Wednesday, September 9, 2015
Married people generally come to know each other very well, and when you have been married to someone for fifty-three years, you may be surprised to learn there are still surprises. This Monday past, Labor Day, was spectacularly beautiful—the third and best-yet day of the long holiday weekend. For most of us, I think, Labor Day has few industrial associations. It is, instead, a punctuation point, an end of something and a beginning of another. To judge from the commercial advertisements in the papers the national theme is “Back to School!” But we have graduated. I no longer go back to the lecture hall in September, nor have we had school children living with us for the last couple of decades.
Thus I was rather surprised when my wife said to me over coffee: “We need to mark Labor Day.” Surprise turned to amazement when she specified the proposed mode of its marking. “How would you like to get the canoe and go out on the lake?” Within twenty minutes we were dragging the canoe from its happy home in a bamboo patch at the bottom of the yard and lifting it into the bed of the pickup. The canoe is sixteen feet long, the truck bed with its tailgate extension, ten. So with some rudimentary tie-downs and with gravity working slightly in our favor, we gingerly drove the scant half-mile to the launching dock without encountering another vehicle on the road.
It was by now perhaps nine o’clock. The lake was calm and beautiful, and there was still a hint of cool in the barely perceptible morning breeze. If I had started out thinking “Why am I doing this?” the thought soon turned to “Why don’t I do this every day?” While we were unloading a second pickup arrived—a grizzle-bearded guy with a kayak, looking as much like a mountain man as it is possible to do in suburban New Jersey. There were a few people on the lake, two or three pairs of fishermen who had sacrificed any claim to moral seriousness with their huge Evanrude outboards. But mainly, to the east, in the direction of the now well risen sun, the narrow lake lay flat and empty as far as the eye could see. So we set off east toward the Harrison Street bridge and the long stretch of elegant lakeside homes beyond it.
I will say little about our joint skills of navigation and oarsmanship, except that their inadequacies provided ample material for marital recrimination. Ornithology is probably a safer topic. There are splendid waterfowl on Lake Carnegie, and their numbers seem to be increasing. There is an islet with a large dead tree that sometimes has several white egrets like Christmas decorations. There were ducks of several genres, known to us and unknown. There was a floating flock of cormorants, spaced out in a curving line with the precision of Nelson’s fleet at the Battle of the Nile. There were many herons—flying low across the water or perched amid the snags of dead trees fallen at the water’s edge. Poets seek in vain for the right adjective for the heron—“wise,” “stately,” “hieratic”—none of them just right, but I can do no better.
We paddled about a mile in the direction of Kingston, admiring some of the Lakeside Drive properties to port side. I had noticed from driving along the road that one of the most lavish of these is for sale, and was amused now to see a “For Sale” notice facing the lake at the water’s edge. On reflection I suppose that anyone capable of buying it is as likely to approach by yacht as by car. At length, probably a mile from our starting place, we arrived off the rickety dock of our friends Giles and Diana. Indeed Giles was in sight, laboring in his back garden on Labor Day. This had not been planned, but seize the day! We shouted to him. He blinked in amazement. We tethered our canoe and crawled out on hands and knees onto the splintery planks. It was a piratical caper, a home invasion by canoe.
We invited ourselves to coffee, which we took in the front garden, where Diana had been doing her laboring. Amidst the jollity, spontaneity conquered all. We agreed on the spot that we must get together again soon, indeed about five o’clock that same afternoon at our house, for a communal meal. The early hour was chosen to accommodate Diana’s tennis mania. Her belief was that Roger Federer and John Isner were to begin a crucial duel in the US Open at seven.
The meal was delicious, with an adventurous if grab-bag menu. We began with a small primo of pesto Genovese. Diana had some hamburgers, and we grilled them—to satisfy my spiritual need for a “Labor Day Cookout”. Then there was a huge ratatouille. (Have I mentioned that we have a large harvest of tomatoes and zucchini?) Eschewing the air-conditioned house, we sat outside in the quite warm air of late afternoon, ate delicious food, and talked the talk of friends. Conversation ranged widely, though one recurrent theme was the English West country, which our friends had recently visited. It was the perfect Labor Day, and all the result of Joan’s surprising initiative. As Enobarbus once remarked of Cleopatra, Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety. A canoe, after all, has its similarities to a royal Egyptian barge.