Summer (Indulge me)

The local paper has started a feature in which it reprints scenes of summer “from a different point of view - from writers who over the years have featured local scenes in their work.” Hmmm, I haven’t been asked, but I’ve written a few passages about Baltimore summers in my time.

My favorite: “Summer finally began. It began over and over again. It began in mid-May, with a disturbingly early heat wave. It began again on Memorial Day, when the private swim clubs opened for business, even though the heat wave had receded and the weather had reverted to the cold and dreary days of April. It began with each last day of school, district by district, with the city of Baltimore always the last to release its children. It began with the first Code Red Day, an index of air not terror, issued when the heat held the smog too close to the city. It began every Friday about 4 p.m., when the local radio stations reported that the back-ups at the toll plazas for the Bay Bridge were now three miles, four miles, five miles long. It began when the fireflies appeared and a new generation of children tested the folklore that the insects could not fly if one walked with them balanced on a fingertip . . . By the time the solstice actually arrived, summer already seemed careworn and used.”

My family belonged to a private swim club, a place that appears, pretty much unedited, in Every Secret Thing, from which the above is taken. The swim team girls wore beautiful orange-and-brown Speedos with a front panel that one could inflate by holding it out and plunging down into the water. In the water, we played Marco Polo and underwater tag. During adult swim, we played I Doubt It and Pitch and Hearts. Nutty Buddies cost 25 cents. The no-running rule was so strictly enforced that, to this day, I don’t think I would run in a pool area even if I were fleeing some peril.

So how does summer begin, where you are? Or where you were when you were, say, 11?

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12 thoughts on “Summer (Indulge me)

  1. For me, the summer always began on July 1…my birthday. I was never home to have a party, but who cared? We were always in transit to someplace exciting. In 1965, when I was eight, it was to San Francisco and the beginning of a month-long trip that took us to a dozen national parks. In 1972, it was to Nairobi, Kenya, and my Africa adventure. Other years it was to our house in Woods Hole, on Cape Cod. We’d arrive and check to make sure nothing had changed since the previous Labor Day. Then I’d kick off my shoes and hobble around the corner to Sidney Street, where all my summer friends lived. I would barely put on shoes once the rest of the summer. The first few days, I’d keep getting sharp pebbles and other objects stuck in the bottom of my feet, but after that I’d have callouses half an inch thick. I could have walked across hot coals, no problem.

  2. I have two distinctly different summer-type feelings. Let’s go first with one from my younger years.

    I read a lot, but instead of being in my room, I did most of my summer reading outside when I was young, mostly up in trees or some sort of fort I would build out of lawn chairs or some such thing. I still have memories of a Micky Mouse comic book about smugglers and caves and hidden passeges and those memories have inspired at least three short stories I’ve written.

    But the one summer memory that stick out most in my mind was when I got a hardback copy of “An American Tale.” I read it in the tree in our front yard one day and was called into the house for some reason and left the book in the tree. That night it poured rain and ruined the book. The next morning all I found was a floppy book cover and a gooey mess of pulpy soup that used to be the individula pages. I cried and cried over that and even months after still had a pit in my stomach thinking about it.

    I still don’t know why that affected me so much, but I have always been prone to episodes of unexplained emotional sensitivity so I’m used to it by now.

    As for recent summer memories, they are all horrid. Since my first year in college, summer was when I had all of the jobs I hated. During the school year I worked on the newspaper or literary magaine or worked in the writing center or library, all fun jobs but in the summer I’d have to take jobs just for the money. I was a wire puller for a phone company, a parking lot attendent, a grocery bagger, a can smasher and ,worst of all, a McDonald’s employee for exactly three weeks.

    My entire life the only job, other than being a shoprat like my dad, I ever refused to do was work in fast food. Well eventually I started running out of places I could quite easily in three months and figured I would do it as a research assignment and write a story out of the whole thing. I hated every minute. There was nothing good about that job. I hated the people, the customers, the food, the uniforms, the pay and so on and so on.

    The only fun I had at all when I worked there was one time when a couple of us tried deep frying anything we could find. I deep fried a quarter pounder and it was fabulous. Deep fried hamburgers have since become very popular at our family cookouts.

  3. Summer in Hartford. YUCH. What my memory retains is humidity and mosquitos. I never really DID get why folks would lie out in the sun in the summer, as that heavy air made me queasy sometimes. As a kid, going to “the reservoir” in a town called Barkhamstead (oy, spelling?) was the big treat - big inner tube and all. Or trips with my mother, father and sister to the little not very impressive - but familiar and friendly - motel on Cape Cod. Penny candy and jumping in the pool every morning (with sometimes damp - eu - pink tank suit.) But after leaving the east coast, I finally realized WHY folks like to go outside in the summer; it’s not always humid everywhere (and try telling folks back in West Hartford, where my mother still lives, that you can live on the coast of the ocean (Seattle) and not encounter humidity in the summer.
    Then there was the ice cream. And the trucks. AHH. Good Humor - okay, pretty good actually; with fudgicle (as we called ‘em) and toasted almond bars (I think they were my sister’s favorite) and sometimes, if you were willing to forego chocolate, creamsicles - a taste I still like. Weird, since neither vanilla nor orange are on my top ten list. And the local guy with the truck who served - oh MAN, lemon ice - the only only thing for 90 plus degree Hartford days. But the real joy, the true happiness of summer came with the Mr. Softy truck and the soft ice cream. My mother and i can still remember a day when I was maybe 13 where we had ice cream for lunch and ice cream for dinner. Period. The end.

