long and sticklike attached to her small body.

My brother, shrieking, skims across the sand on his toes like a dancer, then orbits back to shower us anew.

I pause the images. Hungry, I stretch and peer into the old wooden kitchen cabinets, knowing there won’t be anything edible. I twist and jump in place. “Ants in your pants?” My parents’ voices live in the cabinets, in the closets, in the air. I grab a smoke, pad barefoot to the front of the cabin, and perch outside on the warm, sandy stoop, where all I can hear are the waves breaking on the jetty. A sharp, familiar marine smell mingles in the air with the hunger-inducing scent of someone’s burning charcoal grill.

I watch the Beach Patrol’s red pickup power its way along the sand toward the road. Several orange-suited lifeguards hang carelessly over the back of the truck bed, and I’m reminded of the summer Bo was 17. He’d paraded his deeply tanned muscles and sun-bleached hair past the lifeguard’s lookout until Sari, then a college girl and a lifeguard like her mother before her, noticed him in the way he longed to be noticed. There was something irresistible, some animal pull that drew all of us toward the Olson women.

After Bo and Sari became an item, I quit slinging frozen lemonade and fried-fish sandwiches at the Dive. I told my father and Eleanor that I wanted to go back to Chicago, spend some time with Mom, who’d ducked out the week before to teach a summer class. I emphasized Mom as if to say, “Remember her?” I had no idea what that meant — they were always so silent, so civilized about everything. I wanted desperately to uncivilize them, to force things, whatever they were, out into the open. Eleanor exchanged a look with my father that said, This one’s all yours, kiddo. “I’m sorry to hear that, sweetie,” was all she said. When she took hold of my arms and kissed me on the cheek, I stiffened. As I watched her walk her stately walk out our front door, a four-foot-tall part of me stole after her. My father apologized. We didn’t discuss what he was sorry for. Our discussions at that point were peppered with ellipses. I was silently enraged at being alone on the outside of all that love and lust. I longed to punish them all with my words, but I didn’t have the nerve, couldn’t risk the love I half resented.

When I failed to find a summer job back home, my mother suggested I come sit in the back of her classroom. I was an English major at the University of Illinois by then. She was leading a modern literature class for adults at the JCC. They were reading the work of local Chicagoan Nelson Algren. I’d read The Man with the Golden Arm. I admired his gritty realism. And I felt a small affinity; like Algren before me, I wrote for the Daily Illini. The class focused on his short stories, and by the end of the summer my mother — who, as it turned out, was a wonderful teacher — had us swooning over his muscular prose.

The first time I called her Roz instead of Mom, she lifted her nose from her book and smiled in that crooked, closed-mouth way she had. It suited us.

Surprising our nonathletic selves, we began a habit of speed walking on the path by the lake, after which we’d gorge on duck fried rice or chicken egg foo yong from the takeout place near the El on Howard Street.

That summer we blew a lot of hot air debating the eternal feminine and women’s liberation in the low light of our family’s cramped Rogers Park apartment. One humid night, over too many cigarettes and bottles of Tsingtao, our legs tangled on the sofa, she confided that Algren’s lover, Simone de Beauvoir, had “befriended” Eleanor when she was a young lifeguard at Miller Beach, much to Algren’s dismay. I pressed her for more, but I think the eagerness in my voice sobered her a little and she demurred. At the time I thought my mother took a kind of cruel, perhaps even jealous, pleasure in withholding the details I craved. Lately, however, I’ve come to accept, to see (as she must have seen it) the valor in her discretion. There were things one simply did not discuss with one’s children. And it wasn’t her tale to tell. She never discussed her feelings about my father or Eleanor with me, and over the years I took the liberty of filling in the blanks with details that pleased me. The details changed as I changed, as we all changed over the years. In my current postmortem version, there is love all around, and that is enough.

My mother once wrote: “How rare a thing is love and fleet.” It seems impossible now that I never told her how much I liked her work. So many words on the page between us, and so few spoken.

