Late Summer Tears
You don’t have to weep with me–not wrenching sobs at any rate, just a slow seep of wet, honoring the clouds of green and scimitars of swallows twittering against high blue. Mornings on the deck with black and white Julia pinned beside me, a red-splashed finch goes time and again to select sunflower seeds, while one, no two fledglings peep incessantly from the crap apple tree. Their wings flutter, the almost universal sign of baby-bird begging. Only a sudden movement startles them and they fly off together.
Maybe ten days ago, huge jay teens pined for food as their parents (hard to tell father from mother) ignored them. Now on their own, these goofy loud oafs fly in and claim the place, their head feathers not quite formed for adulthood, their wings and tails not quite adult blue with crisp black stripes. They command any perch they choose, though usually one holds back to act as sentry with a loud, “Caw, caw,” or a funny “click, click, gurgle,” which I can’t translate. Not a danger sign, I think, but some family jay-chatter meant only for familiar ears.
The season is tending toward its end, making these pleasures bitter-sweet. When the State Fair begins late August, it’s almost always intensely hot and humid. Once when my daughter answered phones in the cow barns, I’d call her up just to hear her mushy voice, nearly drowning in her own sweat. We still have a week before the pops of fireworks begin to light up the northern sky, and I can almost hear the disk-jockeys announcing either a tune or a heifer.
And why does any of this bring on tears? Because the green fuse is almost burnt out, and I pine for the season’s already fleeting beauty. The glory of lilies is over, now comes the brazen tall-as-a man sunflowers. Yet, even amid these stanch portrayals of summer, even more than in winter, when we hunker into ourselves, summer ghosts flit among the zinnias. And there I am sitting in my mother’s place, mid-morning of a hot South Carolina summer’s day. It’s her back porch, not unlike my back deck, and there’s the shade of a maple she planted after Hurricane Hugo made off with some older tree or another. Her maple was not as sky-high as mine, brushing the air with enormous billows of green, but it was full enough for lovely shade. She had jays too, and flickers, sticking their long beaks in the ground looking for grubs.
As she ate her breakfast on a tray–always the same cereal with milk and a banana–she and Cindy, the dog of her solitude, low to the ground and wire-haired gray, perused the yard happenings. It was both her love of the outdoors, her tender care of trees and flowers and hydrangeas which she turned blue by burying some metal at their roots, as well as her solitude, facing the morning alone with her big empty house at her back (mine is not empty but I forget that)–both make me tear-up.
Maybe I sense I have become her, and unlike my resistance of years gone by, I don’t mind so much. In fact, I honor her for making the day and the season and the active life of her yard as important to her as life itself. For it was much of her life then. She had no husband or work, no nearby offspring to bring her out of herself. But the wider world was sufficient. Whether she wrapped up in raincoat and headscarf or wore only a thin cotton shift–she found her life in touch with the red birds and azaleas, the jays and mocking birds, the maples and sycamores, the breeze and scent of Charleston harbor way off in the distance.
When my sister or I did arrive, she talked incessantly, as if she’d saved up a thousand things to tell us. But I wasn’t fooled. She was always shyer than she wanted to let on, and talk covered her joy in our visit, her need to be hostess and keep the party going. But it’s not her conversation I remember, but the rapt attention to a “green thought it a green shade,” that I honor. This phrase from Andrew Marvell’s 17th century poem, “The Garden,” captures exactly that twining of leaf and memory that brings me almost perfectly in line with her shape, years ago facing the last heat of summer.
Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness :
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find ;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas ;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.