It is the end of the longest, lightest day of the year, and, at 9:10 p.m., the world around me is only just beginning to darken. I sit out on the little back porch, on a bench I bought at WalMart thirty years ago. That bench’s shiny surface grew annoying at some point. I roughed it up and smoothed it down and smudged in some black paint on corners and crevices, covered it over with white, and then randomly hit it with the sander so that, in spots, the underlayers show.
Then I layered on a clear matte coat so we could put that piece outside.
The bench has been on the back porch for nine years now. My original attempts at distressing it have become redundant. I lean back on the still sturdy, aging back rest, and I bump up against the mop I laid to dry today, after I washed the kitchen and bathroom floors, along the top of it. I settle the mop handle with my shoulders, and I sit in the cooling, but not chill, night.
I am watching fireflies.
We discovered wonders when we moved here to the heartland; one, the first summer we came to Ohio, was driving through highways banked with sunflowers bobbing and weaving,–miles and miles of them. Someone—some county government, some coalitions of towns,–decided to border their roads with thick, lush rows of sunflowers. Endless ridges of sunflowers, the most cheerful flower I know, welcomed us—uninitiated strangers—to the land.
Fireflies were another wonder-filled revelation; on hot dry nights in late June and early July, our yards would fill with blinking, staggering, emphatic pinpricks of light. It was unexpected entertainment of the environmental variety.
Oh, we had the occasional firefly in New York State. It’s not like they were unknown. As a child, I tried to capture them in old glass mayonnaise jars; luckily, I was slow and seldom successful…and not really avid about getting up close and personal with insects, anyway. My brothers were more adept; their bedroom often hosted sad winged beings in those glass jars whose metal tops were pierced, over and over, by a thick nail. They hoped, maybe, my brothers, for a natural sort of nightlight to gentle them off to sleep.
There, at any rate, fireflies were rare enough that they were kind of a triumph to capture.
But here! Here, the yards host a floating, drifting light show: the magic and the science of bugs that cast an outrageous electrical glow.
So tonight, I sit and watch, and I notice a lone, late robin hopping on the lawn. It waits for long pauses, and then it hops forward, and I suddenly get it (maybe): it’s watching for glowworms to signal their potential mates. Another robin, fat and puffed, lights on the lowest branch of the magnolia bush, head cocked. Soon it is hopping in the grass, too, then stopping and dipping its beak.
If those robins are munching on glow worms, then what a dangerous mating dance this is, and what boldness, what bravery, those fireflies’ partners show: risking everything for one night’s, one moment’s, burst of passion.
(If one eats a glowworm, does one’s belly glow?)
Somewhere, somebody sends off a premature firecracker; just practicing, you know: getting in the swing of things before July 4th rolls around. There’s no little dog, this year, to panic at the booms, to jump shivering into my bed and tremble, panting, on my chest, breathing hot, nervous dog breath insistently up my sleepy nose.
No little dog to be frightened of fireworks, or of thunder either; this season brings storms, too, and last week they tore through, scattering leaves and old dry branches, leaving the world cooled, refreshed, and littered.
We were lucky, I had thought: no damage. But this week, I woke one dark night-middle and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I crept downstairs to snuggle in the reading chair and read myself back into nocturnal oblivion. And when I had turned on the lamp and pulled the throw over my always chilly toes, found the page in my book, and begun to read, I realized there was a new, unusual noise. It was a weary whooshing, like a very old Darth Vader’s rhythmic labored breathing, and it was coming from the refrigerator. The noise whooshed me off to sleep.
The next day we checked things out. The freezer was warming up; the whooshing was getting louder. We moved the most vulnerable food to the freezers downstairs, and we pulled the fridge away from the wall. My God, the dust and debris! We vacuumed off every dusty surface, and we turned the chill settings on to high, and the bulky old thing seemed to rally.
But not for long. Soon the respite was over, and the Big Black Box was gasping for breath once more, and we thought about repairs and weighed that cost against a purchase. Last night we went and ordered a new refrigerator, and we got a matching new stove, to boot.
I never considered the why of the fridge’s failure, just thought about appliance age and planned obsolescence and the inevitable fact that when you have a little mad money set aside some compelling reason to spend it will arise. And then my friend Terry texted that her garage refrigerator and freezer were both storm-shocked, and that she and Paul just replaced the two of them.
Do you suppose, I said to Mark, the storm surge hit our refrigerator, too?
He sank his chin into the cup of his hand.
That could be so, he said.
The summer storms have no little dog to scare, but they wreak other havoc,–this particular bit of havoc, thank goodness, easily enough solved.
My friend Wendy texts that the pool in her village will not open this year. She goes to that pool religiously, in season; they reserve an hour, each day, from 5-6 p.m., for ‘adults.’ That technically means anyone 18 and over, but in reality, the kids disappear, and their parents, and the youngish singles, and the senior citizens take over. Those people of a certain age are free to power down the lanes or to drift and chat, to sluice cleanly into the deep end, or to chug along gamely. Or even just to dangle feet in the turquoise waters, idly talking to an equally dabbling friend.
