Wednesday, September 8, 2010


summer is one of those things that seems never to really happen, because it's different than it was when i was young. so summer was a part of my long-ago childhood.  i can catch that elusive feeling in memory, but briefly and a bit painfully.

it's not like i did a lot in summer, or any other season, as a kid.  sometimes my father would drag us to the beach, which i usually didn't like much. the water was briefly fun; so was drying off on the sheet.  i remember once falling under a wave and trying to get up and getting knocked down again, and knowing i would never ever get up again and my father didn't know i'd fallen so he wouldn't save me and i'd drown.

it seemed like long minutes or half an hour but when i finally got myself up pop was right beside me and didn't know i'd fallen, so it can't have been more than a few seconds.

pop told me and my brothers about sand crabs, so we dug for them, right where the white bubbles of the waves touched the shore.  you'd  shove your hand into the wet sand, and pull up a handful of sand, often with a sandcrab in it.  the crab would patiently wait you out, or sometimes sit on your hand, and they never tried to bite you or get away.  they were beautiful creatures, like marble tinted with rays of soft and near-invisible blue.  their long, thin legs tickled the palms of your hand.  and then you let them go into  the sand again, and it felt like a very important visit had happened.

at home, we played punchball in the street; i stunk, as i did in any sport, and never played long.  more fun was stoop-ball,  on sylvia's large stoop.

once i tried to climb into a fat lowbranched tree, so i could sit there and read. it was uncomfortable and i didn't like it, but i was reading little women and jo climbed into trees to read, and i wanted to be just like jo. i called myself a tomboy, which my parents disliked, and which in fact i wasn't.  i wasn't a girly girl though, and tomboy was the only alternative i knew.  i should have known, through alcott's books, that there was another word that did fit: i was a bookworm.   sometimes i sat out in the backyard to read. but reading wasn't an especially summer thing; there was no time of year i couldn't curl up on my bed or in a chair and get lost in a book. there still isn't.

we had a little swingset in the backyard, and i would spend hours on the swing, daydreaming and thinking.  i loved those times, but only when i was alone. opposite me from the swings was our garage window, dirty, and with a dark, hard-to-see reflection of me.  i loved the girl in the window. she was mysterious and lovely, and i knew she was smarter and stronger and far less vulnerable than i was, and i felt like she looked after me.  when i was 10 my five year old brother would come out and start hassling me on the swings. i don't remember what he did or said, but i hated it. his presence made the world real again, it took away the power of the karen in the window.  i would yell at him and he wouldn't stop; i would tell my mother but she'd say, leave him alone, he's younger than you. one day sitting next to me on the other swing he started up.  i raised my hand, and i meant to say, 'stop or i'll hit you.' instead, the hand, of its own volition,  threw itself at him, hard, and knocked him off the swing.  my mother was furious and yelled, and probably punished me, but i didn't care. hitting him was a joyful, freeing experience, surprising me as much as it did him and mom.
that was how i told the story, for years--the arm took over and hit him.  i loved the story. then one year i was telling it to my shrink, laura, and i heard myself say, "and then i came out of the window and hit him!"  so i was right; she had been looking after me.  [there's more to the story of me and the girl in the window, but it's a different story than this one.]

the  summer thing that stays most in my soul, though, that defines the petite-madeleine quality of summer, was summer evenings sitting on our tiny porch.  there must have been other people with us at other times, but i remember only as me alone, or with one or both of my parents.  we talked, if at all, softly. the sun had gone down, and it was slowly, slowly, turning dark.  i put my hand out, and a firefly would land on it. it was a wonderful thing to hold a firefly. other bugs would flee if you went near them, but the fireflies were friendly. the only thing was, that when they sat on your hand, the light went out of the firefly, and it was just an ordinary insect with reddish wings.  but you knew it had the fire, that was how you'd seen it in the first place, and you knew the fire would return as soon as the firefly left.  it was sociable, but its fire belonged only to itself.  and the night slowly darkened and soon i couldn't see the purple hydrangea bush next to the stoop----those wonderful huge flowers that were made up of dozens of tiny flowers.  i liked blue ones better, but i got to watch them in the front yard across the street, where the   vasquezes lived--tony, charley, and beautiful baby linda, and their parents poppy and peppy, and their grandmother, yaya-sinya.  everyone was afraid of yaya-sinya.  but she couldn't stop anyone from looking at her blue hydrangeas.

somehow over time, summer got away from me. i still use the word summer, but i don't think it, or feel it: it's just the hot weather.  but in recent years i've evolved other seasonal rituals, even passions.  i still love to sit outside and read; failing that, to sit as close to the open window as possible to feel the breeze through my experience with the book.   i enjoy the beach now and then, but have never again found sandcrabs.  there is no more window with strong-karen watching over me, but i live alone, and strong-karen is now part of me, not distanced.  i think if i hit anyone now, i'd know it was me doing it--not my independent arm, and not the karen in the window.

i love summer trees--i love all-season trees. there are great big trees outside my window, and my windows are big here.  lying in bed or on the couch, i see nothing but the trees: they block out the  street and the very handy but unlovely supermarket across the way.   i love the smell of the ocean.  mostly, and fiercely, i love the weeds that grow out of the cement ground, pushing their way up toward the sun.  the best ones are on the tram tracks.  i wait for the train and i watch these tiny tough plants.  some are actually on the tracks themselves, so they must be run over a lot. they don't seem to mind it; they don't break, they just keep on growing. the prettiest though are on the sides. most are just leaves, leaves of many different shapes, curling into themselves or reaching upward, acting like they thought they were the most wonderful plants in the world, whatever the silly gardeners thought about them.  a lot are flowered: one looks like a doll's house sunflower, a perfect miniature.  some are like dandelions until you look closer. some, tiny daisies.  lots of yellows, then. but bushy pink ones too. relatives, perhaps, of my long-ago fireflies.

their presence is an incredible gift--small gardens with no work put into them, simply appearing, with no need to be admired.  and they are everywhere--everywhere dirty, abandoned, untended.  once, walking past a row of scruffy old apartment buildings with filthy windows, i saw the wall of one building nearly covered with ivy-type weeds, climbing up the side.  there was a potted plant inside one window. one of the ivies had climbed up just that far, and they looked for all the world like old friends passing each other unexpectedly and stopping to chat.

1 comment:

Ken G. said...

I like the idea of Window Karen watching over you. Summer memories are precious. But it's good to take them out of the trunk once in a while and give them a good airing out.