The 1998 Summer Guide to life lessons.
By Scene Writers
MAY 26, 1998: I grew up in New Orleans, in the old days, prior to air-conditioning. Back then, summer days had a special rhythm to them. The lethal combination of heat and humidity that seeped out of the miasmic swamps determined a whole way of life.
Housewives arose at the crack of dawn, when it was still somewhat cool, and slap-dashed their way through their household chores, making sure to put the gumbo on a low fire to simmer for the day. Every afternoon at 1 o'clock, so dependably you could almost set your watch by it, the sub-tropical rains came. They might be heavy downpours, but they were steady and lasted for a half an hour or so. The rains stopped as suddenly as they arrived, and then the steam started.
Steam drifted off the rooftops where the sudden squall had cooled the tiles. Curls of steam rose and twirled upwards from the asphalt pavement and from the sidewalks, cracked and broken where the ancient live oak tree roots had twisted the cement as easily as if it were nothing but paper candy wrappers. If a housewife were careless and left the newly washed sheets out in the rain, she knew that there was no hope for them to dry on the line that day, or maybe even the next. The linens were sodden with steam, and they would stay that way for the rest of the sullen afternoon.
Movement of any kind, even if you took it slow, so as to conserve energy, created yet more moisture. You could disguise damp spots under arms by dusting them with sweetly perfumed talcum powder. Fine ladies would pat their upper lips with linen handkerchiefs to blot up the thin line of moisture that collected there, but the rivulets running down between their breasts were discreetly ignored.
Laboring men had no need to appear so fastidious. Street sweepers would pause and pull out bandannas to wipe the backs of their necks and foreheads. Then, laughing softly, they would trade jibes with their coworkers and resume their rhythmic sweeping. Late in the afternoon, anybody who could, would nap the time away. Mothers of young children, more pressed than most, might opt for a quick fix, and snatch a moment to lie down with freshly sliced cucumbers over their eyes. During their siestas, good children reenacted silent battle scenes with their toy lead soldiers or read abed with lips moving noiselessly.
When they arose, they might be rewarded with a snowball created by Mr. Williams himself. His unpainted shack, way across town, was always the scene of the only traffic jam in a city where none else existed otherwise, even during the 5-o'clock rush hour. It was also the only place in town where people stood outside and willingly exposed themselves to the hot tropical sun.
The motley line of kids, teenage couples, moms with towheads in hand, and construction workers would snake for blocks through the pleasant residential neighborhood. When you finally arrived at the counter and could step inside the dilapidated wooden structure, your lungs would greedily gulp in the exhilarating blasts of clean cold air, as delicious as the treat to come.
Mr. Williams shaved his ice by hand and offered more than 50 different kinds of syrups, including exotic flavors such as an obnoxiously pink Bubblegum or the unanalyzable Rocket 88, vivid turquoise in color. Adolescent boys might vie to order the most original combinations of hues, but the old standbys remained the most popular. Chocolate with almond swirled into it was an absolute classic, while maraschino with half spearmint made for a gaudy, delicious combination. When the old man collected your dime and handed over the paper cone, complete with yellow paper straw and miniature wooden spoon, even before the taste of your first sticky sweet slurp, you knew that you held in your ice-cold fingers New Orleans' answer to the Mystery of Life.
In the evenings, as people came to life after their hibernation from the daytime heat, you might walk out on the veranda in the vain search for a bit of fresh air. Listen carefully, and you could hear the subtle sounds of raindrops plopping to the ground.
Except it never rained at night. In New Orleans, humidity can get so high that moisture condenses on the underside of leaves and then drops softly down, a slow, steady drip of raindrops falling on your head. To come in out of the rain, you had to defy common sense and simply step out from under the ancient fig tree into the open clearing. No need for an umbrella.
Outdoors, soggy though it might be, was still preferable to staying inside. By nightfall, the indoors was humid, hot, and stuffy. If you pulled down your shutters during the daylight hours and kept close inside, the system worked to keep the high heat off your face during the worst of the afternoon. But by evening tide all the heat was trapped inside the city houses, despite their 10-foot ceilings.