  4. Summer. Hmm. Let me do this in a semi-stream of consciousness:

    Hot weather. Riding my tricycle in my old house when I was little. Eating ice cream. Moving to the new house and amazed that there could be nothing in it yet. Swimming in the JCC Day Camp pool. Making friends with identical twin girls who dropped out of my life a few years later. Summer vacations to all points along the East Coast: New York City (many times), Westchester, Boston, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont. All the while sitting in the car and listening to comedy records or classical music. My mother telling us to look at the “beautiful scenic view” out the window but we never wanted to. Sleepaway camp in the Laurentians. Writing birthday letters to my mother on the actual day of her birthday because I forgot to until then-three years in a row. Summer school without air conditioning. Going home to air conditioning. And reading. Lots and lots and lots of reading.

  5. Laura-That is a great compliment! I’m also a big fan of the “use it” school of writing. Everything I see or do and every person I meet makes its way into my writing one way or another. On one hand it has pissed off nearly all of my relatives and friends at one time or another, but on the other I think it results in an incredibly honest voice that people have said they love reading. I can’t think of being any other way.

  6. Summer began when UPS delivered packages of my summer clothes my mother ordered from Sears: striped seersucker (clothes with ‘the bumps on them’) matching shorts and tops. Mostly pink, wore like iron and delivered every summer from 3 yrs old to 8. I would catch sight of the big brown truck rumbling to a stop and race back down to our house, yelling: ‘we can go to the beach now, I have new clothes!’ and continue running to my room and pull out the small pink (did I ever have a choice of color?) suitcase with the ballerinas stenciled on top ready for the new clothes. [to keep on topic: by eleven I'll choose my own clothes, thank you very much, and whatever was clean one day before departure]
    Now I just keep a stack of old tees and shorts ready for the one of two climes which follow quickly within five minutes here in central NC: humidity and ice.

    Jeanne

  7. Byron — Please consider it a compliment that my first reaction to your story about the ruined book was a desire to steal it, followed by the realization that I never would. But it’s a beautiful, resonant story.

    One of my favorite novels of all time is an out-of-print book called A Novel Called Heritage, in which a mother keeps advising her daughter, a wannabe writer, “Use it, Annie. Use it.” Margaret Dukore’s book makes clear that this isn’t always the best or most honest way to be, but perhaps the only way a writer can be.

  8. >>>>A writer is always selling someone out, as Joan Didion said. But that person is, primarily, the writer.<<<

    I don’t know if I agree with this. I think writers mainly sell out family and friends…what a writer tells of him/herself is more calculated and canny. Also, as reality television and memoirs have shown, part of the human condition is the desire to reveal, to show off. I think the “selling out” occurs when you choose to reveal details about people who haven’t necessarily agreed to be put under a microscope.

    I’m thinking about writing a suburban comedy set in a town like mine. I told a friend this, and one day later an entirely different friend came up to me and said, “You’d better not be writing about me!” I discovered that the story had gone through four additional people (two of whom I barely knew) before coming back to me.

    I promised that I wouldn’t include anyone who didn’t want to be included, while thinking: “I’ll use this exact series of events in the book!”

    Joe

  9. It truly is, and then some-I find that every time something disappointing or truly devastating happens (losing out on a job, breaking up with a boyfriend, health concerns) a little voice in my head chirps, “Now you just have more material to work with when you write.” Same goes with any kind of major event; soon after it’s over, of even in the midst of it happening, there’s a running narrative happening in my brain, tidying up some loose ends, shaping others, until the end result is a semi-cohesive story that will bear fruit in something I write in the immediate or distant future.

    But then, what is fiction if not to illuminate truths that might be too raw or too close to the bone if written about as is?

  10. Perhaps what I said was a little facile. It is possible to betray people while writing. For example, if I took Byron’s story above, that would be a betrayal on many levels, especially if I placed the ruined book in the context of a story that could humiliate or embarrass.

    But who is most naked in the end? (Is “most naked” even proper English? Nakeder? Nakedest?) Who is truly revealed? On whom do readers project the (always understandable) confusion about what is biographical, and what is not?

    Nora Ephron, on the other hand, has a funny observation in Heartburn about how columnists suck out the marrow of the lives of everyone around them: “He even raided Sam’s life. Sam was barely two years old, and the column about the time he swallowed the nail polish remover had run in 109 papers an the one about his first dead guppy was about to be anthologized by the Oxford University Press. Someday Sam was going to grow up and sit down to write about his life and there wouldn’t be anything left of it to write about.”

  11. Like Nora Ephron’s observation, Anne Lamott in her book on “writing and life” called Bird by Bird (the last of her really _great_ books, she’s gotten too gooey and spiritual and repetitious for this fan) talks about how “everything is material” and describes a scary moment in her child’s life, in the ER. The 3×5 cards she _always_ carried came in extraordinarily handy to amuse Sam…then she used them to write up what happened. Nancy Atherton said to me years ago, and I can STILL hear her “It’s ALL material”.

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