Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Finite Summer

It's Memorial Day this weekend; the official start of the American summer.


I always think it's funny that summer "officially" starts at the Memorial Day weekend. For one, it's been boiling in various parts of the country for a while now (tho' not Chicago - don't get me started) and two, doesn't the summer start with the Summer Solstice on June 21? Anyway, this weekend, we will all start BBQ'ing every meal, wearing shorts and flip flops and generally adopting an entirely different way of life. Many work places switch over to "summer hours" which basically means leaving early on a Friday afternoon. Some schools are already out for the summer and most will be done by June 10th.

In many places in the States, you have to have two completely different wardrobes because of the huge diversity in weather. For example, in Chicago, you need heavy duty parkas and snow boots for about three of the long winter months; in the summer jeans are far too heavy, and don't even think about wearing a jacket. Most people have their winter things cleaned and they store them (under the bed in special zipped bags usually) until next winter. This time of year it's a bit maddening as it's shorts one day and back to jeans the next.

Labor Day (first Monday in September) signals the official end of the summer, which I always find a bit sad. (Well, you would too, facing a Chicago winter which is still going on this year.) Again, no matter the weather, the end of summer means that local pools are drained, water fountains are switched off and lifeguards at the beach are no longer on duty. All very official.


Ah, Memorial Day, the official beginning of summer. We didn’t need the solstice to tell us that the sunny, hot weather was here to stay, and that school would soon be a thing of the past. This was the gateway, the starting point, of the new (and welcomed) season.

It was a weekend filled with traditions: the annual parade, culminating at the cemetery for speeches and a reading of Flanders Fields, then barbeques, ball games and—most importantly—the first swim of the summer.

No built-in pools or sandy beaches for us; instead, we would assemble a group of about six kids and make the trek to the local swimming hole.

We would start from our house, wearing swim suits under our shirts and shorts, and begin the long walk from the dirt road we lived on. This would have recently been tarred to keep the dust down and—warmed by the sun—the tar would squish under our feet. From there we walked the hot tarmac of County Route 25 and after that the dusty fields sloping down toward Kinderhook Creek. We followed the old wagon road, kicking up low dust clouds in the stagnant air, and followed the edge of the fields to a break in the trees that gave access to a bend in the creek known, for as long as anyone could remember, as “Wagners.”

Wagners on Kinderhook Creek, where I spent many a summer day.

There we jumped off the rope swing and splashed in the staggeringly cold water. It would warm up in due time, but at the end of May the creek—pronounced ‘crik’—was still high and fast and cold. We would swim until our lips turned blue and then, shivering and dripping, would pull on our shorts and shirts and begin the return journey. We rarely bothered with towels; we knew we would be dry by the time we reached home.

We never considered that school didn’t end for another two weeks, or that the solstice was another week beyond that, Memorial Day delivered the promise of summer, and it rarely disappointed.

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  1. @mike, I don't even think I knew when the summer solstice was because summer always started at Memorial Day. Last day of school used to be the Friday before too, though I gather the school year is a little longer these days. @Toni, funny you should mention the clothes storage for summer. Of constant annoyance to Americans and Italians by the way, is the inability to put anything but the heaviest winter coats in storage when living in the UK. Ever year I try to put my sweaters away--and my hopeful Texan self tries this in April--and every year, I have to pull most of it out again. And I've simply left my sandals in Texas. It is rarely warm enough for sandaled feet.

  2. In England we always have to have all our clothes available at all times because it can change at the drop of a hat.
    For instance...... at present it is quite wintry even though the month before we had very dry, warmer weather. This has happened several years running now. Its not exactly normal.
    Maggie X

    Nuts in May

  3. Chicago - I took the dog for a walk on Friday, wearing my ski jacket and winter boots. I had to come home early because I forgot my gloves and my hands were too cold holding the leash.
    On Monday, it's apparently going to be 90 degrees farenheit!

  4. In general, the American summer was dictated by the school year. Many schools let out the end of May or first week or two of June and then ,at least when I was small, school started the day after labor day. So even though summer hasn't ended, it has for the kids and so somewhere at some point the media dubbed Memorial Day and Labor Day the beginning and end of summer. Personally, I think it's one more marketing ploy to make it easier for retailers to signal to customers the beginning of a different shopping season.

  5. Wow, your reminiscing about the swimming hole brought to mind so many summer days spent in the creeks and swimming holes where I grew up in the North Carolina mountains. Thanks for the memories...

  6. Expat Mum - I too ended up putting woollen gloves on on Thursday last week. What's going on in Chicago?!

    Nice to read this blog - it has occurred to me a few times that it's strange how clearly defined the American summer is, but I suppose if you can count on three months of good weather you don't have to get so overexcited about a couple of sunny days in May or September in the way we do in Britain.

  7. Absolutely - when we got good weather last month I was straight into my swimsuit in the garden to work on my tan, as you just don't know when or if there'll be any sun again. I got no work done for a week, but then what's more depressing than feeling like "oh, there went summer and I missed it!"?

  8. What? Americans think summer starts at a time other than when the earth's axial tilt is most inclined towards the sun? Man, Mother Nature isn't going to like that hubris. America - like a modern day Canute. Just as May Week is in June, summer holidays need not necessarily take place entirely in summer.

  9. Two days ago I was praying for warmer weather and now it's 86, Friday its supposed to be 95. What was I thinking! I complained about it to my roommate and he was all, "See that's Trump Tower, over there is the Sears Tower and right over here peaking over the top of the buildings is the Hancock Building. These are all landmarks in a city called Chicago. You've been here 6 years and have no excuse to not be used to this by now." Thanks Colby that was so helpful.

  10. Here on Long Island it's gone from a distinctly chilly spring to high summer in a week - appropriately over Memorial weekend. It's a huge weekend here - parade, fireworks, everyone BBQing. Most people seem to think school should already have broken up, as their kids are 'done'. I'm just shocked that they only have 3 weeks left before the long, long, summer break.....


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