As dusk gathered, the entire city would spontaneously invent a collective excuse to step outside. You could water the garden and feel a little mist spraying on the face, sit out in the hammock and stir up a cooling breeze, or step out onto the stoop, where you could sit down and chat with neighbors who felt just as droopy as you. Conversations might be desultory at best, but the companionship of silence was plenty. Best of all, the night-blooming jasmine would be in bloom, wafting its intense perfume, exuding such a strong aroma that it overpowered the residual feelings of the day's apathy and sharpened the sluggish senses that had lain dormant during the worst of the heat.
The heavy odor of jasmine mingled with the aroma of savory gumbo that awaited on the dinner table inside. Food tasted better late at night, when the worst of the heat was over, when you'd had your second shower of the day, when people had had a chance to get a second breath and recover a bit from the enervating effects of the heat and humidity.
By midnight, children would be snuggled tight in their beds, visions of Mr. Williams' snowballs dancing in their heads.
By MiChelle Jones
I don't know how many nonswimming adults live in the U.S., but until recently I was one of them.
Technically, I'm still a nonswimmer. If I somehow ended up in the deep end of a swimming pool, I would go into a panic, and it would not be a good scene. And yet, for the first time since I was a kid, I'm looking forward to spending time in the pool this summer. I am just waiting for that magical Memorial Day moment when the pools open and legions of sweltering people head for the water.
This year I will dare to join them because, a couple of months ago, I finally took the plunge and decided to learn to swim. For years I'd been trying to get up the nerve to take lessons. I came close a couple of years ago. My resolve began to crumble when the woman on the other end of the line asked, "and how old is the child?" I responded that I was the nonswimmer. "Oh, well, you'll have to take private lessons," she said with slight amusement.
I imagined me flailing around in the water with an instructor while the swim team stood around the pool waiting for practice. I also envisioned a bunch of 4-year-olds pointing and staring as I tried to accomplish feats they had mastered in neonatal swim camp. My swimming career was put on hold.
I'm not sure why this turned out to be the year. I expect it had something to with the approach of a momentous birthday. Faced with complete disbelief at my rapidly advancing age, I felt the need to do something radical. When the Vanderbilt Swim School brochure crossed my desk, I decided to dive in. Well, not really. I must have pulled out the brochure a couple of times a week before I finally convinced myself to register. Even when I called, I hadn't completely convinced myself to go through with it. Once I reserved what was the last place in the class, and once I wrote the check, I had at least tentatively committed myself.
The class I wanted was for adult nonswimmers. Perfect. It met at 8 a.m., five Saturdays in a row; even more perfect because it sounded like complete torture. For five weeks--and after shelling out $50--I figured I could live with it.
Once I had my place reserved, I was ready for the biggest challenge of all--the search for a swimsuit. Of a somewhat modest and non-athletic nature, I was looking for something with a lot of coverage. The suit I had in mind involved leggings and a ruffled cap. Unfortunately, the Smithsonian informed me that their collection of early-20th-century swimwear is not available for purchase, so I had to go with a snappy Speedo instead.
I somehow dragged myself out of bed for the first class and headed to the pool. Being out in the freezing-cold March air, wearing a swimsuit and carrying my towel, was quite invigorating; I was on a mission, and it showed.
Only five people showed up for the class--a good thing, I thought. With so few people in the pool, Jhonda, the instructor, would have no trouble rescuing me. I was still feeling pretty good.
As Jhonda took roll, she asked us to describe our swimming ability. Out of the five of us, two couldn't swim at all, two wanted to master breathing techniques, and one wanted to learn some real technique after years of getting by with a modified dog paddle. Great. We headed into the pool.
For some reason, I was under the impression that since I'd made up my mind to conquer the pool, all I had to do was get there, get into the water, and miraculously discover a hitherto untapped reserve of natural aquatic talent. I was wrong.
