The summer solstice is almost here and I’ve been spending more time relaxing in the backyard. My gardens are lush and lovely. The birds and bunnies keeps my cats occupied from dawn until dusk. On hot, sunny days, I fill up the baby pool and soak my feet while reading a good book. Yesterday I was thinking about the neighbors who lived two houses away when I was growing up on Eastwick drive in south Toledo. Every summer, when I sip a glass of iced tea or sit on a nylon lawn chair, I remember Mr. and Mrs. Barton and how they always made me feel welcome in their home.
So here’s a chapter from my memoir, OPEN ROAD: a life worth waiting for…to celebrate the season and all the wonderful incarnations of guardian angels I’ve had over the years.
Steady Hands, Watchful Hearts
I'm nine years old and sit on the edge of the Barton's above ground pool, dangling my feet into the cool, clear water. It's late July 1976, and the bicentennial celebrations have dwindled, but I'm looking forward to Mr. and Mrs. Barton's annual picnic they have every August. I'll get to come over to their home early to shuck ears of corn while sitting in a lawn chair next to Mrs. Barton, tossing the husks and silk into a tall, gray garbage bin. I’ll help Mr. Barton with the pool toys, making sure they're inflated and ready for fun. The Bartons invite nearly everyone from our block, and there will be at least fifteen kids who will run excitedly around their lawn, searching for hidden candy bars and trinkets during the Scavenger Hunt. Last year I found a Marathon bar and made it last for a whole month!
Mr. and Mrs. Barton live a stone's throw away from our house. Mr. Barton is a principal for Washington Local Schools and Mrs. Barton teaches for Toledo Public. They have no children, but treat my sisters and me as if we were their own daughters. We get to swim in their pool any time we want, as long as we call ahead and lock the gate behind us. When they're away on vacation, we always volunteer to skim the pool and cut their grass.
I love to be around them. Mr. Barton is jolly and spirited. Mrs. Barton is sweet and earthy. I wish it could be summer all the time, for whenever they're on vacation, just like we are now, every day can be a fun day in their backyard. It was at the Barton's where I taught my sisters how to stand on the edge of their pool and fall backwards, taking the Nestea plunge as I shouted, "Nestea, iced tea...ah!" just like in the commercial we see while watching “Tattletales” and “The Joker’s Wild.”
Mr. and Mrs. Barton say I'm a hoot.
Now as I watch my feet kick beneath the pool's surface, I glance at my sisters playing with the neighbor girls. They're having fun splashing and shoving each other under the water. But I feel sad today. For the first time in my life, I begin to understand what it means to feel depressed.
Mrs. Barton sits in a lawn chair, slathering sun screen on her freckled shoulders. She smiles at me. Her white, Jackie O shades glint in the afternoon sun. I long to tell her how I'm feeling, but I know I can't. I can't say anything to anyone. I don't know what kind of trouble that would bring, and I really don't want to find out.
I get out of the pool as my sisters call to me, "Are you going home, Katie?"
I shake my head. "I'm going to sit with Mrs. Barton for a while."
And so I do. I spread my towel on a chair next to hers so my legs won't stick on the nylon webbing. Mrs. Barton asks me lots of questions, curious to know what I think...what I feel. She makes me feel safe.
Mr. Barton joins us with a glass of iced tea and winks at me. "Will we have a commercial break soon?" he teases. "Is Nestea sponsoring this afternoon's pool time?"
I smile at him and for a while I forget that I am sad.
When I was very young, television characters personified who I thought I should be. I was Jan Brady or Laura Ingalls, both the middle daughter of three girls. I wore glasses like Jan and wanted to be a schoolteacher like Laura. I had crushes on boys who didn’t know I existed and was considered to be a tomboy by those who did. As a pre-adolescent, I longed to look like one of Charlie’s Angels or sing like Karen Carpenter. Posters of Scott Baio and Donny Osmond papered the back of my bedroom door. I worshiped David Cassidy as well as Mark Hamill.
Living in a fantasy world of television and music helped me retreat into a filtered reality that felt safe and familiar, one that would never disappoint. A world that allowed me to dream of more desirable, far away places.
Stepping into the reality of my neighborhood or school meant letting go, if only for a little while, the rich, imaginary world I had created inside my head. It was difficult to be one of the youngest in my class. I wasn't shy necessarily, just afraid of boys and parties and gatherings in which I would be expected to put on a smile and play along with being social. Even now, I prefer small, intimate lunches or dinners with one or two friends rather than a block party or reception, and I wonder if that comfort level initially germinated when I spent summer afternoons with the Bartons.
My sisters and I were always welcome to swim in their pool and enjoyed games of "Red Light, Green Light" all summer long while they visited with our parents over cocktails and hor d'oeurves. The adults would sip their whiskey sours while my sisters and I roasted marshmallows for s'mores or chased after fireflies as the sun set, the Midwestern sky a blaze of orange and yellow.
Occasionally the Bartons would spend time with us during the holidays, and I have fond memories of several Christmases when they joined us for dinner and board games. When I was older, I discovered Mom and Dad had asked them to be our legal guardians and I was relieved. The Bartons knew us well, my sisters and me.
Educators while in the classroom or out, Mr. and Mrs. Barton set an example for me to follow when I became a teacher. They listened. They cared. When my sisters and I trotted down to their house on a summer afternoon, they were always happy to see us, but still completed the project they were working on, the conversation they were having, or the plans they were making.
Being with the Bartons allowed me to see a different way of living, and while I never imagined I would be childless, they made it seem less sad, less disappointing. Duffy, their hound dog, was their surrogate child and they spoiled him mercilessly. We did, too. My sisters and I sometimes brought a few dog biscuits when we visited, and Duffy was an eager recipient.
When Mr. Barton hurt his back and an ambulance arrived to take him to the hospital, I was terrified. When he returned later in the week, I was elated. When Mrs. Barton broke her toe, I asked what I could do to help her around the house. Afterwards, when she poured me a glass of bubbling 7-UP, I delighted in an hour or so of easy conversation.
Years later, when I went to college to study education, Mr. Barton invited me to his elementary school during my holiday breaks so I could shadow some of his best teachers and learn from the pros. When I applied to Washington Local Schools five years later, Mr. Barton was at the top of my reference list. He reminded me throughout my career that it may have been his name that got me in the door for an interview, but it was my ability that secured the position. Always, he was a staunch supporter of my success in the classroom.
During the summers of my childhood and early adolescence, Mr. and Mrs. Barton's pool gave me an escape, a place to float and think and wonder. They were a wonderful couple who provided sanctuary in the midst of confusion as I broke open the shell of my ever-evolving identity so that their seeds of love, generosity, and compassion could be planted with steady hands and watchful hearts.