Wendy does laps. When I visit, once or twice a summer, I tag along, and the people who work there, the elders who swim there, have all started to look familiar. That daily hour is an important and refreshing part of summer for Wendy, and I can sense her disappointment when I read her text.
That same day a Facebook post pops up from one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Berg. She reminisces about going to the pool as a girl; she lived on a military base, pool provided, and summer days meant long hours spent in the water.
“We learned to dive, but some of us, I’m not saying who, were too chicken to dive off the high dive. Some of us merely jumped off it with our toes pointed, which we felt was good enough,” Berg writes, and oh, I remember.
I remember, in particular, a trip to Letchworth State Park where, having newly earned my Red Cross swimmer’s certificate (kind of like a swimming license, I thought), I spent hours with my friend Mary Jane, jumping off the high dive into the crystalline water. It was such a thrill: plodding, cautious ME, doing this daring thing.
I jumped and swam to the ladder, padded back to the line. Ascended to the top, jumped, and swam to the ladder.
Once, I think, in a true fit of derring-do, I jumped BACKWARD. MJ (who was always more nimble and athletic), if I remember right, actually DOVE.
On one of my trips back to the line, the lifeguard stopped me.
“You’re getting too tired,” he said. “Take a break,” and he pointed to a bench.
“I’m NOT tired,” I wailed, and my eyes filled with tears, but he was adamant.
I went and sat, disgraced, until ages had passed—ten minutes, probably—and I was allowed back in the queue.
Earlier this week, James and I were driving off to the hospital’s walking trail when we saw a young mother and daughter walking. The girl was maybe six, long haired, lanky, and unhappy. The two stopped and bantered, and the mother grew angry, we could tell. At one point, she grabbed the little girl’s arm, and the child pulled in the opposite direction, pulled with that attitude of complete scorn and negation, and the rigidness of tears very near the surface.
That child needs a long visit to a cold pool, I thought, and then I realized that probably won’t happen this year.
We have hundreds of children who have home-schooled since March. For them, that feeling of endless summer, sculpted on the last day of classes when you say goodbye for now to many and plot adventures with the intimates of your inner circle—adventures that surely and always include SWIMMING—will not happen.
Endless boredom, maybe, that feeling will morph into, having rebelliously completed schoolwork online, aching to escape to something else, and wandering into ennui. And then finding that summer, really, was just more of the same, without the homework.
It is Father’s Day, and the sun shines strong. We drive to the doughnut shop, but the line wends out the door and around the building; cars line up, waiting for a parking place. We know that, if we queued, we’d probably finally arrive at emptied shelves and paltry choices.
We go home, and I make a streusel top coffee cake instead, and we eat it with scrambled eggs studded with ham. Mark opens his cards and gifts, and then we drive to a campus about thirty miles away, and we walk. It is hot on the pavement, hot in the sun; the sun cooks our backs, and the shady spaces feel like blessings. We walk and we walk, and then we pile back into the car and drive home, where, instead of lunch, we each have a thick slab of Father’s Day ice cream cake.
Ice cream: the reward, in summer, for braving the hot outdoors.
Later, Mark grills steaks, and we eat them with hand-cut fettucine noodles and crunchy cut veggies with homemade sour cream and onion dip. That food, too, tastes like summer.
Mark starts a fire at day’s end; it blazes, and we pull our chairs to the windless side and settle in. Across the alley, someone is calling and calling, looking for their dogs. Kids’ voices rise and fall; a basketball smacks against a backboard, and the voices rise again, arguing.
Cars whoosh by in the distance. There’s the sad wail of a siren.
And rain begins to fall, quelling the fire. We move the chairs onto the porch; the breeze blows brisk, and I think that the plants I just put in, butterfly magnets from the Soil and Water District, won’t need watering tonight.
I had forgotten: summer means rain, too, sudden upstart showers, quenching and slowing things down. Soil preens beneath the huge drops that fall insistently. A rich, loamy smell circles.
One of my students wrote in a discussion board post, “This is a crazy, frightening world. I don’t recognize it, and it scares me.” She was talking about the death of people because of the pigment of their skin. She was talking about working in a nursing home and then returning to her family, hoping she wasn’t carrying a virus that would make them all sick. She was talking about having to take all her courses on line, and about not knowing if her kids would go back to school in the fall, if violence would break out at a memorial service, or if it would be safe to visit the zoo this year.
It IS a crazy, frightening world. The fear and the uncertainty settle in us, inhabit our bones, populate our dreams with weird and threatening characters.
And yet: summer comes: the lightning strikes, the pop-up showers, the relentless sun. The solace of a shady spot; the plants that grow in spite of everything.
The cool and dewy mornings when I can’t help it: against all odds, I bask in promise.
The nights when fireflies dance.
Summer bears potential; summer forces growth.
It’s hard to say what’s growing this summer, only that the soil seems to be teeming, especially fertile, and seeds are being planted. Something will surely come forth, strong and possibly unexpected.
We will have to be vigilant this summer, tilling what we can, weeding what threatens, investing our hope that the harvest will be worth the wait.