HEATWAVE

Several years ago, I wrote little pieces for The Five Town News, a lovely local monthly.  Here’s one of them:

The black and white cat is stretched full-length on the bare wooden floor, immobile.  The old dog’s tongue is lolling out of her mouth and she pants non-stop.  I can’t get her to walk with me, even in the relative coolness of the early morning.  Clothes don’t dry in the soggy, motionless air.  The only place in the house where there is relief is the basement, and that is too full of mold and junk to be comfortable.  It no longer matters if I close up the house before the sun heats the air;  the nights aren’t any cooler than the days anyway.  Hot, hazy, and humid:  Vermont at its worst.

When I was a child, we spent those long muggy days in an ancient, gnarled crabapple tree that grew in the field that surrounded our house:  The Crabapple Tree.  Each member of our neighborhood girl gang had a branch that was her own, and we sat on our branches for hours, reading comic books and “American Girl” magazines, talking about boys, pretending that we didn’t hear our mothers calling us home for lunch.

We invented scores of secret clubs and stories:  we were woods fairies and Robin Hood and his Merry Men, we traveled West endlessly in the old wagon–“The Buckboard”–that a neighborhood father had set out in the backyard.  We were wise and provident Native Americans gathering black-thorn berries and chokecherries and hard wormy green apples for the winter ahead.  Once we packed chokecherries into bottles that we had collected from the roadside ditches, and filled them with water from The Brook.  This homebrew was confiscated by our mothers, who explained to us that we didn’t know who had drunk from the bottles, and that The Brook was actually runoff from the ditches, and that some berries were poisonous.  But what did mothers know then about water or fruit or providing for the winter?  We didn’t tell them about rolling wild raspberries in dried leaves from The Willow Tree and eating them–soft sweet and seedy in crunchy, smokey shells.  We didn’t tell them about trying to make bread from Wheat–the thin grass that grew everywhere in The Field, and that resolutely refused to grow seeds.

They knew about the corn-grinding.  My father had brought us a great treasure–a cracked wooden bowl reject from Kennedy Brothers’ factory in Vergennes–and when the sweet corn began to ripen, we stole into the field and picked the ears and husked them and tried to make meal out of the pulpy yellow kernels.

When it was very, very hot sometimes a a kindly adult would invite us to come over and “run through the sprinkler,” and we did, shrieking and splashing.  Our mothers tried, most often in vain, to catch us before we left the wet and grassy prints of our bare feet up the back stairs and through the slamming screen door and down the hall to the bathroom.  (Does anyone still have a slamming screen door with a spring in the middle?  And how in the world does one close a door like that without slamming it?)

We picked wildflowers all the hot summer days, and made crowns of vetch and clover, and told our fortunes with buttercups and daisies;  and in the quiet breathless twilights we played Kick-the-can and Statues and Giant Steps.  Sometimes we’d go for rides at sunset, and Dad would stop for creemees and drive home the long way while we made the tall cool cones last until we reached our street.

Those summers were endless:  long ribbons of time stretching from school to school, Real Life, hours and hours of non-productive activity, dreaming and puttering and hanging around.  Was the heat less then?  Was summer easier?  Was life better?  Of course it was, yes, of course.  We were children.  It was our business to do nothing.  We grumbled about our few chores while our parents went to work and cooked our meals and washed our clothes.  We lay on our backs in the dappled shade of the maple trees and looked for pictures in the clouds while our parents paid bills and bought groceries.

But my husband’s summers were not like mine.  He lived on a farm, and hot summer days meant working from before sunrise until after sundown.  He remembers his city cousins who came to visit, clean children who he says were “not allowed to sweat,” and who could never understand why my husband and his brothers didn’t have time to play.  He remembers drowsing on the tractor in the relentless sun;  he remembers rushing to get the hay in before the rain.  But he also remembers stacking the hay bales carefully to make tunnels and rooms in which to hide later and read, with a candle.  The difference between town kids and farm kids is most evident in their memories of summer.

And now, we’re the grown-ups with no time, it seems, to watch clouds or build hay houses.  We get up early and go to work and come home to do our household chores.  We fight the heat with fans and air conditioned cars.  If we don’t take care, we forget that there is still good life in the heat.  But if we do take care, there are times to treasure:  walking the dog (bribed with dog biscuits and promises of squirrels) in the early hazy sunrise while the scarlet tanager burrs away in the top of the big pine;  eating popsicles on the neighbor’s screened porch while the swallows teach their young to catch mosquitoes;  waking in the still, steamy night to let the cat out and seeing the huge orange moon caught in the branches of an oak tree.  Vermont at its worst is still a fine place to be.

August, 1994

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