I HATE COLD weather. One of the truly horrible moments of my life occurred in Detroit in the winter of 1965. I came out of Hudson’s department store and was walking down Grand Avenue. On the big sign over a downtown building I observed casually that it was 3:15 and seven degrees below zero. Seven degrees below zero.Naturally, I did what any sensible person would do. I went back into Hudson’s to shop until summer.
The human body craves warmth, and the spirit suffers from its lack. Nora Sayre reports that Edmund Wilson deplored the fact that Cambridge dons cut short the hallowed hour for port and good talk in order to go home and turn on their electric blankets before bedtime. I understand perfectly. Even in Sun-Belted Dallas, I have urged my husband, on a gusty, wet February day, when the temperature plummets into the low 40s, to move to a warm climate. “But Dallas isa warm climate,” he argues. “People move here.”Ha.
In February I may be a skeptic, crying for madder mercury and stronger sun, but in July I’m a convert. I love Dallas summers, although I don’t love Dallas falls or Dallas springs. Fall has its pleasures-the first smell of wood smoke and the whiff of back-to- school resolve in the air-but no one ever wished for a higher pollen count or more weeks of boring rain. Fall means monsoons and sneezes, followed by winter.
And spring in Dallas, like spring everywhere, smiles treacherously, making promises she has no intention of keeping. I don’t trust her jonquils; I’ve seen them freeze on the stalk. All too often I’ve had to drape my new Easter dress with a tatty old winter coat. Not that I don’t like spring (who can resist her?) but she lies. Glimpsing the bright bars of sun on the front porch, I’ll slip into last summer’s swimsuit and settle down in a sheltered, sunny corner to read the latest Iris Murdoch and to cover the whiteness of winter with a decent tan. Fifteen minutes later I realize: I’m cold. I’ve been fooled again by dazzling, deceitful spring.
Summer is not like that. I believe in summer. Not all seasons are created equal, and summer is the season by which I measure all the others. I could live in a world of summer forever. Summer makes me feel I will live forever. Nor am I alone in this feeling. E.B. White wrote, “Summertime, oh summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade-proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweet fern and the juniper forever and ever, summer without end.” Amen.
Why do I love summer? First of all, because of its absence of obligations, its loosening of restraints. Miss Manners claims summer begins after Memorial Day, when white shoes become acceptable, and ends with Labor Day, when they no longer are. White shoes, black shoes, red shoes, blue shoes-I say they’re spinach and I say the hell with them. I’m for no shoes. I can be persuaded by the offer of dinner out or a summer job to slip into sandals with my sleeveless dress, but it’s a concession, and don’t you forget it. Stockings I’m dead set against except for funerals, and who would die in the summertime?
Perhaps I feel immortal in summer because ever since I can remember, my basic summer look has been the same: short shorts, T-shirt, bare feet, cropped hair. Over the years I have tried to streamline the look from time to time. One summer when two babies kept me busy, I decided I could spend more time in the sun and have less laundry if I wore nothing but a swimsuit. Sensible as it was, that plan didn’t last long. I felt a little too lax, even for summer, and soon went back to my shorts, elegantly minimalist. I fully expect, as a doddering great-grandmother, to wear them in the old folks’ home.
For me, summer begins when I don my summer costume. Then I’m 10 years old, feeling once again on tender winter feet the sharpness of gravel, the sting of the hot sidewalk, the delicious cool moistness of damp grass. As Holden Caulfield remarks, “Certain things should stay the way they are.”
Remember the beginning of summer when you were 10? The day before, you had turned in your books, had a cupcake and Kool-Aid with your class and marched home 30 minutes early, arms entwined with your best friend, chanting, “School’s out, school’s out; Teacher let the monkeys out.” That night you could stay out late playing tag with the other kids because there was no school. You came in under protest at 10:30, and saw an unfamiliar face in the hall mirror-eyes bright, hair tangled, face flushed. You had run faster, dodged more dexterously than anyone; you were invincible.
In the morning, you slept late, woke eerily on your own, and took a moment to remember: No school. Then, jump out of bed, haul on shorts and shirt, grab a banana (“Teacher let the monkeys out”) going through the kitchen (“No, thanks, I’m not hungry”), leap onto your bike, get up speed going toward the hill at the end of the street and roll down the hill, now the bare feet off the pedals, gaining momentum, holding on tight, teeth clenched, breath suspended, now the hands up too, free, gliding into summer.
