Summer. I love it and hate it. There was a time when I couldn’t wait for the days of long light and no responsibility. Long gone are the freedoms of childhood, but maybe one day I can retire and discover some of them again. I remember one summer as a child I determined if I got out of bed by opening my eyes and looking up and out the window. If the sky was a robin’s egg blue against the green of the pecan tree I would spring out of bed to absorb the day. If the blue was off a bit or I saw clouds in the way I would roll over to the cool side of the sheets and sleep some more. My laziness was the product of having both parents at work and two grandmothers who were busy enough they didn’t miss one less child making a mess in the kitchen.
I lived outdoors in the summer primarily because we didn’t have air conditioning and outside was cooler than inside. Plus, our Rawls Avenue yard was a virtual summer oasis. Our house sat on two lots so our yard was wide and deep and almost completed shaded by several large trees strategically placed by the Almighty. There had been a huge oak tree outside the back door and the space between the roots of the tree was my playhouse. There was one niche that was my perfect size and it was my car I drove to all points on the globe I knew existed, which at that time was only about a five-mile radius. Hurricane Camille took it and more out in 1969, but despite losing the canopy of the oak we still had enough to protect us from the blistering heat of South Mississippi.
In my mind’s eye the yard was divided into distinct sections. The immediate back yard began with the back steps encompassing Daddy’s shed and Mama’s monkey grass garden and ended at the clothesline (we didn’t have a dryer, either) just behind the pecan tree. This part of the yard was more utilitarian, so there wasn’t much playing there. The cats, or whatever animal we had at the time, ate on a small bricked area so it was always littered with old pie plates in various stages of rust. The rest of this yard was too shady for grass to grow and stayed covered with mulberry tree droppings, which was fine if you didn’t mind having purple feet (who wore shoes?).
Behind the clothesline was a fig tree carpeted with wild, pink oxalis. As I side-note I once watched the Middle-Child cook a bunch of the clover-shaped leaves and eat them. I later learned she did it to put off the advances of a young suitor. At the time, I thought she was a genius with survivor skills when actually it’s a miracle she didn’t poison herself. Beyond the fig tree was a jungle of bamboo and wisteria vines bordered finally by a mysterious, low stone wall. On the other side of the wall was the remnants of an old road or alley. If I could time travel I would go back to see just what it all looked like before the Csazar family called it home. Oh! Maybe the stones are a time portal! I digress, again.
A towering magnolia divided the two lots and on the other side, was the bonus back yard. At the back, on the house side of the walled jungle, there were relics of what have might have once been a garden. It’s here my imagination wandered when my daddy would tell me bedtime stories about fairies and gnomes and the one about the grasshopper and the ants. My daddy was a master story-teller. In line with the magnolia was a Catawba tree covered with caterpillars my Uncle Walter loved for fishing. Further up were plum, wild cherry, and Japanese magnolia trees, and in between was the only area where the sun would shine the most. This was the site of home movies, a pet cemetery and Daddy’s prized satsuma tree. In the summer months, the yard bloomed with well-oiled teenage girls in bikinis working on tans they didn’t need because of their natural Mediterranean skin. And it was fine for them to be so scantily clothed because they were safely protected from the wandering eyes of the neighbor boys by a ring of overgrown azalea bushes and other shrubbery my father refused to trim. Head slap! At last, I understand you, Daddy!
The front yard was for socializing. It started with the front steps and was enclosed by a pipe fence useful for sitting and talking with friends and neighbors, or practicing acrobatics and tight-rope walking. It’s where the girls of the house held court and broke hearts or had them broken. It’s where one could go and sit and think and dream in the cool shade on long, hot summer days.
Yes, a child like me could get lost in a yard like we had. So many nooks and crannies to hide in away from a mother and grandmothers who wanted you to do chores and siblings who mostly ignored you anyway because of the age gap. But I wasn’t always ignored. There were those summers my closest brother used to play with me before he realized it wasn’t cool to have your baby sister hanging around. My favorite was the summer of the Lawnmower. It was an old lawn mower, part of Daddy’s hoard, with no engine or blades but perfectly working wheels. I would sit on the hole and my brother would push me around the neighborhood and up and down the Hills in the empty wooded lot across the street. I could write a whole book on the wonders and joys of that lot, so I’ll just leave it for now. Did he pull me in the lawnmower behind his bicycle? I don’t remember but I’ll just say yes because it was exciting to me either way. Then there was the summer he (we) collected cans. This is before cans were made of aluminum so collecting wasn’t for recycling. He (we) collected cans just for the joy of having a collection of as many different cans as he (we) could find. That summer I learned there were a lot of different beers in the world.
Eventually, I outgrew the desire of wanting to be outside coincidentally about the same time my mother installed an air conditioner and cable in the living room. Suddenly being cool in front of the television with more than two channels was much more inviting than the heat and bug bites of the outdoors. If I needed to get away I would go as far as the swing on the screened front porch and lose track of time to the rhythm of the squeak and clang of the chains as the swing rocked to and fro. Again, I could write a whole book on the joys of that front porch so I’ll leave it here only to mention there was nothing more magical to me than that front porch on a moonlit summer night. To this day I dream of it in my sleep and waking hours.
When I began my responsible life of job, wife, and mother I lost summer in the jumble of every other season. The years to me were just hot and cold, and I loathed the hot part. Last year I began a campaign to reclaim summer. I force myself to sit outside to eat lunch on workdays and walking for exercise after work even when the temperature holds strong in the ‘90s with high humidity. On weekends, I make myself do something outside even it’s just sitting in the shade on the porch and reading, or like today, writing. By forcing myself to do these things I’m learning to live with the heat and embrace summer again. I said live with it, not love it. Maybe my love will grow again when I don’t have to measure my days between weekends and holidays, and I can decide to get out of bed by the color of the sky. Until then, at least I’m trying.