The Working Waterfront

A new setting gives this parent fresh eyes

Seeing my daughter from afar allows me to appreciate her more

Courtney Naliboff
Posted 2019-08-22
Last Modified 2019-08-22

By Courtney Naliboff

It’s July, and I’m in a hot tub in Sedona, looking at red rocks in the distance, lit by a dry desert sun. My five-year-old daughter is on the steps of the adjacent swimming pool, blue goggles pushed up on her hair, wrapped in a blue foam floaty belt. The ruffle on her unicorn tank suit flutters as she busily marches back and forth in ankle-deep water.

The scene repeated itself several times over our week-long vacation. Sometimes she was giving “swimming lessons” to her grandmother, sometimes she played catch with her uncle. She shuffled back and forth on the steps like a soccer goalie, fending off her grandfather as he dramatically threw himself backwards into the water at the tiniest push.

The common thread in these scenes, other than the gorgeous setting and intense afternoon heat, was that I was a passive observer, rather than a participant. Surrounded by West Coast relatives, my daughter takes advantage of their presence and releases me to swim laps, soak in the spa, or read (for the record, I read a terrible Patricia Cornwell thriller, a pretty good David Baldacci, and the second book in the Broken Earth trilogy by N. K. Jemisin, which I can’t recommend highly enough!)

From my deck chair I could see things about my daughter that I don’t always notice when I’m fully engaged in being her mother. She’s very funny, for instance, a fact that’s sometimes lost on me when I’m nagging her about brushing her molars. Goofy, even. She’s an excellent mimic, and I heard some of my own words in her swimming lessons banter.

I found it charming from my viewpoint, rather than grating, which is how it registers when she employs phrases like “Here’s the deal…” to negotiate her way out of practicing the piano.

She’s fashionable—she found an adorable vintage dress in her size at a thrift store we like to visit, and laid out an entire ensemble on a chair, from jacket to new red boots, to go with it. This kind of attention to detail isn’t always appreciated when we’re trying to get to school on time.

Distance is important, from time to time, to allow us to see familiar things from a new vantage point. Stepping back and seeing how a loved one interacts with other people gives important insights into our own interactions with them.

Do I allow Penrose to be silly? Do I remember that she repeats everything she hears, and do I let that shape the way I communicate with her? Do I allow her enough space to express herself through her clothing?

My relationship with North Haven benefits similarly from a little distance. From Labor Day until Memorial Day, North Haven and I are up close and personal. Town meetings, school budget hearings, battles with the Department of Transportation, and icy roads make up a lot of my conscious dealings with my chosen home town.

When the summer residents begin to arrive, they fully absorb themselves with North Haven, just like Pen’s West Coast family. Their time with North Haven is limited, and so rather than metaphorically nagging it to brush its teeth, they get out in boats and picnic on distant islands, sip cocktails on porches, and attend talks at the historical society. 

And so through them, and because of the privilege of the summer break from teaching, I can vicariously experience some of the pure joys of North Haven. Ah yes, the lupines are at peak season on Indian Point—it’s worth a few minutes to go see them and become enveloped in their Sweet Tarts aroma.

That’s right, we’re surrounded by beautiful, swimmable water. I could jump in after a landscaping shift, or spend an afternoon swimming the Mill Stream. I remember now, we can go sit at the bar at Calderwood or Nebo and have a little food and a glass of rosé and pause, until the season changes again, and my relationship with North Haven reverts to its intimate, detailed self, up close and personal and focused on the nitty gritty daily necessities.

Now, did you brush your teeth yet?

Courtney Naliboff teaches theater and music at North Haven Community School, and she and her family live on the island.