Sunday, January 19, 2014

When Summer Stretched Forever

Mama with my little brothers and me, late sixties.

Summers lasted forever in the sixties. Days were strung on an endless strand, like the little round pearls on Mama's favorite necklace. Hot days blended into hot nights, with no relief on the horizon from the damp heat of Virginia's weather. Humidity, in my opinion, makes any weather exponentially less tolerable than weather in any dry climate. Hot and humid is wilting weather. Cold and humid is bone-numbing weather. Humidity is the common denominator that increases the complaint factor many times over. 

As I lay on top of the cotton sheets and bumpy chenille bedspread, I pursed my lips, and blew moist air from my mouth across my chin, and out over my chest, trying to cool myself off in the sultry, summer air in the semi-darkness of my room. We were the only children in the neighborhood in bed before the sun had completely set. Mama believed in Ben Franklin's "early to bed, early to rise" advice. I could hear the Jennings children still shouting to each other in their front yard. Bike tires crunched across the gravel on the edges of the pavement that was Grandview Drive in Amherst, Virginia. It was just so hot and humid here on any night in July; I felt as though I'd simply melt like my favorite orange Popsicle lying in a cheerful puddle on the sizzling sidewalk. Why couldn't we have air-conditioning like nearly everyone else?

I pulled the sheet up over my head, letting it fill with air and billow up over me as it sucked the hot air off of my damp skin, and fluttered softly back down, creating a gentle breeze as it drifted back in place.  Repeating this as often as possible until I tired of the activity, I would finally succumb to the exhaustion that helps any southern child fall asleep after a long day of playing outdoors. 

The next morning, I rose early, but never earlier than Mama. I shrugged into my stretchy orange shorts, and soft, striped t-shirt, and walked barefoot into the kitchen. Mama was at the table, enjoying a steaming cup of coffee, and what was left of the quiet solitude of her morning routine. My questions began as soon as I saw her. 

"Do you think we'll go to the swimmin' pool today, Mama? Can I put sugar on my Rice Krispies this morning? Can Karen come over to play? Can I have tea for breakfast?"

Her soft answers were reassuring. Probably... of course... later...and sure. There wasn't much she said no to, except our staying up late; that was probably her most sane moment of the day, having all three of us tucked into beds and lights out, as the sun sank behind the Blue Ridge Mountains.  

After I'd deposited my light blue Tupperware cereal bowl and spoon into the sink  with a clatter, I went in search of my flip flops. I hated shoes, but Mama insisted on protecting my feet from hot pavement, red clay, and the occasional sweat bee. I wiggled my toes up to the thong piece, and worked my feet into place. "Bye, Ma!" I yelled over my shoulder as I closed the front door. I was off in search of my best friend. It was just after sunrise; I assumed everyone had eaten their breakfast early, and was ready to start the day.

Knocking on the Jennings' door, I was always surprised it took anyone so long to come to the door. After the wait of an eternity, the door finally swung inward slowly, and Betty looked at me through squinted eyes under her short, dark bangs.  

"Mornin', Betty! Is Karen up? Can she come play?" I said, a little too loudly.

"I have no idea," she drawled slowly. "As far as I know, NO ONE is up at this hour. You can go see." Betty always went back to bed after letting me in, and I made a beeline down the hallway. Karen shared a room with her big sister Pam, who was four years older than we were, and we were probably the worst nuisances in her pre-teen life.  

I tried to whisper. "Karen.  Karen. You awake?" She turned to me with one eye open, pushing wisps of long, brown hair out of her eyes.  

"I am now."  She stretched and yawned.

"Want to come over and play?" I crawled into her double bed beside her, picking up her lumpy tiger head pillow, which she called her "pilla." It reminded me of Tony the Tiger on the frosted flakes box. I sniffed the air. "Karen, your tiger stinks." She'd probably slept with it every night of her life. "We should spray him with something good, like perfume. Do you have any perfume?"

On the girls' shared dresser, Pam had some pretty glass bottles of fragrances. I selected one of them, and gave the pilla a thorough misting of perfume. I took a whiff.  "EEEEEW.  Now your pilla smells like stink AND perfume." We both giggled. It was dreadful. We tossed the tiger back on to the bed, out of our nostrils' reach, and made plans for our day.

As little girls, we dreamed of owning a horse ranch together, with stables as far as the eye could see, filled with horses and ponies of all sorts. We would ride horses all day long, and we'd be rich because we were going to teach little girls how to ride horses, and we would sell horses. I always knew how to answer the favorite question of adults. What did I want to be when I grew up? A horse rancher.  

We were tomboys, shimmying in the dirt with our brothers, playing army. Shooting our make-believe guns when we played cops and robbers. Hiding behind the couch, ready to creep out into the living room like real-live spies, as the theme from The Pink Panther played on the LP album on the console stereo. We climbed the tall pine trees in the front yard, and we rode the ponies Queen and Princess in the big pasture. We would be best friends forever.

Karen came the closest to living our dream. She worked on a dude ranch out west, and came back home to be a wife and mom, building her home in front of her daddy's big barn, and having a pasture of her own with horses, and a chicken named Lucy, and dogs, and an assortment of farm critters. I went on to become a school teacher in Utah, and found my passion was children, not horses and ranching. We still keep in touch, just not near as often as we wish we could.  

Every summer since leaving Virginia to go to college in Utah, I remember the summers of my childhood. I recall the heat, the humidity, and my best friend. I remember days that never seemed to end, and summers that stretched forever. 
  A winter scene from the sixties.  Karen is riding Queen with our neighbor Marney. 
I'm in the navy parka.


  1. I absolutely, positively am floored by this. I honestly found myself smiling because I felt like I was in the story. You nailed the sensory details that make childhood epics like Dandelion Wine so beautiful.

    1. Thanks, Brax. I appreciate your comments!

  2. Yeah! me too! I was into the story, right there next to you smelling the tiger and feeling the sheet. Great writing and it helped me remember some of those special moments with my best girl friend at that age. Wow, I haven't been there in a long time. Thanks!

  3. I felt like I was a kid again as I read this! All of my senses were tickled! Thanks for stirring up the wonderful memories of childhood!

    1. Carol, writing it took me back to those sweet days of summer; I'm glad you were transported back in time, as well!

  4. Moments like this are a joy to read. It brings back those wisps of memory that stir up the child still within.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Linda. It's always such a pleasure to read the comments you take the time to post!

  5. Summers lasted forever in the sixties. Days were strung on an endless strand, like the little round pearls on Mama's favorite necklace.


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