The screen door of the Olsons’ cabin whines and I nip back inside, avoiding an encounter with the neighbor. The Olsons’ cabin is now the Armisteads’ cabin. At least I think that’s their name. We’ve spoken only a couple of times. There’s no need to mingle; already their future is my past.

Sari grabs Bo around the waist and twirls several times before tossing him into a small, passing wave. We turn our heads toward the alarmed bark of the neighbor’s three-legged sheepdog and cover our ears with our hands, muting the blare of the emergency horn.

Grown-ups wave their hands and corral their kids. Beachgoers up and down the shore stand and stare at the lake.

In the film, the old man with the twin eagle tattoos — who’d hissed at us kids whenever our ball or Frisbee or feet landed too near the fishing pole he kept anchored in the sand next to his tackle box and folding chair — dodders down the beach on bowed legs, waving a brightly colored pillow in the air.

We knew all about the undertow, the devilish currents that could best even an Olympic swimmer if he or she unwisely tried to fight them. We could see the sandbar, the white frothy waves, and just beyond, a double set of hands waving wildly, the pair’s red and yellow rash shirts bobbing in and out of sight. We’d seen the two earlier: a man and a boy. They’d been tossing a ball in the shallows. We never found out how they’d gotten so far from shore. They were out about the length of a football field, or maybe two.

The jumpy feeling I had earlier that day came back, and it turned out not to have portended something wonderful after all.

We scampered out of the water and stood riveted on the beach. My brother clung to my leg, trembling. I patted him and murmured that everything would be all right.

“That’s your mom,” Bo said to Sari in a husky little -whisper.

I’d been looking at the flailing hands of the drowning boy and the man we presumed to be his father, and missed entirely the identity of the swimmer bravely heading out toward them. Eleanor was trailing the pillow, which we could see then was an orange life vest, its white straps waving wildly in the air. We trained our eyes on Eleanor’s strokes, making sure each arm continued to surface as it should. Our biceps ached just watching her.

Now the camera isn’t steady and the woman swimming in the lake goes frustratingly in and out of the frame. Now there is no panning away, no scene-setting landscape shot. My father engages the zoom and zeroes in on Eleanor. She’s bouncing on the strong waves and shouting something to the swimmers, but the boy is thrashing, and she cannot get a good grip. Now she’s putting her long, feminine fingers on the side of the boy’s face, her Olympian spirit reaching inside him, calming his panic with her words. You can tell because he suddenly stops resisting and lets her put the lifesaving vest on him.

I knew the feel of those fingers, the sound of those words. I too had flung my arms wildly and nearly drowned us both.

Now clouds pass and the sun, like a spotlight from the heavens, illuminates Eleanor as she reaches the sinking man and maneuvers him onto his back. The camera follows the bobbing trio as it begins moving parallel to the shore.

I’d told Sari her mother was a goddess, stronger than ten men, and as beautiful as Aphrodite.

Now the Mulvaneys’ pink bass boat with the outboard motor pulls up alongside the swimmers and they are plucked from peril. The camera quickly pans down and trains its focus on my father’s sandy sneakers. It is still recording when three small sets of bare feet run up and the camera falls from my father’s hand. On its side in the sand it records shaken beachgoers packing up and calling it a day. It records the hungry, skimming birds inspecting the beach as they retreat.

I remember Eleanor running back up the beach that day toward our tense little family knot, clutching my mother and father before falling to her knees, gathering us kids in her arms and breathing us in like an armful of sweet-smelling flowers.

“I love you,” I’d whispered into her wet hair as if it were a secret.


Robin Perry Politan grew up in Illinois. She is working on a collection of Chicago stories and currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Originally appeared in Narrative Magazine.

This article is featured in the July/August 2023 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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  1. Absolutely gripping. The narrative is slowly, skillfully spun out like a fishing line reeling the reader in, the characters lovingly rendered.

  2. The prose here is beautiful and meditative, weaving together the full picture of this family dynamic and history with a natural flow of anecdotes and videotape.

    One is reminded of the narrative panoramas of Thomas Kinkade’s Disney work–various moments in time from across the breadth of a story rendered in the same moment, in one static image as viewed from after the fact.

    Thank you for sharing this story.


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