The Garrett family did not take a family vacation until 1959. Robin Garrett, Alice’s father, said they couldn’t afford one. Also, in the early days he refused to leave the store in anyone else’s hands. It was Grandfather Wellington’s store, was why—Wellington’s Plumbing Supply, turned over to Robin’s care only grudgingly and mistrustfully after Grandfather Wellington had his first heart attack. So of course Robin had to prove himself, working six days a week and bringing the books home every Saturday for Alice’s mother to examine in case he’d slipped up somewhere. Face it: he was not a born businessman. By training he was a plumber; he used to buy his parts at Wellington’s just so he could catch a glimpse of young Mercy Wellington behind the counter. Mercy Wellington was the prettiest little thing he’d ever laid eyes on, he told his children, and all the plumbers in Baltimore were crazy about her. Robin hadn’t stood a chance. But miracles do happen, sometimes. Mercy told the children she’d liked his gentlemanly behavior.
Then after Grandfather Wellington died and the store became Robin’s—or really Mercy’s, legally speaking; same thing—he had acted even more tied to it, more obligated to oversee every last nut and bolt of it, and so they still took no vacations. Not till he hired an assistant manager whom he referred to as “young Pickford,” a good-natured sort without a lot of brains but steady as a rock. That was when Mercy said, “All right, Robin, now I’m putting my foot down. We are going on a family vacation.”
Summer of 1959. A week at Deep Creek Lake. Rustic little cabin in a row of other cabins just a walk from the lake itself. Not actually on the waterfront, because Robin said that was too pricey, but close enough; close enough.
In 1959 Alice was seventeen years old—way past the stage where traveling with her family could be any kind of thrill. And her sister, Lily, was fifteen and madly in love with Jump Watkins, a rising senior at their high school and a champion basketball player. She could not possibly leave Jump for a whole week, she said. She asked if Jump could come to the lake with them, but Robin said no. He didn’t even bother giving a reason; he just said, “What? No,” and that was that.
So for the girls, the trip was nothing much to look forward to. It had arrived too late in their lives. For their brother, though . . . well, David was only seven, the absolutely perfect age for a week at a lake. He was a joyful child anyhow, delighted to take part in anything new and different. From the moment he heard they were going, he started counting the days on the calendar and planning what to bring with him. He must have envisioned the lake as a sort of oversized bathtub, because he proposed to pack his plastic tugboats, his wooden sailboat, and his little wind-up plastic diver. Mercy had to explain that they might float away from him in all that water. “I’ll get you a beach bucket at the dime store instead,” she promised, “and a shovel.” So after that, he went overboard in the other direction and started singing sea songs. “My Bonnie lies over the ocean . . .” he sang in his clear little voice, and he renamed his cowboy doll Bobby Shafto. (He was always renaming his cowboy doll, which he still took to bed with him nights, although he hid him in the closet whenever he had playmates over.) “Bobby Shafto’s gone to sea,” he sang, wafting the doll over his head in a horizontal, swimming position. “Silver buckles at his knee . . .”
They set out on a Saturday morning, after stopping at the kennel first to drop their dog, Cap, off for boarding. Alice was the one who drove. She’d had her license only a while and she was always begging to drive, although generally her father said no because she was too “headlong,” as he put it. Today, though, he allowed it. He sat beside her in the front seat, pointing out stop signs and curves and oncoming cars that she could see perfectly well for herself, thank you very much. In back were Mercy, David, and Lily—David in the middle, because he was still small enough not to mind the hump in the floorboard.
They were a family of blonds, but Mercy and David were golden-haired blonds, pink-and-white-skinned and vivid (such a waste, in David’s case), while Robin and the girls were slightly darker. All of them had blue eyes, and all of them were shortish, even Robin. Alice knew this bothered him, because sometimes when he was dealing with taller men at the store she saw him draw his shoulders up and hold his head higher than usual. He would practically stand on tiptoe. This always made her sad, although she supposed he didn’t realize he was doing it.
It was a half day’s trip through mostly rural areas, once they’d left the city. David could still be entertained by glimpses of horses and cows and their young ones, and he and his mother made a game of spotting tractors, but Lily was in a sulk and slouched silently in her seat, glaring straight ahead of her. As they drew nearer to the lake, they began to see signs reading TOURISTS in front of some of the private homes, and tarpaper shacks selling bait, and gravel lots full of motorboats with their prices chalked on their windshields. Scattered cafés no bigger than sheds offered fried chicken and meatloaf and dollar lunches. The Garretts had packed a lunch to eat once they arrived, but they did stop at a roadside stand for produce, and then again at a cinderblock cube beneath a two-story-tall electric sign reading FAT HARRY’S GROCERIES. Lily didn’t go into Fat Harry’s with them; she stayed in the car, with her arms folded stubbornly across her chest. “The more fool you,” Alice told her when they all returned. “Mom let us get ice cream and we chose butter brickle.” Lily hated butter brickle; she always said the chips felt like something that shouldn’t be in there. But she didn’t even bother reacting, just went on staring straight ahead.
What with all the produce they’d bought and now the groceries, it was a fairly uncomfortable ride for the final five miles of the trip. Their trunk was stuffed with suitcases and linens and Mercy’s painting supplies, so their purchases had to be crowded around them inside the car—Fat Harry’s grocery bags all but hiding Mercy and Lily from view, and a giant watermelon resting on David’s lap. Paper sacks from the farm stand covered the floor in front of Robin, leaving barely enough room for him to set his feet.
