Monday, June 9, 2008

what is it about summer?

It does this every year. One day it's fairly warm but seasonable and cool at night, and then a switch is flicked, and the next day it's here - summer. And every year there is something about this lazy, scorched season- no scratch that - there are a thousand things about this season that trigger a thousand different memories. Scent may be the strongest sense tied to memory, but every single summer sense - sight, smell, touch, sound, taste- seems tied in a little deeper, a little more definitively with places and people and moments from other summers in my life. Burning leaves, wintergreen, snow, flowers, the sight a breath makes in the air- all of those make an impression, but they don't even come close to sunscreen, bug spray and humidity. All of this dawned on me last night at the Spolete finale. I'll devote an individual blog to Spoleto itself later, but for now I'll just say that I went to the grand finale at Middleton Plantation. It had been an absolutely scalding day, but as the sun set the heat took on a new contour. It was less brutal and more peaceful; a softer, more resigned kind of heat. We sat on the warm grass in front of an absolutely gorgeous view - water in every direction, a maze of ponds and marsh and river. The sky was still somewhat lit, stubborn streaks of sunlight illuminating palmetto trees and impossibly huge, moss-strewn live oaks. An assortment of bugs made their presence loudly known - sounding out from the clusters of trees and overgrowth in front of us.It was the quintessential Charleston environment - dignified enough for us humans to enjoy but still stubbornly, irrepressibly wild. Everyone sat on blankets, periodically reapplying bug spray, and as the sky darkened an orchestra set atop the water played the festival's last concert of 2008. I listened to the orchestra, but as I felt the grass, smelled the bugspray, and watched the stars, I couldn't help thinking of other summer nights. Because all it takes is one summer night like that to bring everything else back.
When I smell fresh bugspray, old sunscreen and grass I'm at camp again. When on top of these three sounds, I hear crickets and cicadas, and look up to see an unbroken, star strewn sky, I'm there even more. I'm an overnight camp kid - that rare breed - and it's ruined me forever. I spent countless summer nights outside with hundreds of other kids in rural Virginia. Summer will never truly be summer for me until I at least experience an approximation of one of those camp nights. Memorial Day might come, school might let out, hotdogs served and white worn - but until I lie down on a patch of grass for a few hours in the dark, with the day's heat still radiating from the earth below me, until there are equal parts stars and crickets and insect repellent, until the day ahead of me stretches as endlessly as the day that has just occurred - well then calendars be damned, summer is just a word.

When I smell chlorine, feel hot, wet concrete, and alternate between sweaty and soaked, I'm usually at a pool. But be it a hotel pool, condo pool, or baby pool (hey on hot days you sometimes have to take desperate measures), I'm always back at Southampton pool in Richmond. Growing up when I wasn't at camp, I was at the pool. I lived there, and this is barely an exaggeration. When I was old enough, my best friend MK and I, sometimes with a sibling or cousin or two, would get dropped off almost every morning at the pool, usually only wearing bathing suits and a towel, with some change in a tote bag, and a Mom approved sunscreen. We would walk the short walk from the parking lot, past the tennis courts, past the ice skating rink (a weird anomaly-Southampton was by no means ritzy and still to this day I'm not sure why there was an ice rink there, but it was fun to have in the winter) and to the main attraction, the pool. There was the standard check in stand, and it was such a thrill for a nine or ten or eleven year old to be able to sign yourself in, no grown up signature needed. And then we were in, no longer in the normal world, but in pool world, where everyone knows each other, where clothes and shoes are optional at best, where there is no homework, no school, no piano lessons or basketball practices. All that mattered was the pool, the huge square of bright, almost neon blue water. Southampton had two full size pools, a lower and an upper, and two smaller baby pools. It was a tough decision between the two main pools. The lower pool had a diving board, with its own special, super deep diving area ( I was always a wee bit scared of diving, go figure, but when no one was diving we could use the diving area to play unbelievable, frenzied thirty plus kid games of Shark tag). So obviously that was a draw, but the upper pool was where the older kids hung out. The sides were smoothed down because it was the official swim team pool, and there were fewer pesky adults there to yell at us. So usually we did both, alternating between pools when we got bored. But did we ever really get bored? There were endless things to do in the water - Olympics ready hand-stands and flips, diving for change, breath holding competitions, games where we'd try to distinguish words under water. And that's just scratching the surface. Kids today (and yes I realize I sound ninety when I say that) have Wii's and satellite cable and the internet, but honestly the only thing a bunch of kids really needs in the summer to keep occupied is a concrete square filled with water. So if we ever did become bored, or usually whenever our hands became too pruned even for us, we jumped out of the water, pulled on a towel, grabbed our pocket change and headed to the glorious, seemingly divine provider of junk food - the Snack Bar. For a couple of bucks you could get a hot dog, nachos, chips, soda, and those little Disney character ice cream on a stick things. Or maybe a burger and some greasy, delectable fries smothered in the most beautifully bright orange artificial cheese you ever beheld. Or you could avoid the other food groups altogether and zero in on the candy - icy cold ice cream snickers bars that would melt as soon as they left the air conditioned sanctuary of the tiny snack bar, warheads and airheads and fireballs. There were no vegetables served at the snack bar, no tuna fish sandwiches or milk. It was exactly the kind of menu a nine year old would pick if he or she were in charge of a restaurant. It was almost nirvana. We'd take our loot, and sit, still dripping wet on picnic tables, shoving our faces with food, knowing full well that old wives tales be darned, we were going to swim as soon as we were done eating. Even years later I can still remember those moments so clearly, not just what they looked like or sounded like, but what they actually, truly felt like. I remember sitting there, the water slowly drying off me from the sun, a couple of friends beside me, a huge pile of junk food on the table near me. I remember listening to the sound of kids from the nearby playground or the more distant sounds coming from the pools or the tennis courts. But more than all of that I remember being so blissfully happy. All that lay before me for weeks was more days like that, broken up by the occasional swim meet or vacation maybe, but for the most part I knew I would be there, at the pool for hours on end. And even as children, when our lives were so simple and so easy, I think we still knew that those endless days at the pool were the absolute best it could get. We'd groan when the sun began to set and our parents showed up to pick us up, because the pool wasn't just a diversion. It was summer itself. And even now, as a sort of a adult, if I find myself even just walking by a chlorinated pool, catch a whiff of sunscreen, maybe hear some kids playing Marco Polo or Categories, I remember that for all of the diversions us sort of grown ups have during summer, nothing can ever really compare to the pool.

And that's only the beginning. I could go on for days about the smell of baseball games or cook outs, the sight of fireworks (they had the most unbelievable display of these at the Spoleto finale, practically on top of the crowd), the taste of a snow cone or italian ice. Some memories we have to strain for, look at old pictures in order to really enjoy. But for the most part, my memories of summer are never far from the surface. Maybe it all goes back to the heat. Maybe summers growing up are just these mythical things in our minds. For whatever reason, it doesn't take much for me to be right back there, at camp, at the pool. And even though it's a little bit sad to constantly be reminded of a past long gone, I wouldn't change it for the world.

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