Suddenly, the sense of dread I had long associated with swimming returned: the smell of the chlorine, the sensation of being enclosed in a terrarium, and the feeling of complete incompetence came rushing back. I realized the reason I had never learned to swim, despite childhood swimming lessons and numerous high-school pool parties: I was afraid of being submerged in water.
Still, I didn't freak out. Everyone else seemed to be doing much better than I was, but I'd already learned the first lesson of swim class: Avoid making comparisons between yourself and the others. I was doing remarkably well just to be functioning at that time of morning, let alone wearing a bathing suit in public.
The second lesson was OK, but I still wasn't performing up to my expectations. I was at the bottom of the class, and at the bottom of the pool. At the beginning of my third lesson, I almost had a meltdown. For the first time, I was really afraid of the water.
I looked around me, and I might have been in the middle of the ocean, given the panic and helplessness I felt.
Thank goodness Jhonda decided to turn my Swimming 101 class into Remedial Swimming, or I would probably still be doing my patented pre-evolution swim-walk. When she suggested that I try to sit on the bottom of the pool, I thought she was crazy. Why on earth would I want to do that? There I was, afraid of water, unable to float, and unwilling even to put my face in the water, and this woman wanted me to sit on the bottom of the pool? As if.
I went to the side of the pool, and, after steeling my nerves for what seemed like hours, I tentatively went under--holding my nose.
Once I tried to come to rest at the bottom, it finally happened--the inevitable floating sensation everyone had been talking about . I might have spent hours and hours there suspended in this weightless world, had it not been for the pesky necessity of breathing. Now I can confidently glide around the shallow end of the pool, so long as I have some sort of PFD. (That's short for "personal flotation device.")
Now Jhonda says I've crossed the biggest barrier, and from here on out, it should be easy. Yeah well, we'll see.
I still have a long way to go--and that's just to get to the other end of the pool, but I still say the $50 I spent for swim lessons was one of the best 50 bucks I ever spent. I'm not trying to make the Olympic team; at this point I'm just trying not to suck.
By Michael McCall
Two days after the middle school shootings in Arkansas, a Weather Channel forecaster positioned the tip of her pointer inside the postage-stamp outline of the state and traced a storm cutting a path toward the Mississippi River. In solemn tones, she noted that the tornado-ready weather front was barreling toward Jonesboro, the small town that had been blown into the national limelight after a couple of boys, 11 and 13, shot down teachers and fellow students in the latest episode of schoolkids killing schoolkids.
For the first time since the slayings, I laughed while watching a news report about Jonesboro, a pleasant enough town where I spent most of my teens, attending high school and the first couple of years of college. With the suddenness of the air-shattering crack of a discharged bullet, Jonesboro had suddenly become a city worth mentioning, even on The Weather Channel. I shook my head and thought, if they're going to get flustered every time a tornado warning is issued in Jonesboro, then they're going to have a busy summer.
Like many other places in the South, Jonesboro gets tornado warnings as often as the subway breaks down in Brooklyn or small tremors rattle California. From spring until fall, the warnings are as common as afternoon rainstorms. Everyone I know who lives in Arkansas, just like everyone in certain parts of Oklahoma or Alabama, has seen a tornado blow across the landscape.
I saw several funnel clouds myself. Usually it happened while driving along a rural route. Once, some friends and I, returning from a camping trip at Lake Charles, saw a tornado tear its way through a barn in an open field; another time, I was behind the wheel of a van, delivering laundered sheets and towels to motels along U.S. Highway 63, when I watched a twister spin across an open field, uprooting trees and rocketing fence posts through the air. My only in-town tornado sighting came when, after hearing radio reports of a tornado touching down outside of Jonesboro, we climbed onto the three-story roof of a college dorm, where we could see the outline of the funnel as it moved in the distance. Each time, I was far enough away to be fascinated rather than threatened.
