SARAH SMILEY

Summer’s brevity is also its beauty

Sarah Smiley's son enjoys a sunset.
Sarah Smiley
Sarah Smiley's son enjoys a sunset.
Posted Aug. 31, 2014, at 9:03 a.m.
Sarah Smiley
Sarah Smiley

Maine summers are beautiful, but so fleeting. Soon enough, the snow will fall and dark will come before dinner. Little wooden teepees will cover neighbors’ shrubs, and stakes on the side of the road will mark how far the plows should go. And before Christmas even, we will begin dreaming of summer again.

This, by the way, is why I fell in love with Maine six years ago. For the first time in my life, I understood summer because I had felt the winter.

To mark the end of this summer, my son Ford and I did one of our family’s favorite things: we kayaked out to the middle of the lake and watched the sunset. A few months ago, the sun was setting in a valley between two mountains. Now it has moved and is setting farther south. “The sun hasn’t moved,” my son reminds me. “We have.”

Kayaking trips with Ford can be deep. He tells me about physics and how everything in the universe has mass — except for our thoughts, because technically they don’t exist. (Is this why we value thoughts? Why we try to hold onto them?)

Watching a sunset with Ford is a cerebral affair.

On this particular night, Ford and I discussed time. It was our last week on the lake, after all, and school was looming in the distance. Also, Ford was worried we’d miss the sunset because dinner had gone late. It seemed like everything was on a schedule and clocks, real and imagined, ticked in our ears.

I told Ford that it’s impossible to miss the sunset entirely unless you don’t go out at all.

“That’s not true,” he said. “The sun actually sets at one precise moment.”

I thought that over. The sun does dip below the horizon in one seemingly impossible second. You blink and it’s gone. After a full day of hanging in the sky (“The sun doesn’t ‘hang,’ Mom.”), the sun slips behind the trees in one final movement. It’s there, and then it’s not. Kind of like summer.

Ford continued, “Everything in life happens at one precise instant. Nothing really lingers.”

We debated this for awhile. Is the sunset the moment the sun goes below the horizon? Or is the sunset everything leading up to that second, and everything after?

I think the best part of the sunset is after the sun has gone down. That’s when light reflects off some clouds and casts shadows on others. The colors turn warm — orange, red, and sometimes purple. If the sky is just right, the colors can even cast a glow on people’s faces.

“Yeah, but then the sun is gone,” Ford said. “It’s already set.”

Suddenly, we both realized we were talking about more than a sunset. I was thinking metaphorically, about how the sunset reminds me of raising kids, and Ford was — well, Ford was still thinking about physics. But as the sky turned orange and Ford continued to talk, I thought about how many of the best things in life are fleeting. Raising kids is filled with so much emotion because it doesn’t last. They grow up. College is memorable because it came to an end. Our birthdays mark the passing of an age we will never see again. We long for our 20’s because they went by so quickly.

And just like the sun, thinking back on these things after the precise moment they ended is sometimes the most moving part of all. After the sun goes behind the trees, you stare at the colors and forget that 10 minutes before, you had a headache from the glare.

Ford was silhouetted by the light as he circled my kayak and continued to talk about science. He’s broader and taller now, but his face still has a glimmer of that little boy I once knew — the one who seemed to grow in an instant. I hardly remember anymore how loud Ford was as a baby, or how he always woke up early. I just have his baby face — laughing — engraved in my memory. It’s the most beautiful vision.

But that’s just a thought, and Ford said thoughts don’t exist. Which is exactly why I pine for that little face, isn’t it?

When winter comes, we will all forget the flies and mosquitos of summer. Sunburns will fade and also be forgotten. We’ll only remember moments like this, floating in a kayak, watching the sunset and listening to a boy talk about life.

Oh, Maine. Seasons come and go in a moment, leaving only the beautiful colors of a sunset in our memory. Until the next summer.

Because unlike most things in life — childhood, baby laughs, our 20s — that come and then are gone for good, we can all cling to the promise that another fleeting Maine summer will come again.

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