“Summer afternoon – summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” – Henry James
When I was a child, I remember my Uncle Alex telling me that, in his own boyhood, he could never fall asleep on Christmas Eve because of the pending excitement of opening all those gifts on Christmas morning. He assumed I had the same challenge. But for me, I felt that particular sense of anticipation the night before the last day of the school year.
In those years, the academic year ran all the way to Memorial Day, and it seemed forever because, in the Midwest where I grew up, the days were not only becoming longer but also warmer and more humid. The cicadas had started their annual chorus.
Though I loved school, the vast expanse of what seemed to be forever-summer left me counting the hours before our classroom clock ticked toward 3pm. The annual P.A. announcement by our Principal, Mr. Homrig, “wishing everyone a great, happy, and safe summer,” and then the glory of that final bell of the school year – it was the sweetest music of all, the very harbinger of decompression.
When that bell rang out up and down the hallways of Southwick Elementary School, we would all run like jackrabbits for the waiting buses to take us to Utopia: endless summer days of long light and baseball games. The expected sound of scratchy songs like “Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star” emanating from the soft-serve ice cream truck that made its way around our neighborhood once or twice a week. The Bookmobile from our nearby library that parked on the same street corner filled with all kinds of new titles of history, biography, and Ellery Queen mysteries aimed toward young readers. Thoughts of swimming in my cousins’ backyard pool, replete with snacks and sodas on the nearby porch. The joy of watching the Reds and Cubs on the TV, the pace of whose games matched the summertime tempo of no-rush and no-push and no-time-clocks but rather endless, plush green fields and the never-ending breezes at Wrigley blowing in like a gentle tune from Lake Michigan.
It was also tennis and golf season. I wish I had a dollar for every match I played at Foster Park on those newly surfaced public courts, or a dime for every hook or slice I hit off that blasted first tee at Fairview Club, wondering when, if ever, I would finally and routinely hit it ‘straight as an arrow’ as my friend and forever-golf companion Rick liked to remind me time after time.
I was never a good athlete, which was a childhood frustration, because I loved sports, and I still remember the humiliation of not making our local Little League team, even as three of my closest friends did.
But a wealthy philanthropist in my hometown knew of that childhood hurdle and had created a parallel organization called Wildcat Baseball where anyone could play in a summer youth league as long as he demonstrated a commitment to learning the fundamentals of the game and being a part of a team. “No one is bigger than the team,” Mr. Fox, my coach, used to remind us. My parents signed me up, and I loved those four seasons of summer baseball at McMillan Park.
These long years later, I still recall the joy of seeing my father arrive for a game in his pickup truck while my mom set up the lawn chairs with a small cooler as they watched my games on some of the hottest and most stifling days of the summer. My maternal grandparents were semi-regulars at my games too, and afterward, they would sometimes drive me to a local (over-air-conditioned) convenience store that served flavored frozen ice, the cups of which were emblazoned with a little elf wearing a beanie. The ‘brain-freeze’ those ices induced were all part of the summertime experience, mind-numbing though they were.
My paternal grandmother was not much for baseball games but she loved to pick me up at the crack of dawn on summer mornings, and drive us to a local donut shop called “Karen’s Kitchen.” There, she would allow me to select any two donuts (the ones with the sprinkles were always my favorites) and she would drink endless cups of coffee while speaking with Karen and the other customers – the endless chatter of adults that narrate every young person’s growing up.
These northern-Indiana boyhood memories came flooding back to me a few days ago when our youngest son, now in college, was preparing to head south to play in a summer music festival. The day after he departed, I walked into his room to just look around, and I felt overcome exactly as Andy’s mother in “Toy Story” felt when she walked into his room after Andy had departed for college: I asked myself, where did all those years go? Every object in that room evoked memory upon memory: trophies, photos, ribbons, a stuffed animal. They were all mini-signposts of a distant shore called childhood.
The years fly by; the memories cohere; the people of one’s boyhood pass into glory; yet the glowing sunrises and sunsets from those fleeting years seem almost to sear our souls in a joy, peerless.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about such prosaic memories, of seeing the twinkling towers of Manhattan of a distant yet familiar past, imbuing them with the ineffable and almost tangible emotions of miles gone by: “Come back, come back, oh shimmering and white,” he pleads to no one in particular. The thread of years, as another great writer called them, conveying the reality of the unseen.
And so again, summer has arrived. The twilight lengthens. The cobalt-blue waters of beaches near oceans loom with hues all their own. The brilliant and jewel-like colors of this special time of the year signal that time away with our families and our kids is just ahead of us. Sometimes a surfeit of words does not do justice to the sheer singularity of summer.
On a special horizon, somewhere over there where time and the timeless intersect, where God holds the narrative of our lives in the palm of His hand and bids us to make memories worth remembering, we seek something more than the sea and the sky and the sun. We seek a mindset and a soul-craft which reminds us that it really is ok to slow down, to spend time with those we cherish, to absorb the soft breezes, to look with wonder on the blossoming flowers and the shimmering stars, to look up at those puffy white clouds against the blue sky, to fill our lungs with the sweet salt or mountain air, and to know that they are all gifts from our Creator God Who animates fleeting time with purpose and meaning and goodness beyond all knowing.
“I look up to the hills, but where will my help really come from? My help will come from the Lord, the Creator of heaven and earth.”