Then there was the tornado I didn't see, but felt. That time I ducked instead of gawking. That time it passed directly over my parents house--the first of two times, it turns out, that a twister would visit the place I lived while I was inside.
I was 16 at the time. It was a Saturday night in May, and I'd just returned home from stacking glass soda bottles in a cage behind a Lucky's Supermarket. I arrived shortly before midnight; my five younger brothers and sisters were asleep, and mom sat up with dad as he watched a John Wayne movie on television. I changed clothes and scooped out a bowl of ice cream, ignoring my mother's pleas for me to get in the shower before bedtime.
I'd driven home through a storm, and the rain had increased dramatically in the short time since I walked through the door. About 20 minutes after I came in, the power went out. This happened regularly, so it was no big deal. We found our way to bed, my mother griping about me resting my grimy body on clean sheets. I slept in the top of a trundle bed, my youngest brother next to me on the lower bunk. Across the room, two other brothers slept. A window was open next to them. With the covers down, I rested my head on a pillow and watched the trees in our backyard whip back and forth in the wind, the lightning occasionally brightening the leaves of two of the tall oaks that served as a border between backyards.
Suddenly, the storm increased. The trees that had been see-sawing from side to side disappeared from view. Rain started pelting me in the face, as the wind forced it into a horizontal jet of water that flew straight through the bedroom window. The house rumbled, and a roar of wind and debris created a deafening noise, nearly drowning out the screams of my mother from the next room. I grabbed my little brother from the bottom bed, pushed him into the gap between our bunks, and rolled on top of him. My gallantry came late; by then, the tornado was heading toward the center of town, where it would demolish an empty Wal-Mart and a darkened mall.
As the wind subsided, I could hear my sisters crying. I met my dad in the living room; we found each other by the sound of our voices in the pitch black. As he pulled back the drapes on a picture window, he gasped. Lightning still crackled. With each flash, we could see a pile of debris at least 10-feet tall in what had been our street.
Every house for a block in either direction sustained severe damage; many were destroyed, with inside rooms exposed due to collapsed walls or missing roofs. Our front and back yards were mountains of wood planks, bricks, furniture, and trees. Half of a Burger Chef sign rested a few feet from the back door, blown from four blocks away. We also found books from the 30-year-old high school building, a stately structure that had been razed by the winds.
There are few memories as vivid as a family of eight panicking in the dark. Children bawled, our father yelled and fretted, our mother nervously tried to calm us all. At 16, I felt a disembodied sense of exhilaration, of having experienced something dangerous and extraordinary. There were feelings of doom and fear and concern too. But, being young and foolhardy, I felt an electric current of aliveness to the moment. I wanted to run outside. But when I went to the door my father grabbed me, pulling me away and screaming about downed power lines and insanity.
The next day, I couldn't be stopped. Along with my next-door neighbor, Ronnie DePriest, I roamed the city for hours. We gawked at the sights: the small metal fishing boat with its pointed nose stuck into a utility pole, 15 feet off the ground; the car that had been lifted and dropped on the house across a street, sitting like the top of a sandwich on a carport with the family sedan underneath.
But what hit us hardest was the high school. We stared wide-eyed at wooden beams creasing desks where we had sat two days earlier. Then we looked at each other with shock as we remembered a prank we'd pulled, two nights before the storm. Five of us, out cruising and listening to eight-track tapes, bought two cans of white spray paint and painted a rough copy of the cover of Alice Cooper's School's Out album, on a brick wall in the school courtyard.
The day before the tornado had also been the last day of regular classes. Being 16, our deed haunted us. The title song of the album screeched on the radio all summer long: "School's out for summer. School's out forever. School's been blown to pieces...."
Did our act of vandalism somehow influence the gods and force the wrath of hell on our school? Was this horrible destruction brought on by five guys spray-painting a wall with a white heart and an arrow through it, the words SCHOOL'S OUT scrawled inside the large, curved lines? For the next couple of years, we'd whisper our secret, the swirling thoughts of a conspiracy of forces growing more plausible with each backseat bong hit.
