The Longest Day in a Long, Long Year

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.

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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?)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Rockhead Family Invents Flagger’s Day

Father's Day

This year, she decided, was going to be different.  This year, Father’s Day was not going to sneak up on her, sending her scurrying to the all night Wal-Mart as the eve melted into the day. She would not be groping through the picked over remnants in the seasonal card rack, looking for something vaguely appropriate.  She would not be waking her son at 9:00 on the day itself, hissing, “Sign this!” before bundling a festive load of goodies downstairs, trilling, “Happy Father’s Day, Hon!” as if this had all, somehow, been planned and executed well before.

This year, she would not be trying to pitch fried egg and bologna sandwiches as a cool, festive breakfast–a retro flashback to early fatherhood days.

This year, it was going to be GOOD.

On Wednesday afternoon, she took a couple of hours of personal time.  She dragged the At-Home Son to the department store, and there they pored over the fully stocked shelves of Father’s Day cards.  They picked out cards that were just exactly right.  And they got cards for the Married And A Daddy And Living Far Away Son, too.

They purchased two frames: a collage board that would hold a dozen pictures, and a rustic wooden frame he could stand proudly on his desk at work.

At the supermarket, they bought breakfast goodies–a loaf of sliced Italian bread, and steak sliced so thin it would cook in seconds and cut like butter with the edge of a fork.  She would get a dozen fresh eggs from a colleague whose kids kept hens.   They would make French toast and broil the little steaks for breakfast.

At home, she got on the Internet and explored, and she located a salvage place one could wander through, soaking in inspiration.  The owners gleaned the good stuff from old and abandoned buildings, from buildings destined for the wrecking ball, and they refurbished it, or they repurposed it.  They had a multilevel store full of wonders.

She showed the site to the at-home son.  They agreed: Father’s Day destination. They bumped fists.  They said, “This year, we have nailed the Father’s Day celebration.”

They forgot about the cards in the drawer until Saturday.

“Oh, SHOOT!” she said, and she dug them out.  She addressed the card to Far Away Son; the other boy, and the dad, both signed it.  The dad drove it over to the post office, sheepishly. He had forgotten all about Father’s Day.

When the dad came home, he said, “Well, at least he should get it Monday. And I’ll call him tomorrow.”

As they ate their barbecued chicken and home fries, it began to pour, and then to thunder.  They watched a movie (Maleficent) together, the three of them.  The little dog shivered on her lap as each illumination signaled another thundering crash.  When they went to bed that night, the rain was still coming down.

But in the morning, the world was fresh-washed. She was up by 5:45 AM; the little dog trotted downstairs at her heels, and they got the leash and went out into the sparkling morning.  The dog performed nobly and diligently.  She picked up the newspapers from the front yard, and took them in–local, regional, New York Times.

She made her coffee and did the crossword puzzle and the cryptoquip while the boys slept on.  She got out the cards and the picture frames.  She took the little steaks out of the freezer and arranged them on the cooking sheet.  She cracked the fat brown eggs into a bowl. She whipped a frothy egg bath for the French toast, an egg bath scented with nutmeg and cinnamon and vanilla.

The dad came down then, and she woke up the boy, and he gave his father the cards.

“Aw,” said the dad. “Aw. Thanks, Buddy.”

They looked through the photos on the collage–photos of the dad with his own father, who was no longer available on this earth to call and wish a Happy Father’s Day. There were photos of the dad as a toddler, of the dad with a baby son on his shoulder.  There were photos at his grad school graduation, a hulking boy under each arm, all three beaming.  There were photos of his whole extended family gathered around the legendary family table, a time when the sons had become fathers and three generations gathered to share some sauce and pasta, to laugh and to reminisce.

The dad looked through all the pictures solemnly.  He stood the single frame, with its picture of himself and the two boys when they were youngsters, on the table.  There was a silence, and when he looked up, his eyes were glistening.  He said thanks, and then he said he thought he’d go and message his brothers and the Far Away Boy, send them a greeting that would be a little more serious than ones he might have sent in years past.

He took his phone out onto the screened in porch. He spent some time composing a message, and then he sent it off.

Meantime, she turned on the broiler and heated up the griddle and the boy got out plates and silverware; he made his dad a cup of steaming tea, and he poured glasses of juice for everyone. The steak was broiling and the toast was dancing in a sizzling pan when the dad came into the kitchen.

He seemed thoughtful.

“Look at this,” he said. He held out his phone.

There was a message from his brother. It said, “Thanks for the lovely sentiment.  But it’s FLAG day, you horse’s butt.  Father’s Day is NEXT week.”

“What!” she cried, and they whirled, the three of them as a unit, and they peered at the calendar hanging by the picture window.  And damn, it was true: they were celebrating Father’s Day one entire week early.

They stared at each, stricken.  One or two of them might have been thinking, “Whom can I blame?” But each of them was in it up to their mighty waistlines.

“Well,” she said, slowly, [there has to be an upside], “well…” and she brightened. “Hey! At least Far Away Boy will get his card on time!”

A pause; a breath; a long exhale; and they exploded into laughter.  What eejits we are! What rockheads! What a buncha maroons!

Breakfast was lovely, and they lingered over it, and then, working as a team, they cleaned up the dishes and made themselves presentable, and they took the road trip to the salvage place.

And what a wonder that was.  The dad wandered, picking up old door handles, rescued wood, smoothed and gleaming, and vintage tools that looked as though they might still work.  The boy exclaimed over steam punk creations. There were towering doors of precious solid wood, and sculptures, and sturdy, rusting outdoor chairs; there were corbels and radios and signs with the lettering rubbed fine by time.

She took their picture in front of a huge old stone statue of David, rescued from some august building. He towered over their heads, four feet taller than they.  They positioned themselves neatly to hide any other towering attributes.

They had lunch at a favorite grill–burgers and club sandwiches, fries crisp and perfect.  They went to the bookstore nearby and each found a long-sought treasure.

They drove the fifty miles back to their own little city, and, on impulse, they stopped at the coffee shop and sipped steaming brews and read their new books.

At home, they went off to take care of their own stuff, and then, about 8 PM, they all wound up in the kitchen for a nosh.  They agreed it had been a very nice Sunday, even if they had totally blown the celebration of Father’s Day.

“Eh,” said the At-Home Son. “Flag Day, Father’s Day. Flagger’s Day!  Who’s to say?”

The three of them pondered that.  Flagger’s Day, indeed.

She thought about flagging–flagging spirits, flagging energy, joy and hope that flag and fade.  And she thought it might not be a bad idea to have a floating holiday called Flagger’s Day: a day to refresh and give a thoughtful gift or two, to cook a special breakfast. To take a trip that was purely fun. A day all flaggers could replenish.

“I think,” she said, “that we should do this every year, the second Sunday in June: celebrate Flagger’s Day.  Do something fun and refreshing.”

The Dad and The Son agreed, solemnly; that, they said, is just what we will do.

Or, she thought, anytime, really. We can celebrate Flagger’s Day anytime we’re feeling sapped or depleted.  And anyone can call it,–anyone whose fuel tank is desperately low has the right to say, “I call Flagger’s Day!” and the whole unit will spin into planning.

A new holiday, she thought, a new observance–a new thing to look forward to.  Not such a bad thing.

Now she just had to figure out what to do next week when real Father’s Day rolled around.