This daring prevails even in that most oxymoronic of institutions, summer school. By logic, summer school ought not to exist- it’s a contradiction in terms. In fact, however, a certain summer insanity often makes these classes an odd delight. A male student in one local class was asked to give his oral report, an exercise in argument. He rose cheerfully to his feet and began to unbutton his shirt. “I was all set to argue in favor of high school athletics or against abortion or something,” he told the class, “like everyone else does.” He removed his shirt and laid it neatly on his chair.
“Then I realized that I really wanted to argue against conventionality.” He slid his sockless feet out of his Topsiders. “I think we are definitely too conservative and conventional at this school-I mean to do something about it.” He unbuckled his belt, and removed his jeans, placing them on his shirt.
Standing before the class in his white Calvin Klein underwear, he concluded: “To state this point as strongly as I can, I am going to remove all my clothes and streak like hell across campus.” And under the bemused eyes of his instructor and his classmates, he swept off the Calvins in one practiced motion and raced out the door, perfectly dressed for skinny-dipping. Summer is a time for paring down.
From the time I was 13, there was the ritual of the Summer Job. I addressed envelopes for my grandfather in the courthouse and swept the church basement. By the time I was in high school, my friends and I worked at May wood Tearoom, where I gained a certain notoriety and instant dismissal by charging a dinner party of eight the price of one dinner. They left a large tip, but not large enough to cover the loss, and Miss Sally kicked me out.
For summer jobs in college, I scorned our little town for Memphis, 20 miles away and across the state line. As soon as school was out, I went over the classified ads in the Commercial Appeal, reading them aloud to Mother, and worked as RCOPT, LAW OFFICE, $275 MO., NO FEE, as SECY-COPYWRITER, CHALLENGING FOR RIGHT PERSON, $350, and even as SALES, NICE APPEARANCE, VOICE REQUIRED, COMMISSION. The fun was being somebody else. Once or twice I pretended that I didn’t plan to return to college and that this was a real job and my real life. To this day, every June I long to suspend my own identity, put my life on hold and get a job selling cocktail dresses at Neiman’s or drinks at the Greenville Bar & Grill.
During and just after World War II, when my brother Sonny and I were small, my father worked in the coal mines of Illinois and Indiana. Living in Yankeedom, our family initiated the ritual of the Trip to Mama’s. These two-week summer visits to Mississippi, resolutely taken every August in a 1944 Indian Sun Chevrolet, were the only family vacation I ever remember our taking. We left home at dawn after a flurry of washing, ironing and packing. The trip took two days.
Of the first day, I remember specifically the agony I always felt about my hair. My mother would have washed it and rolled it in pincurls the night before and combed it in Shirley Temple curls before we set out. By the satisfied way she said “Pretty is as pretty does” when she had finished, I knew it looked terrific. The problem was trying to keep it that way for two days in the car.
Sonny and I sat in the back seat, of course, and I would plead with Mother and Daddy not to open the front windows because my hair would blow. They might cooperate until 9 or 10 o’clock, but it was August, after all, and down came the windows. Prepared with a scarf, I would cover my head like any peasant, but the wind was dry and dusty, we were driving at least 55 mph, and I knew, hot tears of frustration welling up in my eyes, that my Shirley Temple curls wouldn’t last until we got there. Thus I encountered the perishability of beauty.
By 6, suppertime, we were exhausted and stopped to eat in a roadside café. Then we drove on for several more hours, Sonny and I fighting for possession of the back seat for a bed, since whoever lost had to lie on the floor, which had a hump in the middle. At last the car stopped, and I would hear my father say quietly to my mother, “How does this one look?” Sonny and I jumped up to see our “motor court” home for the night.
Oh, those old motor courts! Whenever I feel tempted to deride Howard Johnson or Conrad Hilton, I force myself to remember all the details: the little light outside over “19,” the roaches that scurried when Daddy switched on the naked light bulb, the greasy green chenille bedspread on the lumpy bed, the picture over the bed of an Indian looking into the distance, the folding bed that had to be brought in for the children, the thin blue towel over the yellowed tub, the dusty wood floor. We children hardly woke. In 15 minutes, we four were all asleep.
