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The Longest Days of Our Lives
As kids, there was always something just a little bit magical about big trees and endless summer days. There was something that drew us all out from the confines of our school clothes and into the tank tops and cut-offs of the warmest season. Something that called us to the fields and the woods and the river, where we thought we weren’t being watched. And walking those paths now, the ones that are overgrown again and almost forgotten, fosters a certain nostalgia. A feeling that is akin to remembering the Christmases when the magic was still there, or looking back on pictures of bad hair days and fashion disasters of the past. You see yourself smiling in the pictures, naïve and unaware of the future, and can’t really remember just how it was to be so happy, so free. When a perfect moment is cut off by something less than ideal, the real enchantment of the time can be spoiled. But sometimes, nothing changes but ourselves. Sometimes if we are lucky, we are even able to smile at the memories, and start to resemble the child in the picture.
Recently, I found myself standing under one of the great, towering trees in my grandma’s yard; a huge hemlock with billowing, drooping branches and gnarly roots protruding like serpents from the fragrant soil. At one time, it was the most massive thing we knew, the oldest and wisest thing we could fathom. Now the waxy oval needles are dusted with the white powder that is the trademark of the beetle that is slowly killing our giant. Limbs fall to the ground to lie softly on the hollow earth. I’m here gathering twigs for kindling wood when my eye falls upon something shiny and half buried in the pine needles. I dig it up and smile when I see it; an old butter knife that my cousin and I commandeered from the kitchen years ago. We had a spoon at one time too, I think, and maybe even a spatula. I pick up the knife, dust it off and put it in my coat pocket to bring in. Later, as I wash the years of dirt from the dull blade, it hits me that my grandma must have noticed all of her silverware slowly walk away. She must have seen at least one of us slide out the screen door with a bucket in one hand and a kitchen utensil in the other. I can just picture her watching us skip across the lawn, shaking her head and smiling. Of course we got away with it. We were kids, invincible and superhuman.
Twice each summer, we had extravagantly planned celebrations under this tree. They were enormously involved get-togethers that had significant meaning in our young lives; the first and most important celebration commemorated the all important beginning of summer, and the more somber affair months later was the last hurrah before new sneakers and color-coded folders.
The planning for the Beginning of Summer bash began before we were even free. As soon as the pool was opened in late April or May, we held a ceremonious “Crossing of the Nile.” We all had to don last year’s bathing suits and traverse the frigid pool. The rules, much like the basic rules of life, were simple: once you were in, there was no turning around; defeat was unacceptable; and you had to be up to your belly-button in the icy water--bonus points for going deeper.
After the Crossing, preparations began for the feast. We began to hunt down buckets and bowls, visiting sheds and toy boxes that had lain alone all winter. Everything from a true pail to a paint tray to an old hard-hat was considered perfect, and they were all much appreciated. As days lengthened, we increased our efforts to collect enough supplies. Around this time, when we were getting a little desperate, we almost considered asking the adults for help reaching the bowls on the highest shelf. But we never did. We always found out the hard way if we were able to successfully climb on the countertops or not.
When school officially let out, we scrambled to get the food ready for the feast. This was always the most fun, and my favorite cousin - my best friend - and I were the leaders of the operation. While the boys played King of the Hill and jumped off the swing set, we gathered wood-chips, grass, mud, and flowers in our baby doll’s strollers. We carefully inspected each blade of grass and painstakingly plucked every last twig out of the dirt we thoughtfully selected. When we didn’t know exactly what it was that we were gathering, we took it upon ourselves to create complicated new names. For the first few days of summer, our shoulders burned, peeled, and burned again as we bent over to pick flower after flower. There was water in every recipe, and we spent hours splashing the crystal liquid all over our dirt-streaked knees as we fought to lift them up the crooked concrete stairs. Going inside to the sink was out of the question. We had to fight for this. This was our chance to be independent. Receiving help in completing these tasks was defeat, and as we had already established, defeat was unacceptable.
The soft and muffled earth under the boughs of the “Stew House” made us feel like the cavemen we were so fond of from our storybooks. We wanted to hunt buffalo with our stone sharpened twigs and gather berries for our food. Even as kids, we yearned for the past. The bits of torn leaves stuck to our grass-stained and tar-scraped knees as we crouched low to mix deep brown dirt with water. The smooth mud was shaped into patties and balls, and inevitably ended up as spontaneous war paint or a means of self defense.
We collected the biggest wood chips from the gardens of the street and placed them in water to soak for days in the sun. The color would drain into the water and voila, we had “steak” and “gravy.” We picked the “hens and chicks” from the stone wall, and used sharp stones to write our names in the pale leaf. We gathered the green liquid and slime from the process and used it as a spread for the steak and bread-bark. We made countless concoctions during those busy days, each with its own distinct mix of decay, fermentation, and fresh air.
The festivities themselves were always sort of a let down; it was always more fun to prepare. We rounded up our favorite dolls and Barbie sized horses and spent whole days dressing them up for the occasion. I learned to French braid on an American Girl doll that needed a special hair-do for one of our upscale soirées. Much like how our mothers talked endlessly over cups of coffee, we used those precious moments of calm and creative energy to catch up on our busy young lives. We gossiped and joked and laughed until we were holding our shaking sides, noisily trying to catch our breath. We never believed that our conversations would ever stray from the debates of Crayola vs. Rose Art crayons or our favorite Lisa Frank gel-pen color. When the grown-ups looked down at us and told each other they wished we would stay like that forever, we never doubted that we would. In our young world, the future was only a dream, and we were still counting on growing up to be a princess or astronaut. When the dolls were finally set aside, we got cleaned up ourselves. We scrubbed our blackened knees and feet with a fervor that turned our skin pink and tender. We dusted off our best shorts and t-shirts and dragged a comb through our sun streaked hair.
The big day was characterized by nervous tapping and eager fidgeting as we stretched towards the doors. Under the shade and comfort of the Stew House, we placed generous portions of each dish onto freshly picked leaves and smooth, flat stones. The dolls all politely ate every bite we fed them, smiling all the while. We bent the horse’s flexible necks so they could ea the salad we made especially for them.
Later, when the hustle-bustle of the party was over, and we were sprawled on the grassy hill pointing at clouds, summer really began. It was unspoken, but we could feel it.
As the months dragged on and we ate all of the ice cream in the freezer, we began again. As we watched the water swirl in muddy loops around our rough feet in the shower, we started to think of the initial party, and how long ago it seemed. Looking back, I realize that the End of Summer celebration wasn’t in mourning for the lost days, but a moment to rejoice in promise that summer would return next year.
I don’t remember exactly what year we stopped these parties, but it was probably around the time we began to drift apart and see the world as a wider place than just the distance between us, around the time we began to forget the names of the stuffed animals. Whenever it happened, the lack of a party didn’t seem to faze any of us directly except for the times when we caught a whiff of a mud pie or pine needles and wondered what had happened. It’s still that way. Every so often something sparks a thought that fills in the details of those beautiful summer days.