Until this year, summer was not restful for me. I would take Anna, my daughter, from country to country (we have relatives all over) and be lost in a flurry of diapers, crying-jags, nap-time, storybooks and French fries. Even sitting on the beach was exhausting: I sat motionless and watched her without interruption, to keep her from the belly of the sea. Even when she was 9 and 10 years old, I kept an eagle eye on her.

This summer, however, I had an 11-year-old with me, and it was a different affair. Tall, strong and wise to (some of) the ways of the world, she didn’t want to drown anymore than I did, and knew that she had to eat at least something during the day that did not contain  Yellow Dye No. 13. Thus, for the very first time since she was born, I was able to exhale, to think. I was able to see and hear and understand things that had always been there but that I had failed to see for the trees.

Some truth finally made itself heard over the din of the ever-clamoring, pot-banging minutiae of an attention-paying mother’s life. It all began to emerge one Tuesday afternoon, when my daughter, in the company of two friends, rode her bike around the block in Cape May, N.J.

It was to be her first time out riding without a grown-up. On her way out the door, as I fretted and peppered her with reminders, she turned to me and said, “Mom, don’t worry. I’ll be fine.” At that moment, I saw something in the back of her eyes that reminded me of an episode in my life that had long mystified me but that I then suddenly understood.

Many years ago, before the husband and before the child, I remember being at a cocktail party near the U.N. I was in my early 20s and rather pathetically bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. As I stood there, trying to look sophisticated, a gray-haired, bespectacled gentleman came over and said something very strange. He said “Some people look very sweet, but when you look into the back of their eyes, you see battleship steel. Do you know that battleship steel is one of the hardest materials on earth?” He then turned away.

That Tuesday afternoon in Cape May, I finally understood, because I saw the steel in my daughter’s eyes. Over the course of the rest of the summer, I would see it again and again in the eyes of my family. During the Montreal leg of the trip, because I had time to think, I was able to see the span of life from tender youth to even more tender old-age stretch itself before me from tip to tail, like some large, indifferent cat.

In Montreal, everyone was gathered at my aunt and uncle’s barbeque. There are many children in the family now. Some are chubby little things in pull-ups, some like my daughter, are long-haired and long-legged, and some are stolid little boys solemnly pushing baby sisters into tomato plants. My aunts, uncles and parents have gray hair now and congregate around the table exchanging tales of the old days: love affairs, the moody Haitian climate, a dictator or two.

My cousins and I are straddlers—the children of the wizened ones, and the parents of the little ones. My cousins are tall, athletic and bear terrifying muscles. They talk of bike rides, soccer games and volley ball, while I dream over the latest heels and hats. But at the barbeque, in the midst of these jumbled generations, I am particularly taken by my uncle. Once stocky, he is now thinned out by cancer. Only his mustache and his eyes remain robust. He hangs on to the moose his granddaughter, resolute and tearless after a violent encounter with a tomato plant, hands him for protection. Laughing, he strokes it as he directs the action at the grill from his lawn chair. He laughs again as he catches my eye and offers his teetoling niece a whisky sour.

Still in Montreal, I visit my mother’s cousin. She is also battling cancer. It has her hair, but it doesn’t have her spirit. She is wide-eyed, talkative, waving her hands about as she rushes to tell me things about her life that she is recalling vividly, to make me a repository. She lives in a tiny, tiny, impressively neat apartment lined with books, paintings and plants. She has no one, really. She battles the beast alone. With a yawn, she tells me that she decided not to undergo the latest treatment offered her. “Pourquoi faire? Ca fait mal et d’ailleurs, cela ne m’embete pas de partir.” “Why? It hurts, and besides, I don’t mind going now.”

Yet the cancer does not progress. It seems cowed by her contempt for it. She never pets it or frets over it. Rather, she drowns it out in symphonies, loses it among the leaves of a novel, jabs at it mercilessly with her knife as she prepares exquisite little dishes. She laughs at it as she puts on her wig and perfume. Yes, she laughs, and she is a lioness.

We seem all to be made of very stern stuff, but the most intriguing thing about this steel is the lightness with which it is born. Perhaps this steel had its origin in the bowels of a ship during the middle passage. If so, it was carried over in the mind and heart of a bon vivant. We must be descended from a man or woman who was a master in the art of laughter. In a book I once read, the author describes happiness as a type of mastery, a sort of sovereignty over the soul. In other words, it is a type of steel. For my sprawling family, strength indeed seems merely to be a platform for joy.

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