The Weather Channel brought all this back. For two days, I'd been searching through the endlessly repeated newsreels from Jonesboro, picking out faces and names I could recognize, wondering if those murdered and injured might be sons and daughters of old friends and classmates. This kind of violence in Jonesboro seemed unfathomable to me. The tornado warning made better sense.
By Kay West
A couple of springs ago, I was in a department-store dressing room, engaged in the always humbling, borderline-depressive search for the one bathing suit that might accomplish what only plastic surgery can really do.
From the dressing room next door, there came a wail of such anguish, such despair, such agony that I froze. "I'm sooooooo faaaaaaaaaaat! Look at my legs! They're disgusting! They look like sausages! Look at my hips! They're huuuuuuuuuuuuge! My stomach is so horrible. I can't wear any of those! I'm never going out again. I haaaaaaaaaate myself!" Piteous weeping followed. A dressing-room door opened and slammed shut. I timidly opened the door of my little stall and looked outside, expecting to see a 200-pound roly-poly.
Instead, I saw a 15-year-old girl, about a size 5, maybe a 7. Her little denim shorts revealed not one itty-bitty pucker of cellulite.
Her beleaguered mother, arms filled with rejected bathing suits and mouth pinched in an expression of infinite patience, followed her. Attempting a little levity, I said, "I have a 5-year-old daughter. I don't know if I'm looking at my past or my future." The mother looked me dead in the eye and said tersely, "Both. Good luck."
For girls and women, unlike for men and boys, swimsuit season doesn't start on Memorial Day. Swimsuit season begins months before, as early as February, when the women's magazines that make a fortune off of our insecurities remind us that swimsuit season is just around the corner. They also warn us that, if we don't get our fat, lazy, cellulite-riddled butts, saggy bosoms, jiggly arms, bloated bellies, hippo hips, and lardo legs in motion, we might as well lock ourselves in the house and spare the civilized world the unmitigated horror of the mere sight of us.
Once they've got our undivided attention, the magazines pummel us with exercise tips, work-out programs--"Start Spinning!" "Run for Your Life!" "Walk It Off!"--and 60-day diet plans. If you start now, they promise, by the end of May, you will have a figure worth flaunting--or at least one that doesn't need to spend the entire summer under an oversized T-shirt.
In April comes the next deadly missile from the publishing world--the swimsuit issues. I'm not talking Sports Illustrated here. Everybody knows that one's a big wet dream--in every sense of the word.
No, it's our own silly women's magazines doing it to us once again. Take the May issue of Glamour for instance. A babeliscious blonde--maybe 19 years old--with sun-kissed, wind-blown hair, wears a fire-engine red bathing suit, her thumb hooked in the modified bikini bottom, the rounded tops of her perky breasts peaking out of the top. Her blue eyes gaze unflinchingly at the camera, her glossy lips are set in a Mona Lisa-esque smile. And what's her inscrutable message? "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful. Hate yourself because you'll never look like me. God knows, I don't even look like me."
Meanwhile, the cover screams: "NEWS! HELP! SOLUTIONS! WE TRIED ON 537 SUITS! MUST-HAVE SWIMSUIT GUIDE! PLUS FIND-YOUR-PERFECT-SUIT CHART!"
I know that there have been springs when I have personally tried on 537 swimsuits and still not found the perfect one. Glamour did much better--they found 16 perfect suits, including 10 bikinis, all of them modeled by, well, models. The swimsuit chronicle--the actual try-ons of the 537 suits--used real women. Real women without heads, since none of these real women--with real bodies and real hips and real legs and real stomachs--had the real nerve to show her face. They were all photographed from the neck down.