They had to locate their cabin from a mimeographed sheet of instructions that had been mailed to them by the owner. “Take a right on Buck Smith Road,” Robin read aloud. “Continue two and one quarter miles. Take a left at the sign for Sleepy Woods.” Sleepy Woods turned out to be six log cabins lining the highway, a couple with boats jacked up on trailers in their side yards. The Garretts’ cabin was number 4. It was small but efficiently organized, all on one floor, with a bedroom for the girls and another for their parents, this one with a foldout cot set up for David. The combination kitchen and living area smelled of wood smoke from the fireplace, but the bedrooms smelled like mildew and so Mercy opened the windows. Outside, the smell was all pine and sunshine. Pine trees towered overhead and the ground was slippery-smooth
with brown needles. Alice could see why the place was named Sleepy Woods. She thought she could sleep very well here.
First they ate their lunch at the wooden table in the kitchen, because all of them were starving. They had tuna-salad sandwiches and carrot sticks, with peaches from the farm stand for dessert. Then Robin started unloading the things in the trunk, and Mercy sent the girls to make up the beds while she put away the groceries. David was the only one without a task, so he went out back to let Bobby Shafto climb trees. He shimmied him up various trunks and set him astride low branches, in the meantime singing, “He’ll come back and marry me-ee…”
Once the trunk was emptied, Robin and David changed clothes and walked down to the lake to try it out – Robin in baggy red trunks and a T-shirt and regular black work shoes with black socks, David in a short white terry-cloth robe bought especially for this trip and his little brown fisherman sandals. The path to the lake was a kind of logging trail through the woods, two sandy ruts with a grassy strip in the middle. For several minutes after they left they could be seen flickering in and out of patches of sunlight, Robin with their towels draped around his neck and David swinging his beach bucket so that the shovel inside made a clanking sound that they could hear even from the cabin.
Alice tried to chitchat with Lily while they were making up the beds – “I call dibs on the one by the window” and “I sure hope this cot is more comfortable than it looks” – but Lily didn’t answer and kept her same grumpy expression. When they’d finished, Alice unpacked her things and put them in the bureau (“I call the top two drawers”), and Lily took a pad of paper and a ballpoint pen from her suitcase and settled against the propped pillow on her bed and started writing. To Jump, presumably, not that she bothered explaining that.
Alice gave up on her. She put on her swimsuit and a big shirt and collected her camera – a Brownie Starflash she’d been given for her last birthday – and went back out to the kitchen, where she found Mercy hunting for a pitcher for the tea she’d just brewed. “I’ll look for one while you go change,” Alice told her, and Mercy said, “Oh, thanks, honey,” and disappeared into her bedroom. She emerged a few minutes later in a shirred latex swimsuit such as Esther Williams might wear, and a peach kimono fluttering open at the front and cork-soled sandals with giant pompoms on the toes. “Where’s Lily?” she asked, and Alice made a face and said, “Writing a letter/” Mercy just gave an airy little laugh. She seemed to view Lily as some belle from Gone with the Wind, with boys galore lining up to “dance attendance,” as she called it.
They left the cabin and set off down the path that Robin and David had taken earlier. It was hot but not unbearably so – a good ten degrees cooler than Baltimore, Alice would guess. Tiny insects buzzed around their heads whenever they passed through shade, and squirrels scrabbled up the trees.
The lake was bigger than Alice had expected. You could see the opposite shore, but it looked very far away, and the near shore curved to the left and disappeared behind a clump of bushes, so she knew there must be more lake in the distance. A heavyset woman lay tanning on a towel, and an old man, fully dressed, sat facing outward on a canvas chair at the end of a rickety dock. The only one in the water was Robin, swimming a determined breaststroke parallel to the shore with his expression grim and set. David stood watching from the water’s edge. He had taken off his robe but he was bone-dry; clearly he had not so much as dipped a toe in. “What do you think of the lake?” Mercy asked, coming up behind him, and he turned and asked, “Is Daddy going to drown?”
“No, no, no,” she assured him, “Daddy’s a good swimmer.” David turned away again and resumed watching his father.
“You planning to get wet?” Alice asked him.
He said, “Pretty soon I am.”
“Want me to take you?”
“No, that’s okay.”
Alice removed her shirt and tossed it onto the sand next to her camera. “Well, here goes,” she said, and she began wading in. The water was lukewarm but turned cooler the farther she waded, and when she finally ducked under it was cold enough to make her gasp.
Viewed from here, the shoreline had the quaint, static look of a scene in her mother’s book of French paintings – the old man on the dock shaded by a giant straw hat, the woman just a flattened strip of color against the sand. David was squatting now to fill his bucket. Mercy was taking dainty steps deeper and deeper until finally she launched herself forward in a breaststroke considerably more graceful than Robin’s. She had spent her girlhood vacationing in Ocean City, was why. She was no stranger to water. But after a few yards or so, she stopped swimming and stood up. “Come on out!” Robin called to her, but she said, “I don’t want to get my hair wet.” She had the kind of hair that took forever to dry, thick and wavy, with ringlets spilling from a chignon piled high on top of her head. She said, “I was thinking I might fetch my sketch pad and take a little walk in the woods. Can you keep an eye on David?”
“Sure thing,” Robin said. “I’ll teach him how to swim; how’s that?”
“Oh, good,” Mercy said. She turned and started wading back, her arms held straight out at her sides and her hands lifted like little birds, while far beyond her, up at the edge of the woods, a small version of Lily could be seen shading her eyes to observe them. She didn’t come any closer, though. She didn’t even have her swimsuit on, and after a moment she turned away and disappeared again.
The difference between this scene and the ones in the French paintings, Alice thought, was that the paintings all showed people interacting – picknickers and boating parties. But here everybody was separate. Even her father, a few yards away from her, was swimming now toward shore. A passerby would never guess the Garretts even knew each other. They looked so scattered, so lonesome.
Excerpted from French Braid by Anne Tyler. Copyright © 2022 by Anne Tyler. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.