The airport was almost empty, with only a few solitary people wandering about the terminal. The silence echoed throughout the building, surrounding us in a hushed stillness. Mom and I stood by the baggage claim and waited for her friend to come.
“Mom,” I whispered. “I do not want to do this.”
“Shush, Lena,” she replied. “I’ve been promising Liza we’d visit for years now, ever since you were a baby.”
“I didn’t want to come. I don’t want to spend the summer in the middle of nowhere.”
“I’ve known Liza since grade school, you know. We’re old friends. We always planned to live next door to one another, but then she moved with her husband when the war started . . .”
I stopped listening. Mom didn’t notice; she was completely wrapped up in memory. I was angry at her, anyhow, for dragging me to the middle of nowhere, to visit her friend and her friend’s children in Kentucky for the summer of 1981. A whole summer lost! I always spent summers at home in our upper-class Manhattan neighborhood, with my friends.
“Susan!” I looked up in surprise. A large, red-faced woman was rushing toward my mother with her arms outstretched and a huge smile on her face.
“Liza!” Mom squealed, returning the hug. The woman who was my mother’s best friend peered down at me.
“I do declare, Susie!” she said. “This sure can’t be the baby who you told me about, can it? Why, this girl is all but a young lady already!” Liza smiled at me. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything.
“Sure’s gonna be hot out today,” Liza said as we walked to her car, an ancient tan pickup truck. “Y’all is gonna be a mite hot in them skirts an’ tights you’re wearing. My kids’re all in shorts by mid- April, yep.”
I looked down at my plaid skirt and white tights, noticing that I was already beginning to perspire. We drove along the road. It was already blistering hot outside, but the Kentucky countryside was beautiful, with rolling green hills and grassy farmland. We passed several crystal-clear streams and swimming holes.
Liza’s farm was on a hillside. She grew tomatoes and corn and pumpkins, but she didn’t actually do the work herself. “I got me a few hired workers,” she told Mom and me.
The house was wooden, but painted yellow on the outside. Inside, it was slightly messy but comfortable. Liza looked around as we entered. “My kids are all over the place these days,” she told Mom. “I’ve got four of them. My oldest, John, is at college. The others are Sam, Allison, and the littlest, Beth. Sam’s sixteen, Beth’s seven, and Allison is just about Lena’s age.” She didn’t mention her husband.
Just then a girl ran through the back door, dressed in cut-off shorts and a yellow T-shirt. She was barefoot, and her golden hair streamed out behind her back. She was out of breath from running, her cheeks pink, hazel eyes sparkling. Liza smiled at her. “There you are, Allison. I was just telling Susan and Lena about you, I was.” She turned to me. “Lena, this is my daughter Allison.”
Allison sized me up, then smiled. “I’ll show you your room,” she said, leading me up the stairs. “You’re in with me and Beth, and I guess your mom is on the couch.” She opened the door to a room, with twin beds and a cot on the floor. The room wasn’t painted, but there was a window looking out across the fields.
“You can have the bed, I don’t mind the cot,” Allison told me. I put my suitcase on one of the beds. “Do you want to look around the farm?” she asked.
I shrugged. “OK,” I agreed.
Allison showed me the barn. “We’ve got horses, two of them. One’s brown, named Chocolate, and the other’s dappled. A real show horse, but we keep her for a pet really. Her name’s Moon Light. Beth named her that.”
Allison led me around the property, over the grassy hills and to the woods. The land was beautiful, fertile, not at all like the city. I fell in love with it at once. Allison pointed out her favorite trees, and the patterns of a spider web, raccoon tracks and hawks. The sun cast a golden glow, shining its light on the wildflowers and the land. I felt freer than I had ever felt in my life. Allison smiled and laughed and sang little tunes. “I love this place,” she told me.
“I already do, too,” I said. And I meant it.
* * *
The days passed quickly in Kentucky. Allison showed me the swimming hole and her secret paths through the woods. She taught me how to ride Moon Light, the dappled horse. Soon I had traded my stiff skirts for a pair of cutoffs and T-shirts. Allison showed me the land, showed me how to whittle fishhooks and to build a fire. And she showed me sunrises.