You already know the drill for the swimsuit chart: the most flattering styles for small busts, large busts, long torsos, wide waists, fat bellies, pear shapes, and larger sizes, but no model, no real woman, no artist's rendering. The suits just dangle there in white space. And do you know why? Because it's all a lie. It's not the "perfect" swimsuit they're trying to push on you. It' s the "perfect" body. And there is no such thing. You'll never see your perfect suit in the pages of a magazine. You'll only see it in your mind's eye.
That afternoon in the department store, as I listened to that distraught teenager and watched her weary mother, powerless to convince her daughter that she was a beautiful young girl with a body to be proud of, I flashed back to hysterical dressing-room battles with my own mother. They started with the uncontrollable advent of puberty. My hips were getting too big, and my breasts weren't getting big enough. My legs were strong and muscular, but not long enough. My torso was too long. Every ounce over my "ideal" weight--as defined by Seventeen magazine--was cause for recrimination and self-denial, so profound that, in my teens, I drove myself to the brink of an eating disorder.
When I got old enough to go shopping by myself, the dressing-room battles with my mother stopped--but the battles with my self-esteem went on and on, through my 20s, into my 30s, through two pregnancies and all the attendant body changes. Now, when I look at a photograph of myself, age 23, strolling beside a swimming pool and wearing a navy-blue bikini held together by three pieces of silver metal, I see a young woman who could hold her own with Ms. Glamour cover girl. At the time, all I saw was imperfection.
In your 40s, you find that, no matter what you do, uncontrollable things are happening to your body once again. But these days, I have more control over my mind--and my mind's eye--than I did in my teens and 20s and 30s.
Three years ago, in my 40th summer, I bought a two-piece bathing suit for the first time in about six years. I felt great in it, imperfections and all. I'll never again have the body I did as a 23-year-old, but lately I'm feeling better about myself at 43 than I did when I was 23.
A few weeks ago, my mother, the woman who dressed her own plump 8-year-old daughter in slimming tank suits, sent her 8-year-old granddaughter a two-piece bathing suit. Joy was so excited, she ran straight to her room to try it on. I watched her as she admired herself in the mirror. She wasn't judging her belly, still round with baby fat, or her strong, muscular legs, or the shape of her arms or the size of her hips. At 8, she wasn't filtering her self-worth through the impossible standards of beauty that we foist upon ourselves. She thought she looked beautiful. And she did. I long to feel that way again.
It certainly matters how others see us, but I hope I can show my daughter that what matters first and foremost is how we see ourselves. Watching my precious little girl in her perfect new bathing suit, I had the sense I could learn a few things from her as well.
By John Bridges
My Aunt Ludie Frances died in July. There would have been no point to her dying any other time. If she had died a month or so earlier, she would have had to compete with weddings. If she had died a couple of months later, in September, the children would have been back in school, thinking about football. If she had waited until the winter, her daughter, Ludie Dianne, would have had to turn the wall heater on in the living room.
My Aunt Ludie would have had to lie there, for the entire length of her visitation, with all the windows shut and the front door latched to keep it from banging in the wind. Nobody would have been able to stand in the front yard, not even the husbands smoking their Old Golds. There would have been no children running wild through the dirt yard. There would be no mothers screaming at them in a high, scraping whisper, "You children stop stirring up all that gravel. Don't you know somebody has died?"
People might have driven by on the highway, never knowing they were passing a house filled with abject sorrow and magnificent loss. Days later, during the Sunday-morning Prayer Moment, when they learned that my Aunt Ludie Frances had died, they would have let their mouths fall open in blank disbelief. "Miss Ludie Frances," they would say as soon as the Amens were over. "Lordy, I could have made her a cake." That afternoon, washing up the dinner dishes, they would pause and look out their kitchen windows and say, "Miss Ludie Frances. Lordy, you'd think somebody woulda let me know."
My Aunt Ludie Frances was too much of a lady to let that sort of thing happen. Two weeks before her death, she had called Ludie Dianne to her bedside and said, "Praise Jesus, Baby, it's July. I'm gonna have me an open coffin." Ludie Dianne, who was 52 years old and already a grandmother in her own right, said, "Mama, don't you be talking like that. Do you need to use the bedpan?"
