Gold toes in the grass. Photo by Jamelah E.

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Summer Nostalgia

When I was a kid growing up in hot Tennessee summers, my mother loved air conditioning. Like, loved it deep down to her bones. Money be damned, our house was to be cold. Not a comfortable 72, or even 68. But a toe-freezing 64. Functionally cold-blooded, I fled the house as often as possible for the heat outside, so humid it was like walking through molasses. With nothing else to do, I’d while away hours reading on the sidewalk, soaking up the warmth of the sun compressed into that slab of concrete. I piled that heat up on me like a wool sweater in summer and held it against me during brief forays into the house for a glass of lemonade so heaped with Country Time mix it was viscous.

As the sun began to move toward sunset, even though it would be hours until it finally went down, the world would come alive with noise. Cicadas droned, katydids chirped, and frogs bellowed. Having been warmed thoroughly through to my bones, I could emerge too, rise up off the sidewalk and walk through the grass. The earth hummed with life, especially at dusk. There is no time better to be barefoot, a mason jar full of your favorite beverage, ice clinking against the glass with every step.

All the houses in our neighborhood had front porches that looked out on a large grass-covered oval, the size of a football field, empty but for a bush and, of course, a flag pole on one end, which we called The Circle. As in, “Bye Mom, I’m going to The Circle.” Evenings were spent outside, playing whatever game the fifteen or so of us kids that lived there had organized that day, while the adults visited on each other’s porches, drinking gin and tonics that we children made before running outside. (I could make a classic large-pour G&T with perfectly fondled limes by the time I was seven. It was just normal. We all knew how. Only later, when I moved to Massachusetts, did I learn that was not the case for everyone in the world.)

Summers we stayed up late, chasing lightning bugs, playing games that ranged the entire neighborhood like Hide and Seek, War and Boxcar Children in which (after depositing the gin and tonics we’d made with their rightful owners) we pretended our parents had died and made spring onion, mud, and ant soup that we dared each other to eat.

It was summer, and hot, of course, so when the air turned thick and yellow and the clouds massed purple in the west, we retreated to whatever porch was closest to watch the onslaught of rain and lightning and feel the terrible boom of the thunder shake our bones. When it was over, we’d pick up the branches that had fallen and keep playing, the air cured of its humidity for a brief spell.

What I miss about those summers is the listlessness of it. The nothingness that marked the day. I miss being bored. But when I think more about those summers, I realize that my nostalgia for the time masks a darker reality. The house was freezing cold because my mom was sick. I was bored in part because all the resources of our family were being put to doing whatever we could to get her well.


I was in second grade when my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. She’d waited to go to the doctor for the lump she knew she had until the health insurance at her new job kicked in. It was stage three by the time she got there, and she spent a year doing chemo and radiation, much of it with my dad in Houston while my grandparents stayed with us. We watched Debi Thomas thrill the Olympics in 1988, piled on my mom’s bed, her in a nightgown. She lost her hair that year, and on her dresser were her two wigs, Julia and Lucy, named after two of my grandmother’s sisters, powerful women both. They were curled, gray, short mops, similar to but better looking than the one Vicki Lawrence wore as “Mama” on The Carol Burnett Show. Julia’s curls loosened up more, so she got to go out more often.

Around then I remember my teacher asking us to make a coupon book of chores that our moms could trade in for us to help them. This was for Mother’s Day, as I recall. There was a brainstorming session in class led by the teacher. “Name things your mom does for you that you could do for her instead,” she asked. The class named a dozen. The teacher asked for my input, and I stared back at her.

“Pack your lunch?,” she prompted.

“I do that.”

“Vacuum your room?”

“I do that.”

“Clean the house.”

“We do that.”

My parents were already raising us to be independent, and the cancer had cemented the deal. The teacher thought I was lying as she, ever exasperated, went down her list. We settled on something dumb like “Make her dinner,” which was a cop-out because she wasn’t the cook in the family anyway.

My mother recovered, but nothing in our family was ever quite the same. It remained, in many ways, an idyllic Southern childhood, but we were all different: my mother was tired in a permanent way, as if, after a brush with death, one of the hooks that had tethered her to life had come undone; my father was a caretaker, and remains so today; and we kids emerged flintier than ever, our independence honed to a sharp blade that would eventually take us away from Tennessee.


The Indigo Girls wrote an anthem for summer with their song, “Southland in the Springtime.” They joke that God must have been joking with them when he had them “born a Yankee.” I was very much not born a Yankee, but I think he may have been teasing in the same way when he landed me up in Massachusetts these last twenty years.

Here, where I live with my four young kids just outside of Boston, summer is full of activities and camps and playdates scheduled weeks in advance. Kids are almost never on their own. The night is quiet, except for car horns and fire trucks whizzing by. Worst of all, there are no lightning bugs. Not a one. Even up in the mountains of New Hampshire, where we go often, I’ve only ever seen a few. I have all these mason jars and not a single lightning bug to put in them.

I rebel where I can, trying to carve out a little piece of my Southern childhood for them. My kids storm the yard, not only barefoot, but often naked. In one corner of the yard where we removed a dying tree, we have a dirt patch, usually filled with water, a homemade puddle for the mud-loving, child-shaped pigs who inhabit my home.

Memory is funny. Those years of my mom’s cancer were some of the toughest for our family. And, as my teacher discovered, I clearly had a lot more than nothing to do. But I don’t remember that as much I do the casualness of the time, filled with playing with whomever was around, napping on the sidewalk, and catching lightning bugs while the adults chatted over gin and tonics. I want my kids to have some version of that summer, of that childhood, but by choice, rather than necessity, as it was for my parents.

Because although it may not have been on purpose, my parents gave us a gift in those years: the gift of doing a whole lot of nothing. The kind of nothing that is, of course, everything.