When Summer Falls
“When summer falls on a weekend, we have a barbecue,” drawled my husband’s new co-worker.
Vermonters don’t usually drawl, but certain jokes need to linger in that northern air a little longer to reap a bigger laugh – usually those made at the expense of flatlanders and local politicians. My family fit the flatlander description, fresh off the boat, as it were, from Texas. We caught the joke and its implicit warning: summer in Vermont would feel less like a season and more like a passing breeze.
Southern summers had not been a breeze. I hadn’t known that my shins had sweat glands till I sat in Dallas traffic in my old Chevy. I had never had to move the Fourth of July celebration indoors to escape the unbearable heat. But here in Waterbury, Vermont, I relished the sun’s gentler attempts to warm the planet. Summer held a new, if fleeting, vision for a season of a different kind. An hour reading in a hammock overlooking a sheep pasture. A perfect-temperature mid-day stroll down the hill to the pond. A light sweater as my evening companion, just in case. Pleasures to be relished, even knowing soon enough what they would cost me.
Yes, count the cost of such a mild summer. The looming bill collector arrived as winter, which soon enough would claim that motherland inch by frozen inch. Month after month, his hardened battle lines littered roads with icy gravel corpses. His white army launched layer upon layer of glistening assaults, which knew defeat only when April struggled to take a victorious stand on the frozen soil. In response to its narrow defeat, winter left behind a suicidal revenge: boot-sucking, car-devouring mud that replaced the packed-down snow along the unpaved roads and yet lifeless fields.
Spring, that elusive season of hope, seemed to be on perpetual rain delay. In place of buds or shoots or blossoms, the countryside mounded deeper mud. After searching the desolate landscape in vain, after impatient weeks of sending out raven, dove, children and dog from the ark of my kitchen door, I would finally spot her in the distance, leafy branch in hand. She would skip onto the scene, paint it all green in hurried strokes, then wave goodbye.
“Leaving so soon, spring?” I’d call as she left. “When you arrived so late?” But summer was knocking on the door by then and we turned to let her in.
The children welcomed this blink-of-an-eye season with the same joy as they did Christmas. Somewhere in the mountain of boots we located our flip flops. Swimsuits came down from the attic. Out of the medicine cabinet came the same tube of sunscreen we’d used for several summers. Who would be the first one in the pond at the end of the road? Who would get a splinter lying on the wooden dock? Who wanted to dig up mud and cover their limbs in it? Did you bring the wagon with the sandwiches and popsicles? Little bodies skimmed the surface of the water in inflatables like dragonflies. Bare feet ran on the stiff grasses toward frog ribbits. Sun-pink hands outstretched with nets and buckets.
By mid-August, swimming called for stout-heartedness, an I-dare-you-to-jump-in-first resolve. Early-morning chill surprised our breath away, but the woods called us now to hunt for wild blackberries and raspberries. Before we could refill our pails, though, autumn had arrived through the back door, well before the calendar showed her due. She brashly took over the landscape and spread her reds and oranges over every deciduous green. She clogged the two-lane roads with slow-driving flatlanders and leafpeepers, who gawked at the rolling colors under the bold blue heaven.
At our doorstep, leaves of all hues became collector’s items preserved in baskets for future crafts. Still, our loss of summer’s glory felt bittersweet. The cider mill next door cheered us with mugs of steaming amber, thin napkins greasy with apple doughnuts. Reluctantly, we turned our attention to rounding up school supplies and jackets that still fit. Getting ready to pay the price.
But while it lasted, summer did bring us barbecues. Friends circled round for smokey meats and rich salads, ice cream cones and starlit skies. We bantered on lawn chairs and blankets, strummed guitars, let ourselves fall in love again with fireworks and fireflies. Summer children romped in a giddy past-your-bedtime high, then let themselves be carried up the stairs and laid gently on their beds.
Theirs was a hopeful sleep, little smiles on their smudged faces, dreams threaded through with memories and longings for a lifetime of summer, for warmth under a pale sun that would shine on and on and never fade.
-Jan H. Cooper