My Aunt Ludie Frances said, "I don't want that Stayles woman putting my hair up, and I don't want that Chester Womble leaving cigarette butts all over my yard, with people passing through." Ludie Dianne turned on the oscillating floor fan and said, "Mama...."
My Aunt Ludie Frances said, "If Lorene Pouty brings her stuffed eggs, make sure you don't leave 'em sitting out on the table." She said, "I don't want anybody throwing up on account of me."
Ludie Dianne said, "Mama, if you keep talking like this, I am gonna go in the living room and turn on the radio." My Aunt Ludie Frances said, "And I want Big Bubba to play the piano. Don't you stop him from playing anything he wants to--not even if he wants to play 'Down Yonder' or 'Your Cheatin' Heart.' "
Big Bubba was Ludie Dianne's only brother. He was five-and-a-half years older than her, but he had the brain of a 4-year-old. At Christmas every year, he asked for a six-pane mullioned window. In the afternoon, he stood in the front yard and listened for trains. Every Christmas, my Aunt Ludie Frances and her husband, my Uncle Olmer, gave him another window. Then he would sit down and play whorehouse honky-tonk on the piano. My Aunt Ludie Frances would sit listening, her hands folded and still in her lap. She would turn to my Uncle Olmer and say, "You know this is the Devil's music, don't you?" Then she would turn to me and to my mother and to anyone else who was listening and say, "You know, if he wasn't retarded, Big Bubba would already be burning in hell."
That's why, on that July morning, Ludie Dianne knew my Aunt Ludie Frances meant business about the stuffed eggs and about who was going to give her a final comb-out. She knew my Aunt Ludie Frances had already picked her dress out and made her peace with Jesus. Ludie Dianne said, "Mama, I am calling that doctor right now."
Two weeks later, my Aunt Ludie Frances was gone. There had been just enough time for people to make casseroles and put them away in the freezer. There had been just enough time for the florist to order extra carnations and pom-pon mums. There had been plenty of time for children to calm down from the Fourth of July. For two days, cars were parked, bumper to bumper, along both sides of the highway at the foot of my Aunt Ludie Frances' driveway.
The heat had descended in earnest, but still women made pot after pot of hot coffee. There were platters of fried chicken and pot roasts and green beans and potato salad. There were so many stuffed eggs that nobody could keep track which ones had come from Lorene Pouty. In the front yard, every afternoon, the men showed up in short-sleeve white shirts and stood underneath the chinaberry tree and smoked their cigarettes. Every afternoon, in the backyard, one of the men would crank a freezer of vanilla ice cream.
Then, when the funeral could not be postponed any longer, pickup trucks arrived at the house. Women and their little girls piled the beds of the pickups high with sprays and wreaths from the florist. Along with their husbands, they climbed into their cars and followed the trucks to the church, the carnations and football-corsage mums bouncing and jiggling in the noonday heat.
Even if people helped unload the flowers into the church, they still were not guaranteed seats in the pews. Instead, the undertakers filed them past my Aunt Ludie Frances' casket and out into the churchyard. But still they had no problem hearing the sermon. Because it was July and because there was no air-conditioning, the crackled-glass windows of the church were pushed open. The people in the churchyard listened as the preacher preached from the Book of Proverbs and told about what the word "Mother" means. They wiped their foreheads with their handkerchiefs and listened as, from deep inside the church, the piano began to rumble and Big Bubba laid into "Chattanooga Choo-Choo."
Some of the women turned to each other and said, "Well, I'm sure glad Miss Ludie Frances isn't around to hear that." Big Bubba segued into "Mr. Sandman, Bring Me a Dream."
By Francesca Monga
Summer, as L.L. Bean sees it, does not really exist. It is a myth; a mass delusion.
