Coming of Age Contemporary Fiction

Every year, the three women traveled to the Coney Island boardwalk on the first Saturday of the summer season to watch the fireworks. She didn’t know how to tell them that this year may be her last.

That morning, Abigail had received an envelope in the mail. The envelope, the one that congratulated her and told her the admissions department at Stanford would be honored to accept her into its class of 2025. She’d torn open the letter right there at the mailbox and shrieked and her mother had run out the front door, knowing from eighteen years’ experience this was a happy shriek and not a frightened one, and she’d scooped her only daughter into her arms as the neighbors across the street who hated noise peered through the window with arched eyebrows.

They’d packed the cooler, as they did every year, with bags of cherries and chips and a bottle of Coke, all on ice. But this year, Mom reached into a back corner of the pantry and produced a bottle of Prosecco, winking at Abigail as she slid it into the cooler. “Don’t tell Ammy.”

Abigail grinned back. She knew very few people with a mother like this — someone who was so certain, so sure in her daughter’s abilities that she bought a celebratory bottle of wine before the acceptance letter had even been stamped. Those three thousand miles between Staten Island and Stanford could render many things uncertain: friendships, familiarity, a sense of home. But this, the bond between an only child to her single mother, herself a sole daughter, this was something that could withstand time and distance and any other abstract obstacle.

As they drove across the Verrazzano on the way to Brighton Beach to pick up Ammy, however, Abigail turned her head to the view outside the passenger-seat window. It was still light out — they always left a couple hours too early; Ammy was always fretting they wouldn’t find a good spot on the boardwalk — and the bay twinkled in the sun as the buildings set in the skyline stood stoic. Would this still feel so comforting after a semester in California? Maybe time away would reinforce it, prove a lifelong thesis true: The East Coast was home. But the opposite could happen, too: Maybe she would spend a few months in California and come back to Jersey a stranger, realizing she had called this place home all these years as an automatic response, as someone who hadn’t known any better.

“Are you excited?” Mom asked, turning down the volume on the radio station’s Springsteen song of choice.

“Yeah,” Abigail sighed. “I’m going to miss it here, though.” She turned to face her mother, gazing at her white-knuckled hands on the steering wheel; she’d always hated driving on the bridge. “And you.”

Mom smiled, and like Abigail’s sigh, it was heavy with both wistfulness and hope. “Well, everything will still be here when you come back. We’ll still eat Thanksgiving dinner at Ammy’s bakery, I’ll still send you marshmallows on Easter, and we’ll always have the fireworks in the summer…”

Abigail fell silent. This was what she was struggling with: being tied down by tradition. More and more she was starting to feel like doing things in the name of tradition was really just a guise for guilting somebody into an obligation. She’d always enjoyed these family traditions, but the thought of continuing them year after year, perhaps at the expense of creating new traditions, felt stifling. Setting her sights on a college across the country hadn’t been an accident. She would emerge next summer with new friends and new experiences and new things to do on the first Saturday of summer. 

She didn’t want her mother to think her desire for independence was a desire for severance. Everything she had in her life had been given to her by the woman sitting next to her. She didn’t have to break her heart today; day by day, the facts of their new lives would settle in and become routine. So she reached across the armrest and held her mother’s hand, squeezing until the bridge was out of sight.


Every year, the three women traveled to the Coney Island boardwalk on the first Saturday of the summer season to watch the fireworks. She didn’t know how to tell them that this year may be her last.

It wasn’t that Ammy was a stranger to doling out honesty. Raising three children on her own, she’d had no time for falsities and communication games. Her two sons weren’t in her life: Her oldest, Charles, had plunged into a string of trouble in his twenties, a résumé that ran the gamut from breaking into cars to committing arson on a government building. Travis, her youngest, had laid around the house aimlessly after his high school graduation. Ammy had offered him choices: get a job to support his family, or go to school and she would support him. He’d turned down both, insisting he be absolved of responsibility, couldn’t he just stay here the rest of his life? She’d fought with them for months; eventually, she packed their bags and told them both to leave. Travis’s parting words were that his father had done the right thing, leaving her on her own.

Some women kicked their children out and were the better for it; others were bereaved and regretful for the rest of their lives. Ammy had had decades to dwell on it, but she still wasn’t sure which group she fell into. She had heard from neither Charles nor Travis since their partings.