The second day was better. We always had a leisurely breakfast at the coffee shop, my father jovial because most of the drive was behind him and because the motor court had been “reasonable.” For lunch, we’d have hamburgers and french fries, chocolate milkshakes, sometimes candy bars for the car. Replete and mellow, fully seasoned travelers by now, we sang and talked and played games, until quite suddenly in the late afternoon Daddy would say, “The courthouse is just around the next hill.” And there it was, and there was Mama’s house, and there was Mama, putting platters of fried chicken on the table next to the mashed potatoes and peas, and tiny wheels of fried okra and sliced tomatoes and green onions and blackberry cobbler and tall frosted glasses of iced tea, and we were there.
Another thing I love about summer is the sun. In another life I must have worshipped Apollo, following the progress of his chariot across the sky, because I can spend entire summer days doing the same thing now. Ensconced on a lawn chair next to the sprinkler, with lemonade, sunglasses, magazines, novel and Bain de Soleil readily to hand, I reverently make of myself a burnt offering to the Sun God, and I have the scars to prove it. I have abused my body terribly in the sun, back in the time when Bain de Soleil was baby oil and iodine and when it was important that the skin under my watch and at the top of my bathing suit be at least ten shades lighter than the rest of me.
Bain de Soleil I’ve learned about the hard way, with a skin cancer scar on one shoulder that, vain as I am, will presumably end forever my passion for white cotton dresses with tiny spaghetti straps across a suntanned back. I’ve finally realized in my heart the profound truth uttered by a Joan Didion character: “After all, when you’ve got a tan, what have you got?”
But old responses are hard to kill. I still assume that the first darkening of the skin automatically takes five pounds off anybody. I still prepare for big evenings with an hour, front and back, of cosmetic tanning. And I can’t stay out of the sun. When I know it’s out there, I have to be in it. It’s not exactly a tan I want anymore, but the physical and metaphysical experience of being in the sun-I like to sweat. I like the state of satori the heat induces.
But I especially like the violence in the distinction between air-conditioned cool and summer heat. No greater exhilaration exists -not in sex or food or hang-gliding or anything-than in leaving my office in the basement of Dallas Hall at SMU, arguably the coldest building in the city in July, and getting into a closed-up car. Sitting there, just feeling the heat, watching my blue fingers turn white, then brown, I experience a personal resurrection. I know what it is to be reborn.
Move the Gulf from Galveston to Dallas, and I’d be in heaven. Lakes don’t count. Who wants to walk out into water “like soft, knee-deep fur”-as Eudora Welty calls it in Moon Lake,-full of sharp hard knobs, mud that sucks, mosquitoes and almost certainly snakes? Give me salt water. I’ll tell you what a day in heaven will be like. I made it up when I was 19. My big plan that year was to graduate from college and go to live on the beach and write a sonnet sequence called A Summer World. I had just read Wallace Stevens’s Credences of Summer, and I thought that if I could make summer last, if I could live in a summer world, I could do what Stevens says:
Let’s see the very thing and nothing else.
Let’s see it with the hottest fire in sight.
Burn everything not part of it to ash.
Trace the gold sun about the whitened sky
Without evasion by a single metaphor.
Look at it in its essential barrenness
And say this, this is the centre that I seek.
My summer world faded with my tan, and I still haven’t quite found the center that I seek. But the dream of heaven persists. Over the years I’ve played some occasional variations on the theme, added a dog here, a baby there, but essentially it’s been the same for 30 years.
Drive to a motel on the beach late at night.Get up in the morning and take a walk downthe shore, picking up shells. Swim. Skipbreakfast. Get a hot dog from the wagonwhen you get hungry and an Orange Crushwhen you get thirsty. Lie in the sun and rubeach other’s backs with baby oil (this isheaven, remember). Turn over and lie in thesun. Go for a swim, out past the breakers,where it’s quiet and the water is low and youcan’t see anything but sky, sun and boats.Get another hot dog or possibly an EskimoPie. Lie in the sun and read a thick novel byGeorge Eliot or Tolstoy-one so long youknow you won’t have the burden of finishingit. Fall asleep. Wake up and have a vigorousfight in the water. Gather your stuff together,walk all sandy and oily back to the motel,take an air-conditioned shower and throwyour towels on the floor. Step outside anddry your hair in the Gulf breeze. Dust apowder puff on your nose, rub lipstick onyour mouth; the sun has done the rest. Slipinto a white cotton dress with spaghettistraps and go to a nice restaurant for tall cooldrinks and fried shrimp. The orchestra willplay A String of Pearls. Dance. Do a fancydip. That’s heaven.