L.L. Bean defines summer as pine trees, mountain streams, and small, furry woodland creatures. It is supposed to summon up that feeling in your stomach as your grandfather thrusts the head of a fish hook through the squishy midsection of a worm. It is supposed to be about self-reliance, living off the land, and the sun shining on Walden Pond as Thoreau jumps out of bed singing to greet the new day.
This version of summer is somehow ingrained in our communal memory. So, as the days grow longer and the heat index rises, we renew our subscription to American Backpacker and sigh over glossy National Geographic spreads of sinewy men carrying all their worldly possessions in a small sack made of goatskin. That's when we buy boots made for serious hikers and start flipping through maps of Colorado, Utah, and Nepal. It is when we remember that our grandparents hiked over hill and dale to school and ate grits for a year because crops were bad.
For some reason, summer is the time when our relationship with Mother Nature is supposed to be less dysfunctional than usual. Because of such warped thinking, millions of people sit on couches and easy chairs, in air-conditioned comfort, with tall glasses of iced tea grasped firmly in their hands, and feel terribly, horribly guilty. They look at images on their television screens of crazed hikers in the Sahara, half mad with heat, and they think, "That should be me." When the newly acquired Lawrence of Arabia outfit takes its place in the attic on top of the pristine boots, the guilt rages anew.
Guilt is not an inherently evil emotion. There are moments when it fulfills a need. Murder for instance, or grand larceny, are both good reasons for guilt. But summer is not a moral dilemma; there is no correct choice to be made or avoided.
When I look back on the summers of my childhood, I do not remember pine trees, mountain streams, or woodland creatures. My grandfather did not teach me how to navigate a canoe by the North Star or how to stop a hemorrhaging wound with moss the way our Indian forebears did. Instead, I remember singeing the skin off the bottom of my feet before I learned how hot blacktop can get. I remember cars honking and air thick with exhaust. I remember the imprint of the sidewalk on my knees as I leaned in toward my grandfather, who taught me to make not household utensils out of rawhide, but a grasshopper trap out of weeds.
A grasshopper trap is a small contraption, a few inches long and made of grass. Its name implies a survival tool on a par with matches and flint, a tent, or a Swiss army knife, but I have never had an occasion to use a grasshopper trap, and I doubt many other people have either. Grasshoppers are not the intellectual giants of the insect world, but for one to jump into a grass snare, however finely woven, would be asking for a ritual disembowelment, an act of stupidity beyond the range even of grasshoppers.
As a 6-year-old, I did not realize this. In fact, before the summer heat began to crumble and my school shoes started glaring menacingly at me from the corner of my closet, I made enough traps to threaten the entire grasshopper population. I made them and left them in the yard to decompose, without once trying to bait one.
Some people might say this was an exercise in futility. The same people who think summer is about worms and fish hooks and the yeasty smell of nature would probably argue that a grasshopper trap has not served its purpose until a grasshopper has been discovered inside it. Since the probability of ever luring a grasshopper into such a trap is infinitesimal, skeptics would be inclined to question whether the traps even need to exist.
They would say my grandfather would have been wiser to teach me how to skin a bear and sleep in its carcass when caught in a blizzard. But I believe what my grandfather taught me was the most important survival skill of all. The value of a grasshopper trap is not measured in terms of utility. The worth of a grasshopper trap is the feel of the grass between your fingers, the feel of the cement against your bare knees, and the building of it in the company of a loved one.
Such measurements are not quantifiable. And that means no one person's grasshopper trap is more useful than anyone else's. No one can say that, by not catching any grasshoppers, you are disappointing generations of ancestors and failing to live up to your potential. Perhaps it is a Sisyphean effort. But as I sit on my back steps, weaving my grasshopper traps, surrounded by a thriving population of grasshoppers, in the glare of a sun unbroken by a canopy of fir trees, and the smell of exhaust unmitigated by mountain air, I don't find myself regretting death, the laws of gravity, the infrastructure of the cosmos, or any of life's other inevitables. L.L. Bean can have his summer, as long as he lets me have mine.
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