She was called Ammy — short for both Amelia and Grammy — so often that it had become, maybe not her entire identity, but a subdivision of sorts, and maybe it fit her more than “mother” ever had. The children of her regular customers at the bakery would swarm her, buzzing with stories about their days at school or camp and asking for extra donuts. She’d never been particularly warm to kids, but they seemed to sense something in her anyway, some inherent steady, giving nature. Or perhaps they just knew she was the one who fried the donuts.

She was proud of her independence. She’d raised her daughter, Christina, by herself, then built a bakery from scratch, managed all its operations and even its social media. She lived alone but she wasn’t lonely. But one day about two months ago, she started having an inkling that something was wrong. Her main cashier, Tasha, had just finished ringing up Mr. Tolman, an elderly regular customer who liked to tell exaggerated stories of his life. Ammy told Tasha about the latest story, something about Tolman literally sweeping a lady off her feet while riding horseback during his time in the Navy. Tasha’d raised an eyebrow. “I know. You told me this yesterday.”

A few days later, she reminded Tasha to count the money in the drawer twice at the end of the evening, because one of the other cashiers may have been skimming a few bills. “I know,” Tasha said, not unkindly, “you mentioned that earlier.”

A rent check she’d forgotten to send to her landlord, names she knew like the back of her hand slipping through her mind, waiting for a pot of water to boil before realizing she hadn’t turned on the stove. She visited a neurologist, and the diagnosis was made: dementia. Even then, the concept floated through her mind like a dream, a scene from some middling movie.

It wasn’t until a couple of days later, when she’d been updating her bakery’s Facebook page and a photo from twelve years ago had popped up, that the doctor’s words fell full-force upon her. Enjoy This Memory!, Facebook demanded above the picture. It was opening day. She, Christina, and six-year-old Abigail stood in front of the bakery’s front doors, open to the public for the very first time. Abigail held a powdered donut to her mouth. The picture swam in the tears forming in Ammy’s eyes. How long would these memories remain inside her? How long would it be before she’d have to rely on the internet, on other people, on what she’d bothered to write down over the years to fill in her own backstory for her?

Now, Christina and Abigail stood in the open doors of the bakery, much like they had in that photo. They were waving her outside, calling out that they wanted to get a good spot on the boardwalk. Ammy wanted to remember this year, and the ones to come. She pressed her hands into the counter. The doctor had told her that sometimes, people retained memories through their different senses — the smell of chicken noodle soup brought them back to Christmas 2002, the sound of an acoustic guitar took them back to the New York City subway. She hoped that every time she touched the cool marble of the countertop, she’d think of them, the way they showed up on this day every year, overjoyed at the complete predictability of seeing her there.


Every year, the three women traveled to the Coney Island boardwalk on the first Saturday of the summer season to watch the fireworks. She knew each year might be their last.

Christina wasn’t oblivious. Her daughter was eighteen and her mother seventy-six. Abigail wouldn’t stay a child forever; Ammy wouldn’t stay her mother forever. New lives awaited them all, the divergent paths lying somewhere beyond this night.

But awareness wasn’t equivalent to detachment. Christina knew her time with each of them was precious and limited, that connections, even the most loving and familial, only were as strong as the moments that held them together.

So many times in her life, Christina had found herself in the middle, struggling to hold two forces together as they tried to spring to opposite ends. She’d try to play peacekeeper between Charles and Travis and their mother, cutting into their screaming matches with silly commentary they’d all ignore. When her then-husband showed no interest in spending time with Abigail, and Abigail would cry, she’d plan extravagant trips and outings: Look how fun it is to be a family! But they’d both seen through it, and now neither father nor daughter spoke to each other.

As she sat between her daughter and her mother on the splintered boardwalk bench, she put on her best farce of joy even as the thought that this may be their tradition’s last year loomed somewhere beyond the fireworks. Sometimes she was tired of holding it all together. And she knew in the years to come, it would only become harder to make this special night happen.

The show started. The crowd hushed and the vivid colors lit up the youthful features in Abigail’s face, the fixed ones in Ammy’s. Maybe this was how it was supposed to be: Her loved ones were the fireworks, lighting up her world, ever-changing, exuberant, vibrant and exciting. She was the dark sky, the reliable backdrop ensuring they had their moment to shine. It wasn’t so bad. Year after year, they would always be here.

August 06, 2021 03:48

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