It was scorching hot at our little town beach. I roamed back and forth, from the blueberry bush to the rock, counting the heads of the swimming kids, trying to keep the baby from eating too much sand. People came for a long stay or a quick, cooling dip, catching up with old friends as they bobbed up and down in the water.
There was a couple with two kids, a baby and a boy about seven. The young mom was lovely, with a fierce, classical beauty, but her layers of clothing and the way she kept adjusting her top and glancing at her postpartum belly and hips showed that she wasn't feeling it.
The dad was trying his hardest to give everyone exactly the right kind of attention: asking solicitously about the mom's comfort; tickling and splashing with the baby, but showing the mom that everyone was perfectly safe; making sure the older boy didn't feel neglected.
The man, tough and muscular but overfed, was insisting that his son wait on the rock for him while he swam out to the buoys. "Dee Dee can't swim!" he explained. ("Ohh," I realized: Dee Dee is the mother of the baby, but not of the older boy.) "So that's why she can't be in charge of you in the water. If you have a cramp, she can't even save you. You have to wait for me."
The dad got his swim in, they all played and splashed for a while, and then retreated to a picnic table behind me. A little family storm was brewing there, and their voices rose.
"I can make it!" insisted the young woman.
"No, you can't, Dee Dee," her man said, as he toweled off their baby's curly head. "Just because you could do it a long time ago doesn't mean you can do it now."
"I can make it!" she said again.
"Fine," he said. "So when you get halfway across the lake and you can't make it, then you'll drown and then you'll be dead. You'll be dead. You can't do it, Dee Dee. You have a totally different body now. I don't even know if I can make it across the lake."
She snatched the baby away from him and finished changing his clothes, dusting the sand from his bottom, carefully strapping useless sandals onto the tiny, soft feet. The man called his older son, and the two of them went into the water to roughhouse together, and Dee Dee stayed on the shore. The sun beat down, and the waves of anger and hurt lapped against the sand.
He was right. It really was foolish of her to want to reach the other shore, if her swimming wasn't strong. But she needed so badly to know that, even though she was a mom now, she could still do stuff. That her life wasn't going to be over just because her body had changed. That she wasn't going to spend the rest of her life waiting on the shore, wearing clothes she hated, being safe and watching other people having fun.
A man was trying to be a man: teaching his older son to be responsible, playing with his baby, trying to keep everyone secure. He loved all three of them, and was showing his love the way a man must: doing things for them, keeping them safe, taking everything into account, knowing he was responsible for everything, everything that could possibly happen. And he did it in the worst possible way -- showing his son that his stepmom wasn't trustworthy or capable; using the new baby as an anchor to keep his woman under control. He wanted everyone to be safe, and he preyed on their worst instincts to keep them that way. Leaning on the fissures to keep it all together.
Someone needed to tell them: But you love each other! Any fool can see that! Any fool can see that you're going to be what a family is supposed to be. Please stay together. Please keep trying. You're so young. You can figure out how to understand each other better, how to take care of each other. You're on the right track, you just need to refine your methods.
Other people shouted out their personal lives as they splashed and waded. I heard:
"No, we ain't together no more. Got a court date next week, because he don't pay no support. Last time the judge called him a bully, and he didn't like that too much, let me tell ya! So, this your little one? Ain't she cute! She looks just like your big girl. She still livin' at home? My God, is she seventeen already? Oh, when's she due? Where's the baby daddy? Yeah, that's what I heard. He don't want to work, he's gonna lose that Honda he's been workin' on. When's your court date for this little cutie? Good luck with that! You like seein' your daddy, honey? I bet you do! Have fun, guys. I gotta get goin', rest up before my night shift."
Friendly, smiling people, hard workers, doting on their kids, and chatting amiably about their court dates, their anger management, their restraining orders, their tangled family trees, their days when the kids get to see their daddies.
Somebody needed to tell the angry woman, the baffed man, the resentful boy, the imperiled baby with the curly hair: Don't split apart. Don't get the courts involved. You can make it across the lake. No one needs to be left behind. You just have to work at getting a little stronger.