Friday, August 26, 2011

A Perfect Day

When I was 14 years old, I had a perfect day. For years after, whenever life failed to live up to my expectations, I would think of the simple, unadulterated perfection of a certain summer day in 1988.

There was absolutely nothing special about that day. It was not my wedding, not a birthday, not the day my child was born. It is impossible, I think, for any big-ticket day to be perfect. Weddings are stressful. Childbirth is painful. Birthdays can be celebrations of life or one mile marker closer to death. Special event days might be the most joy-filled days of a person's life, but joy does not equal perfection. A perfect day is a rare, fragile thing indeed.

On my perfect day, nothing went wrong. From beginning to end, there was nothing that caused me so much as one nanosecond of anxiety, fear, pain, or sadness. The day wouldn't even stick out in my mind until many years later, when I would find myself comparing every summer day to that one. They have consistently come up lacking.

It was late summer, and school was about to start. I had spent most of the summer in the above-ground swimming pool we kept in the backyard. Some summers, when Dad was drinking, we had to clear a thick layer of algae off the top of the pool and be okay with not seeing our feet if we wanted to "swim." Most of the time, it wasn't worth the health hazard. This particular summer, Dad had a rare moment of sober clarity and decided that our house and yard and pool were all disasters and needed attention. Bushes were trimmed with regularity, the walls were freshly painted, the pool kept chlorinated, filtered, and vacuumed. Just as I was at an age when I was never home anymore, Mom and Dad went and made the place livable.

I was about to start high-school, and I decided that if I could just become tanner, blonder, and somehow grow the necessary body parts to fill out a bikini, I could magically transform into a popular girl. So most days found me and a friend floating on reflecting rafts atop crystal clear water in  2-piece swimsuits, either lemon juice or Sun-In spritzed in our hair (which we could not destroy by getting wet), causing my dad to huff and puff under his breath about why he even bothered to have a pool when no one actually ever got more than waist-high in the water.

My perfect day featured the suffocating, sauna-like heat and humidity that dogged us most of that summer. And yet it was beautiful outside, with not a single cloud to block my rays. With no one home that day in my circle of friends, I resigned myself to spending a long, hot day hanging out with my parents, who I had just discovered were not cool. I was 14 and thought I had them all figured out. I grabbed my reflective raft, donned a new bikini that my mom had bought off of a McAlpin's clearance rack (I rolled my eyes when she got it out of the bag and said it wasn't really my style, but secretly I thought it was terribly cute), and let the flow of the filter carry me on big circles under a hazy sky.

I heard my mom climb up the rickety steps of the tiny little pool deck (rumor had it a new deck was the next planned home improvement job, and it was, just a decade later) and through my Coca-Cola sunglasses saw her spread out her towel. We basked in silence.

Later I heard Dad come up. Though Dad would vacuum the pool and blow up rafts for his girls, and spend a largish portion of each paycheck on chemicals, we rarely saw him use the pool for fun. He said he did not like to get burned, which was further evidence of his uncool-ness. Everyone, I thought, should have a little color, skin cancer be darned.

It was too hot a day to just float on a raft, so I slid into the water. Mom hopped down and began doing something like water aerobics, though less strenuous. Dad did laps, as well as one can do laps in a circular pool. Icy cold Cokes appeared on the deck, and at Mom's next trip inside, so did fried bologna sandwiches with sliced tomatoes from our attempt at a garden. Dad hooked up a radio and I actually got my hair wet. For hours, we splashed, floated, ate, and laughed until we were exhausted and the sun sank behind some forbidding-looking clouds to the west, chasing us indoors.

The inside of the house was cool and dark. We were always a napping family, so with little discussion and fuss we drifted to our own parts of the house: Dad to his room, Mom to hers (a big secret to why my parents stuck with each other through 35 years of rocky marriage: separate bedrooms), me to the couch. As I drifted off, I noticed that the house had become gloomy and I could hear the rumbling of distant thunder.

A nap after a day at a pool is the best kind of nap. A nap during a summer thunderstorm is a close second. We all awoke sometime later to the end of a magnificent thunderstorm, the kind you get at the end of a long, hot summer, that clear the air and remind you that fall is just a couple of weeks away. The wind bent the wild black cherry tree and scattered mimosa flowers all over the yard. We stood and watched in awe and breathed a collective sigh of relief at the much-needed rain.

Mom began to cook as I showered, applied a generous slather of aloe to my over-exposed skin, and lounged in front of the TV with a book in the fading light. I began to smell one of the most fabulous scents on earth: chicken being fried by a southern cook who knows what she's doing. I wasn't sure what we had done to deserve such riches, but I was grateful.

I went to bed that night full, tan, and happy. No one had fought. I had barely had to lift a finger, and yet good food and a day of solid entertainment had simply materialized out of a hot, blue sky. I doubt I realized, being young and naive, that such a simple, uneventful day would shape my life for years to come.

I've been trying to recreate that day ever since. But perfect days can only be lived in the moment. No other family gathering since, either pool-side or in the dead of winter, has had such a profound lack of strife and discord. I guess I come from a long line of high-strung people. As I grew older, none of us seemed to have time to just play in the pool all day and eat ourselves senseless. There were always places to be, things to do, other people to take care of. That summer day in 1988, I was still enough of a child to take pleasure in my parents' company, even if I was beginning to realize they were hopelessly old and not cool. A summer later, I was in my first dating relationship with a boy and no longer felt I needed my parents to entertain me. And without feeling they needed to entertain me, my parents moved on and began to pursue their own interests (including, but not limited to, spending hot summer days exclusively indoors.)

Nowadays, any summer day spent at the pool has me longing for cold Cokes and fried bologna sandwiches with just-picked tomatoes. When I come home, I always want a nap and a thunderstorm. I want to wake up to the smells of fried chicken and aloe gel. But it's been tough to get those stars to align.

And yet I know now it wasn't so much those specific things that made the day perfect. Those are just my associations, and the concrete things I'll always remember. What really made that day perfect are the very things that make it the most un-repeatable: me being 14, my dad in good health and sober, my mom unworried and happy. That day is a touchstone I go back to often when I think about my childhood. There were some really, really bad days. But in the midst of it, there was this one incredible moment of simple happiness, filled with love and sunshine.

And fried chicken.

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