Just As The Calendar Began To Say Summer
by Mary Oliver
I went out of the schoolhouse fast
and through the gardens and to the woods,
and spent all summer forgetting what I’d been taught—
two times two, and diligence, and so forth,
how to be modest and useful, and how to succed and so forth,
machines and oil and plastic and money and so forth.
By fall I had healed somewhat, but was summoned back
to the chalky rooms and the desks, to sit and remember
the way the river kept rolling its pebbles,
the way the wild wrens sang though they hadn’t a penny in the bank,
the way the flowers were dressed in nothing but light.
I love all of Mary Oliver’s poetry, but this particular one spoke to me today. As we dive in to another busy summer here on Beaver Island, and I quickly get caught up in the rush, it is the summers of my childhood that appeal to me. In a perfect world, my days would be designed to mimic the hot, long and lazy out-of-school days that I remember.
Of course, I know that my memory is both faulty and selective. That’s what nostalgia is all about. I can set aside the garden chores that I hated, and the tedious, scorching days trying to entertain myself outside. I’ll choose my remembrances instead from the wonders of a childhood summer.
There was the swing set, and the big sand-pile next to it, always freshened with a new truckload of sand in the spring. And the hours spent swinging, or just laying on the warm metal slide, to bake in the sun. There were willow trees that offered cool shade: one in the back yard, one in the front yard, and one behind the house next door.
There was the orchard, just beyond my grandparent’s garage. Still within our allowable range of travel, but out of my mother’s sight, it allowed for daring and dangerous escapades that we couldn’t otherwise get away with. We ate green apples and pears, practically as soon as they appeared on the branches, in amounts that should have made us desperately ill. I don’t think we ever got so much as a stomach-ache. I still prefer un-ripe fruit, though not quite as green as when I was a child.
We took a million chances climbing the trees there. We always tried to navigate the high branches – by swinging on them, or crawling to the very ends of them – to access the flat roof of the garage. That was the challenge, and the ultimate goal. I don’t know if we ever succeeded.
There was a grape arbor, and a snowball bush whose growth provided a cool, sheltered space under its branches. There was often a playhouse in the yard. In the field beyond, there were thickets that could be made into forts or make-believe homes, depending on the storyline of whatever game we were playing.
Water could be found in buckets and kiddie pools, squirt guns and squirt bottles. Often, we hooked the sprinkler up to the hose, and kept it going until the grass was oozing mud. Sometimes, we took the long walk down to the Hilltop beach, herding younger brothers and sisters, lugging towels and snacks, and one pack of matches for the dreaded encounters with “bloodsuckers.”
The garden was beside our yard, and matched it in size. Some of its care fell to the children (as a child, I would have sworn all of it fell to us), and part of almost every day was given over to weeding and watering. Still, there is magic in watching things grow, and my childhood was filled with that enchantment. I could pick a tomato, and eat it warm from the sun. I could fill a large bowl with fresh peas, and take them into the shade to enjoy them. Strawberries gave way to raspberries as the summer marched on.
These are the bright memories that hold the essence of what I believe summer should be. I know it’s possible…I lived it!