July 7, 2012
This past week, while the world economy continued its high-wire dance of death, Americans grappled with the bitter fruits of our love affair with fossil fuels and the nation celebrated Independence Day, I found myself waxing nostalgic about the summer times of my youth.
I can remember running up the sidewalk toward the house when I was about four and stopping in my tracks at the moist and musty aroma of raindrops on dry soil as a quick, July shower passed through.
Even now, that aroma still grabs and delights me. It woke me from sleep the other night. We had our first rain in almost a month. Still groggy with sleep, I combed through my memories trying to recall what that scent was. Finally, recognizing it, I lay there listening to the sounds of rain on dry grass until, wrapped in the aromas of rain, I fell back to sleep. Perhaps that is what triggered my bout of nostalgia over the next few days.
I remember rushing through early morning chores on summer days, before dashing outside to see who else among the neighborhood children was ready to play. There was an urgency to it, for in those days before polio vaccines, we knew we would be stuck inside during “the heat of the day”, not to be released to play again until after supper.
Once a week, we walked to school to meet the bookmobile. Those books made the afternoons inside palatable for me. Sometimes, we lingered to visit with school friends who lived outside our neighborhood, who we did not see except on bookmobile Thursday or, perhaps, at church on Sunday mornings. Occasionally, we arrived early to play on the giant strides, or climb the monkey bars until the bookmobile came.
Most everyone had a phone in the house by then, but it was for household business. I don’t ever remember using it for something as frivolous as calling a friend to see if he or she could play on those endless evenings of kick-the-can, hide-and-seek or softball. We walked over to their house for that.
I remember the family vacation, always at my paternal grandparent’s house in southern Oklahoma. By then, they had retired from subsistence farming and lived in town. Having gone through the Great Depression, they were staunch Democrats, grateful to Mr. Roosevelt for the Social Security that had made their retirement possible.
On one day of the vacation, as many of my dad’s eleven siblings (and their children) as could arrange time off from their work gathered at my grandparents house for dinner. They came, one or two at a time, bearing a pie, a cake, a pot roast, a ham, a vegetable dish, until the kitchen cabinet was covered with food and the house filled with those aromas. These delicacies were accompanied by platters of sliced tomatoes and roasting ears from my grandparents’ garden and pitchers of sweet tea served in the ice-filled, thumbprint goblets – offered as premiums in the large-sized boxes of laundry soap, back then. After dinner, the aunts made short work of the dirty dishes and all those who did not have to hurry off to distant homes gathered in the shade of the porch or lawn. While the women “gossiped” and the men “talked”, cousins broke into groups to play, or – for those too old to play “kid’s games” – walk to town for a visit with friends not seen for a while.
These times were not as idyllic as they sometimes seem in memory, of course. My own Aunt Sis, struck by polio as a toddler, was left twisted like a tree in the wind by the disease. Grandparents died, a favorite aunt or uncle, even a neighbor or school friend. Children were sometimes abused; families broke apart. Every neighborhood or family had a “funny uncle” from whom parents discretely – and sometimes unsuccessfully – tried to protect their children.
I remember when President Roosevelt died. I remember it as a picture on the front page of the newspaper I carried to my dad when he came home from work and as the sorrow on my dad’s face when he read the story. It was the first time I saw my father cry. My parents, too, had gone through the Great Depression. They, too, had memories.
Some of these memories are generation-specific. Some of them are common to all generations – joys and sorrows large and small. They are the way our species comes to grips with the vagaries of life. And they serve to remind us that life simply is. Good and bad, happy and painful.
Whatever the circumstances we find ourselves in, we create memories. In the midst of war and want, people marry, children play, families form. In the midst of peace and plenty, people die, children come to harm, families break apart. We remember.
Sometimes, we doomers look around at today’s children with their techno-toys and facebook lives and think, “They are not going to make it as times get more chaotic.”
I think they will – as well as any of us. Maybe they never played kick-the-can on a summer evening, or swung across a creek on a rope with a knot in the end of it, as I did. My childhood probably seems as alien to them as their “electronic” childhoods seems to me. Yet, they are humans. Outside their facebook spaces, they live in the same world of joy and sorrow, death and life we all inhabit. The bones of their memories may be different, but the marrow of them is not.
Memories are not only stories of our own lives, they are stories about that common marrow – how we lived our lives then, can guide us through how we will live them (or live them differently) in whatever future we face. It will be so for our children, too, I think.
This is an extraordinary summer. Future summers will be more so. Our children and grandchildren may well look back and remember it as the summer we finally realized the world was burning. Yet, they may also remember it as the summer they fell in love. Joy and sorrow; life and death. Marrow in the bones of the human condition.