Deep down South, in the Heart of Dixie, Summers start in April, and last till October. The wrap around porches full of blue Hydrangeas and Honeysuckle, are set with white wicker tables holding sweet tea and freshly cut mint. Sipping slowly and feeling the breeze as it floats a fragrance of magnolia across the porch swing. I used to love summertime when I was growing up down South. No school, some visits from crazy relatives and a ride on the garden mule! Yep, I said ride a mule. ME!
My part of the Deep South was and IS a little bit country, where folks still grow tomatoes and cucumber and watermelons outside in the backyard. When it came time to plow, we went to get the old mule and my brother and I would beg for a ride. The folks that helped my Mother raise us after my dad died, the Ryans, lived out in Cottondale and they had a huge garden, the kind that fed you all Winter. We had the best Summers when Floyd would bring home that mule and let us ride him as he plowed the garden. Keep in mind I was young and had not discovered the joys of Tiaras and make-up quite yet. We walked to the local grocery store and got a moon pie and an RC cola...what a treat! We helped pick, and can, and make preserves, ate watermelon with a salt shaker in one hand...(just did that this morning...but watermelons are EXPENSIVE here in LALA land!)... Then I'd go visit my city Grandmother for a priss- pot makeover, and a trip to Gayfer's department store for a new summer shorts outfit. With the fragrance of Charles Of the Ritz floating throughout her home, and red nail polish in her bathroom, I could pretend all day to be the Princess of Glendale Gardens when I was at her house. That's where I learned Southern women are to be adored...READ: worshipped.
As I grew up, the "Princess" life became a little more ME than riding that mule, but I still loved being at the Ryan's house and picking strawberries and making homemade buttermilk biscuits from scratch every single day! The Ryan's were our family as much as any Grandparent and we were like their own too. We went fishing with them some weekends and they were at our house every single holiday till the day they died. I don't remember it ever being a rule that to be FAMILY you had to share blood. Nope, that's not the way it works in the South. So far I don't think we have any prisoners in the fam! But mother would feed them just the same!!
In laws and outlaws as my mother used to call everyone who visited. We were a "Hodge-Podge" she said.
Summers were long and lazy and not filled to the bursting point with planned activities. We had time to think, to dream, to plan, and to pretend. Sad to say, but it's not like that anymore...anywhere. The calendars are full of camps and summer school and trips, and the push to get better at something...to BE best. But I like the hot, lazy summer days catching minnows in the backyard creek in a dixie cup under the shade of the hundreds of weeping willows. Watching Love American Style in the afternoons under the dripping window unit air conditioner and drinking Koolaid all day till my lips and tongue were stained ruby red for a week. And making Koolaid Pops ourselves in the freezer. The best!
We had a park and trails near my house when I was little and we would imagine being detectives and looking for a murderer, turing over huge rocks for clues, only to find us an unsuspecting, but surprised Water Moccasin snake! I ran like the dickens outta there! I remember swinging so high and singing to the top of my lungs, (cause nobody else was in the park but me) all the Carpenters songs and "Leaving on a Jet Plane" imagining I was flying off to somewhere exotic. I had my first real kiss in the Summer of 76 in cutoff blue jeans under the honeysuckle. Summers were for imagining and day dreaming and thinking.
I had lemonade stands with my friends in Glendale and played princess games in makeup and went on detective adventures in the park, rode a mule through a backyard garden, and was a rock star on a swingset.... all because I had TIME to do it. I learned from my relatives, the in-laws, the out-laws, the elders and the crazies, all because I had TIME to spend with them and really get to know them. I wouldn't trade this for a million summer enrichment camps. This is the most priceless of all enrichments; TIME.
One summer, my great grandmother on my Father's side, spent the Summer with us. I was very young,
and she and my mother would laugh so loud, I just couldn't wait till I was old enough to know what in the world was so funny. One day we had both of my great grandmother's out for a ride like we always did on Sundays, and we stopped at a gas station. My great grandma Cummings got out to get a cold drink...like a Rootbeer, not a margarita, and as she was walking back to the car, her underwear made its way down to her ankles. And she was in a dress! But she was from another era and was discreet beyond words. About half way back, she realized her undies were at her feet, as I watched from the back window of the car, she calmly looked around to see if anyone was looking, and she shook her leg and kicked off one foot. Then just as calmly did the same with the the other foot making sure no one was watching her. She then bent over and grabbed them, shoving them down into her purse. My mother was laughing so hard, she couldn't catch her breath. So was my other Granny. She rode the rest of the afternoon without any "Step-ins" as she called them. The next Sunday, when we picked her up for the Sunday drive, my mother asked her..."Well, Bertha Mae, you wearin' your step-ins today?" My great-grandmother arched one eyebrow up and said..."Well, Betty, maybe I am.... and maybe I ain't" She winked and everyone laughed as we rode to Pure Process in the little shack on the river for our Sunday Ice Cream cone.
Those days were such a treasure. TIME allowed me to have these memories. I was always with my relatives. Maybe it's because we didn't have much money to send me away to camp, and the world was much less competitive. Whatever it was I liked it this way. Time with relatives these days is too few and far between.
My teen years began, and the summers were hot in a different way. Boys became the center of my universe and a hot summer and a cool swimming pool was the place to be. We had a house with a pool and many a make-out session heated up the already sticky Southern summer night swims. One summer before we got the pool my friend Ellen and I went down the little paved path to the Hinton Farm and spent the entire Summer with a bottle of Hawaiian Tropic...SPF 0...and browned ourselves to a gorgeous bronze and listened to Boys of Summer on the radio. I never hear that song that I don't think of the Hinton Pool, and my friend Ellen. I was in my mid teens and still was unscheduled in the long hot Southern Summer days. My "sister" Susan and I would lay out all day with baby oil slathered all over us at my pool the next Summer, then go out with our boyfriends reddened to a crisp at night. We'd all hang out in the driveway under the humid damp night sky till the wee hours talking and kissing on the hood of their cars. It was poetic. A right of passage. Bruce Sprinsteen and John Mellancamp wrote songs about us. We fell in love, and lived and laughed and connected in a way that really doesn't happen anymore: Talking face to face. Having TIME.
Eventually, we grew up and had our own families but I think the very thing that makes us so connected today has stepped in the way of "real" connections. Technology, and social networks and texting and emails...while keep us in touch, do not help us stay connected on a tactile level. Our kids have a new normal and their kids will have a new normal. But TIME ...with each other and TIME to dream and plan...and imagine will always be the center of my memories growing up down South. We seemed to always have time to sit on the porch and chat with our neighbors. Summer evenings outside on the front porch, playing cards or Yahtzee with the neighborhood kids was a perfect way to spend a lazy humid Southern night. Time to catch light'ning bugs in a jar on the first warm Summer evenings. And Playing hide-and-go-seek in the dark with flashlights, using literally cans and cans of bug spay to keep the mosquitos away just a little longer. We would wait till late at night for the mosquito truck to come with their toxic spray so we could chase it down the street and get lost in the fog. What the heck were we thinking? We sure didn't know any better! Time...thats what we shared and the feeling that it would all last forever.
I remember reading once that the best thing we can give our children is unstructured time. Ahhh... if we only had time...right?
I always feel so lucky to have had my growing up years down South. It's slower there anyway. And That's a good thing. Summers in the South was my own living amusement park, filled with the rivers, and the mule, and the koolaid stands and detective games, snakes and make-up, and the tingles from those first kisses. It was the South...and you just can't get better than that!