Since I seem to have born with an academic calendar in my head, mid-May to Labor Day is a season out of time and work. Especially in the last five years since I’ve declared verboten any teaching during the summer.
It takes me around six weeks to recover from the academic year–I drift around the house and yard, gaze adoringly at my deck-boxes of petunias, marigolds, pansies and zinnias. Push my faces into huge peonies and inhale their sweetness. Stand on porch or deck and watch chickadees, cardinals, blue jays, and a bevy of finches eat up the sunflower seeds.
I make lunch dates with friends I’ve missed for the winter months, go to Italy for 10 days, and move the winter clothes to the third-floor attic, bringing the summer clothes down.
When I was a girl living in Charleston, South Carolina, no school had air-conditioning, and even early May could become muggy and unbearable in classrooms filled with sweating, hormonal teens. My summer reading started almost the minute school let out. I don’t remember being made to work at home, except washing dishes and helping my mother wax the hardwood floors.
Since my father taught summer school at The Citadel, the house was quiet, especially in the long afternoons when my mother took her nap in my upstairs bedroom. I stretched out on the living room couch, shorts tight around my thighs, a book propped on my midriff.
It’s that position, entirely languid, entirely self-absorbed that comes back to me now. And the books? The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone, a fictionalization of Michaelangelo’s life. I remember nothing except the title. War and Peace to Leo Tolstoy–so heavy, holding it up gave me wrist pain. I still haven’t reread it. Anna Karenina–this I have listened to many times on disc–a model for idyllic versus quietly tragic adulthood.
Oddly enough, the books from those long, heat-filled days that actually still call up images are Look Homeward, Angel, by Thomas Wolfe and Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. I think their impression on me have everything to do with the family dynamics they depicted–boys of troubled, yet loving parents. The only female characters that I wanted to emulate were the crinolined Southern belles of the historical romances I consumed, including Gone With the Wind. But these were fantasies even I in my dreamy summer mood had to acknowledge were fantasies. No matter how I swished my own crinolines, my cat glasses and heavy dark hair, lack of much bust-line, and rather dance moves–all precluded my becoming a heroine of that variety.
Probably a good thing. But Oliver Gant, the father in Look Homeward, Angel, though an alcoholic, was loving and bookish, and adored his son, while the mother of the tale was hard-working and long-suffering, not unlike my own. This may have been the first time I actually saw glimmers of my own life in literature, glints and glimmers I’ve been chasing ever since.