summer, new created
Then followed that beautiful season...Summer....
Filled was the air with a dreamy and magical light; and the landscape
Lay as if new created in all the freshness of childhood."
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
In Alabama, summer means it's going to get unbearably, ridiculously, so hot all you can do is keep drinking iced tea as you sit directly in front of a fan, kind of hot. As a girl, summer meant spending time with extended family. So many of my favorite moments as a girl come from times spent at my grandparents or great-grandmothers' houses. I spent weeks, sometimes months away from my parents. I don't know for sure, but I don't remember ever getting homesick. The time with family was idyllic, full. There are many moments that flash in and out of my mind, many of them involving sitting in my grandmothers' kitchens. When I think about the places of importance in my girlhood, the kitchen is the first thing I think of and then church, but that's a completely different story.
The kitchen was where my grandmother washed and braided my hair, where she counseled friends who came over for coffee, where we watched the black and white TV in the mornings as we ate cheese toast. The women in my family, like many Southern women of their time, were good in the kitchen. They invented multi-tasking. They could tell you stories, snap peas and
trade argue about recipes all at the same time. When I sat among them, "helping" peel shrimp or potatoes I felt like I was being let in on their secrets.
In the summer, the kitchen overflowed with family and friends visiting so we moved to the covered carport where we swatted mosquitos and listened to stories until our shirts were soaked with sweat. My Granny J told the best stories, especially about ghosts. She imbued her stories with history, facts, details that made them even more believable, though I'm pretty sure I would have believed whatever she said. Because my grandmother worked as a nurse until her late 60's, I spent a lot of my summer days at Granny J's watching her "stories" and learning to bake cornbread. Granny was always busy, going to the store, to club meetings, buying thread and sewing supplies and then doing the sewing. She had bags and bags of scrap materials in her back room, scraps I loved to play in. At Granny's, I was a racecar driver, a flapper, a pirate, a lion tamer, a dancer; my imagination was unlimited and my supplies endless. I do not remember when my great-uncle convinced Granny to put in an additional window unit air conditioner but I do remember sitting directly in front of it, watching her sew, listening to her talk about her first job, about growing up poor in rural Arkansas, about the psychic she went to who told her that her son would leave on a ship as soon as he turned 18. No matter what else she was doing, Granny always told stories, ones that root me to my family, ones that are waiting for me to tell them but I have forgotten some of the details, the specific people or dates and some of the places. I remember her voice, the look in her eyes when she had a really funny story, the ones she told so often and with such enthusiasm it did not matter if I knew the story by heart: like the one about my uncle biting the dog, or the one where she first learned to drive, or how my grandmother stood up my grandfather on their first date. Granny held all of the stories as if she were a database, able to recall any point in any story at any given time.
Summers in Alabama meant dark nights littered with fireflies and camp meeting church services where I heard my grandfather sing loudly and out of key, the same way I do now when it suits me. I loved riding in the back of my grandparents' car, staring out the window while the fireflies sparkled against the kudzu-lined back roads. This was my father's homeland; these were the smells, the heat, the landscape of his boyhood. And now they belonged to me and to my brother. There was the small creek in which he gigged frogs and skipped rocks and sometimes swam. There was the sharp curve in the road he'd taken a bit too fast and almost wrecked his car, the bridge he drove over on a stormy night in his VW bug when he almost didn't make it home, the field where he ran and dug up earthworms. I knew the stories by heart. We were creating our own landscape as we played and imagined and stayed up late eating ice-cream and popsicles.
As a young teenager, summers meant babysitting, and part-time jobs and swimming at the country club so often that my hair turned green. It meant reading books I was too young to read and carrying a paperback dictionary that became so waterlogged and warped by the end of summer, I'd ruined it for good. In high school, summer meant baseball tournaments (my brother's), camp where I was a counselor and freedom. I drove the car my grandparents bought me when I turned 18 to the middle of Conecuh county forest where I ruled the Arts and Crafts hut, sold supplies to campers to make shrinky-dinks, keychains and various other items they would take to their parents. I spent the summer in a cabin I shared with four-five other staff members and watched Days of Our Lives or swam in the lake during lunch break. We swam at night, probably with alligators, laid on the deck and told stories about our lives. I was still a bit naive about the world and willing to believe people were who they said they were. I had very few rules and cash in my pocket and friends who rubbed aloe vera on my sunburned skin after I spent too many hours in the sun.
As a graduate student, summers were lean and difficult, scrounging for classes to teach or taking classes or both. In my master's program, the summers were about cheap bottles of wine, nights of poetry and vodka, days on the bay or in the surf. It was driving to Florida on a just-cashed paycheck, sleeping on the floor in a friend's condo and listening to jazz and Buffett while the sun went down. Summer then was one Beat night after another and it was glorious and fleeting and full of gas station sandwiches, live bands, cheap motels and words. So many words, stories, an endless run of what could be.
As a Ph.D. student, summer meant work, practically living in coffee shops writing a dissertation, waiting for paychecks and being creative with what was in the fridge. But it was also rich with nights with friends, recalling our favorite songs, playing video games, closing down restaurants with our conversations, or games of pool. Summer meant being in love and hoping it was enough to make the crappy apartment, the steady diet of Ramen noodles and PBJ's worth it.
Only recently, has summer begun to mean time with family again. Only recently, does summer mean grilling out with the neighbors, playing scrabble, drinking beer, watching movies, softball. As an adult, summer has begun to mean taking photographs, writing, spending time with friends, reflecting on the time between then and now. Summer is sand in my toes, coke floats, flip-flops, and the kind of exhaustion that comes from sitting in the warmth of the sun.
Before today if you asked me my favorite season I would have said Fall. But now, I'm beginning to think it's been summer all along... "new created in the all the freshness of childhood."