It's August. Already. Vacation time. It you have a young family, you'll probably be trooping together somewhere. The strains of the family vacation are well-known and commonly remarked-upon. The joys of family trips tend to be left unsaid, perhaps because they're more poignant and subtler than the comic pitfalls. I took a stab at describing the bittersweet sense of time passing in this Aug. 13, 2000 column.
PUT-IN-BAY, OHIO —Merry-go-rounds are so sad, so ineffably sad, sad in such a subtle way that you forget about it until you step upon one.
That's how it is for me, at least. It's not that I don't love carousels. I do. How could you not love something so superfluous? So outmoded and nostalgic and beautiful. No one would ever come up with a merry-go-round today. They'd write a horse-riding computer program instead.
And even if somebody wanted a spinning mechanical contraption, there would be no woodcarvers to fashion the horses and no public space willing to take a risk on such a loud, dangerous device.
These thoughts always fill my mind as I approach a carousel, particularly one as pretty as the one in this little island resort town, a 1917 model with not only horses, but chickens and dogs and dragons.
Our hosts and their two daughters walked beside us.
"I have a picture of them holding hands, walking up to the carousel," their mom told me. "They don't hold hands anymore."
Perhaps I could duplicate that picture. "Hold hands, boys," I called to my crew. But they didn't. Too late. At 3 and 4, too worldly for that. Or maybe too excited to get on the merry-go-round. They surged ahead.
I stepped aboard the wooden platform, squiring the boys to their mounts. Then I began to feel it, a tingle. A certain unnamed sorrow. Maybe it was the music. Some unidentifiable 1890s anthem. Maybe it was the brightly painted animals, frozen in mid-stride.
The older boy wanted to sit on a dog -- he loves dogs. He tried to climb up himself, but couldn't do it. Too high. So I lifted him and set him on a spaniel. The younger boy was set upon the pug beside.
I took up a defensive position behind them, though they really weren't at risk of sliding off. Not the way they were last year.
Still, I placed a protective hand on the flank of the older boy's ride. He turned in his saddle and wordlessly brushed my hand away.
The surprise lasted only a second. Of course he wouldn't want me hovering. He's nearly 5. Ready, at least in his own mind, to go it alone. (Ready, in his own mind, to drive a car.)
Other children scrambled on. And then the carousel started up. I snapped a few photographs, then stopped, worried I was taking too many. ("My father was always in my face, snapping pictures," I imagined them saying someday. "I hated him for that.")
Perhaps the spinning is the sad thing. Around and around. Like the hands of a clock, like the wheel of seasons. Time passing. The music repeats. The downtown flashes by -- the ice cream stand, the restaurant, the park, the marina, the ice cream stand, the restaurant, the park . . .
The 10-year-old daughter of my friends rode with us. Her older sister sat with her parents. After all, she is almost 12. The girls used to have season passes, but don't anymore. They don't ride that much.
I studied my boys' faces. Very serious, concentrating, as if somehow they understood that this was a significant occasion. And it is. There are not that many merry-go-round rides in a person's life, when you think about it. Carousels are uncommon, and cost money, and if you're on one a few times a year you're riding a lot. So maybe a few dozen rides, maybe 40, between the time you are first held on as an infant, and the time you are too ashamed to climb aboard the painted horse and instead go sit with the grown-ups.
I remember being a young adult, riding for the last time, feeling large and conspicuous. I was young enough to still want to ride the carousel, rationalizing that I was doing so as a kick, and old enough to know that I was lingering at a party where I wasn't welcome anymore.
Now my role is to stand close -- for another year or two, until they can go on their own, for a few more years, when they won't go at all.
I have not decided if being aware of the fleeting nature of events as they are unfolding is a good or a bad thing. On one hand, it makes me strain to fix the scene in my mind. My older boy, switching to a horse for the second ride, urging his steed forward, a slight smile on his face. The younger, who moved to the animal beside his big brother, looking so heartbreakingly solemn, perched aboard a gaily painted chicken.
Yet memories fade no matter how hard you seize them, and the very act of trying conjures up loss, casts a shadow toward the darkness.
Maybe it's unnecessary to try. Merry-go-rounds serve a function that counterbalances their melancholy. They are a festive frame for memories, a sacred space to enter occasionally. You remember them.
Just like family vacations. I believe that the point is not to see any particular sight, but to escape forgettable routine, and give the mind unique, permanent hooks to hang memories upon. I don't care where we go, particularly, as long as we go there together.
In fact, the most precious memory from this trip wasn't from the trip at all. We had just gotten home. The younger one was perched on his soft potty seat. I was making conversation to pass the time. "What," I asked, "was the best thing about the vacation?" The carousel? The campfire on the beach? The steam locomotive? The swimming pool?
He turned his little monkey face up to me.
"You dere," he said.