I had seen sunrises before, of course, at home in New York. I watched them idly, usually half-asleep, listening to Mom and Dad talking in the kitchen. Dad hadn’t come on the trip. He didn’t like travel. Allison never mentioned her father, but she asked me an awful lot about mine. We would be walking along a path, and out of the blue she would say, “Does your father like flowers? Or is that just mothers?” And I was never sure if she was talking in general or about my parents in particular.
One of the first mornings there, I awoke in the soft bed, with the red-and-blue quilt pulled over me. Someone was shuffling around the room, opening the bureau drawers and putting on clothes. It wasn’t even light out yet, the sky a pale gray that let out a faint light. Allison was brushing her hair into a ponytail, looking every so often out the window. “What’re you doing?” I asked.
She turned to me. “Going to watch the sun rise,” she answered. “Want to come?”
I got dressed quickly and combed my hair hurriedly, letting it fall loose because there wasn’t time to put it up. Then we hurried across the fields, dodging the neat rows of corn and tomatoes. Allison led me through the woods, down a path that I hadn’t been on yet. It led up a steep hill, lined with daffodils and dogwood and Queen Anne’s lace.
We neared the top of the hill, where a tall, majestic sycamore tree loomed above the other trees, its branches reaching for the heavens. Allison started to climb it. “Come on,” she said impatiently, when she saw I was still standing at the bottom. “You’ll miss it.”
“I can’t.” I backed away slightly.
“Can’t climb a tree?” She shook her head in disbelief. “City girl.”
I bristled, but Allison didn’t notice. She grabbed my hand and pulled me to the lowest branch. “Climb,” she commanded. I did, first hesitantly, then faster and faster, leaping from branch to branch, laughing into the faint breeze. I felt freer than anything right then, scrambling up that sycamore, smiling at the green leaves and the smooth bark. I followed Allison to a thick branch near the top. We sat there, under the canopy of green leaves and singing birds, to watch the sun rise.
At first it was just a slight glow of orange at the very edge of the horizon, then it rose a bit more until it was a half-circle, glowing red, painting the sky with rose and lavender. Yellow streaks appeared and the red ball of flame rose still higher until it popped into the sky. I let out the breath I had been holding. Allison sighed happily.
“Beautiful,” I murmured. Allison nodded in agreement, and we sat there until the sky turned blue and we could hear Liza calling for us. Then we climbed down the tree and ran down the path to the farm.
* * *
And then, all too soon, the summer was over. I was tanned, and the soles of my feet had hardened from running barefoot. My normally brown hair was sun-streaked to the point of being almost blond, and I was carrying a heart of freedom. I didn’t want to leave.
But Mom was packing our suitcases and Liza had stored the cot away. Allison was taking me around the property again. We rode the horses, Chocolate and Moon Light, to the sycamore that last evening, to watch the sunset. “Just as pretty as sunrise,” Allison promised. “Do fathers like to watch the sun?”
We climbed the tree and sat on the branch. “Allison?” I asked suddenly.
“Where’s your father?”
She was silent, staring at the setting sun. It glowed orange, casting an eternal glow over the earth. The wind rustled the leaves slightly, and we sat, watching it all.
“In Vietnam.” She said it so abruptly, so directly. It shattered the peaceful silence around us.
“But the war was over years ago,” I said, before I could stop myself.
“He’s coming back,” she said softly, and suddenly she looked so delicate and fragile I thought she might break. I put my arm around her and she started crying, without making any noise, just silently crying as the sun set on my last day in Kentucky.
* * *
I’m back in New York now. The first day we were back seemed strange, with the ambulance sirens and the cars honking all up and down Central Park West. I watched the cars on the street, then across into the park. I found myself thinking about the tall sycamore on the hill. I wondered if there were climbing trees in Central Park. I had never tried to find out.
A light rain was falling on the window, but through the foggy clouds I could see the sun setting over New York. I leaned my head against the glass. Thanks, Allison, I thought contentedly. Thanks for the summer of a lifetime.