Our lives are filled with binaries – splitter vs lumper, artist vs scientist, Sukkot vs Pesach, isometric vs isotonic, NY fans vs the rest of the world. This month made me appreciate another cut point, one I suspect is off the beaten track – hot steamy summers vs frigid winters with subzero temperatures. In practical terms this translates into beach people vs skiers
This binary got me to think again about my parents. My mother loved the beach. I am honestly not sure if she could swim. But she was a sun-worshiper, one of those people perfectly happy to sit on a lounge chair for hours with a sun reflector under her chin to get a good tan on her face even if she got a white line on her neck. One of her favorite summers was when she took me and my siblings to spend the summer in Atlantic City to give my father the time and space to finish his PhD. Besides Steel Pier, Mister Peanut, and saltwater taffy, the real draw was the beach. In contrast, my father had no time for the heat of summer. I remember as a child walking home with him from shul in July and August and the first thing he did when got home after muttering about the muggy Philadelphia heat was to change his under shirt. He was most happy in the winter even if he had to drive in the snow or worry about slipping on the ice. He was much more comfortable in a coat and gloves than a bathing suit. Although he never made it to the Rockies, skiing was more his cup of hot chocolate.
On summer vs winter axis, I was more aligned with my mother. Two weeks ago, wonderful friends invited my wife and me to their house in Atlantic Beach for Shabbat. When we babysat one of our granddaughters a week before that, we took her to Rye Playland to swim in the ocean to make sure she did not die of boredom. As I stood there on the two beaches, I was content to just stare at the waves. They all look the same and on the East coast none reach the staggering heights one sees in Hawaii, but I look at them as if I am hypnotized, I never tire of watching the sunlight reflect off the water at different times of the day. The high-pitched screeching of the seagulls circling overhead is nothing like the chirping morning birdsong in our back yard. But I admire how the seagulls circle overhead and then line up in formation along the beach. The feeling of the wet sand squishing under my feet at the ocean’s edge is such a welcome contrast to the unyielding sidewalk. I have become a bit more averse to sand in my backside and I worry about too much UV exposure (even though I know it is way too late to worry about that now). I really like the beach.
I always dreaded the winter, feeling frozen as if my ears and nose were about to fall off my face. I never had the desire to fly out to Colorado or Wyoming and take my life in my hands skiing down black diamond trails. I have gone skiing twice and got no thrill from the cold air streaming by my face or hearing the whooshing sound of my skis slowly sliding over the snow. I could not see anything through my fogged up goggles and barely noticed the blue vistas and white cumulus clouds overhead. The speed, the jumps, the sharp turns, and the satisfaction of reaching the bottom, breathless but unscathed, they were not exhilarating for me.
Breachers versus Skiers. My parents didn’t exactly fit the distinction but seasonally they were an unlikely pair. This was not the only thing that that distinguished them. How did they reconcile their differences? Fathers and mothers spend most of their day apart from one another, at different jobs, different times with their children, different responsibilities outside the home. One time they have to spend time together is on vacation. My parents were into road trips with their close friends. They always agreed on a destination with a temperature between 60 and 80°F. In all their pictures with them standing by the sign saying Yellowstone, or Gettysburg, or Acadia National Park, there are no bathing suits and at most a sweater.
It is hard to imagine vacations as a barometer of a successful marriage. When one considers all the ups and downs of our lives, it seems odd to view the artificial time together on vacations with your children or during the empty nest years as a symbol of anything. I beg to differ. They represent a reliable indicator of a marriage with compromise at its core. My parents were different in so many more ways than their favored leisure destination. But they were a husband and wife who could find a common ground on where to go for vacation. Parents who vacation together are those who stay together for many rewarding years. My parents were successful at this for all of their 71 years of marriage when they were well enough to travel. Quite an achievement. We are going on vacation next with everyone. We will see how well we manage.