The End of May Was Only the Beginning of My Summers

May 31, 2013  Memorial Day weekend a few days ago brought family fun, and as usual the 500 Mile Race on television, accompanied by an annual reminder of this story, originally published in an anthology called “Most Wanted” a few years back. I’m resurrecting it here this year:

THE HAMMOCK by Joanna Foreman

In my musty, mothballed canvas cocoon I sway, suspended between giant black walnut trees, my eyes tightly closed. Dark green leaves rustle high above, a chorus of whippoorwills and woodpeckers, mourning doves and katydids, and crows crying Caw, Caw, welcome back little girl. I dangle one leg in the unpolluted May breeze. It is not yet noon.

Inside the dusty kitchen of our summer cottage, my parents fuss and sweat as they eliminate caked mud left behind by spring floods. To my left, I hear Brandywine Creek tumbling over rocks and fallen branches, as she says, “Hurry, hurry, they’ve discovered our fury.” You’d better run away, I reprimand Brandywine, as she hastens to hide herself from my mother’s wrath.

To my right is our horseshoe court, where tonight I will gaze through the campfire’s vapor to a clink, clang, whoosh and a thud, followed by boisterous shouts from aunts and uncles as Mommy pitches a dead ringer, her scoffing challenge to the rest of them to just go ahead and try to beat last summer’s champion.

Beyond the horseshoe court, milk cows graze among us as though they own the entire farm. Their silent presence is broken only by their snorts and grassy snack-chomping and the occasional plop-plop of a cow pie. They are happy cows, and I am a happy girl.

My eyes are still closed, but I have it all memorized from summers past. Behind me sits the Bowman cottage—a little round trailer with a covered patio where adults drink Millers and play cards way past dark at homemade wooden tables. Inside, it has the odor of aged wood paneling mixed with old people’s breath. I hang out over there because of Butch, a boy and a friend, but not a boyfriend, you understand. Butch will eat nothing but peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. Once I offered him a quarter to eat tuna, or bologna, just anything but peanut butter, but he wouldn’t. He says it’s the only thing that hits that spot in his tummy. Butch Bowman finds the best hiding places in hide-n-seek, and last year he chased me with a little black snake and scared me so badly I made him play Barbie dolls with me for one solid hour. I listen for the sound of their car; they should be here soon.

Beyond their trailer the creek meanders with a winding trail alongside, scattered with cabanas. Not much farther now and I spy, in my mind, The Root Tree. Tangled inside and out, roots rise a foot above ground from times when high water feasted on rich topsoil then washed it downstream to disgorge it in our cabin. During long family walks, we kids will run ahead to play on the roots until our parents catch up, and finally lose their patience. “Come on—keep up,” they will plead, so we’ll scramble under the electric fence and spend a sunny afternoon fishing at The Pit, a hole so deep we aren’t ever allowed to swim in it. We suspect it goes all the way to China.

I open my eyes now and, sure enough, everything is just as I remember. Straight ahead, our simple, two-room cottage enjoys its one-hundred-year lease on a multi-acre dairy farm. The concrete patio Daddy poured last year shows, fresh and clean, the handprints of my cousins and me. Daddy has pulled our new white ’58 Ford station wagon up close behind the cabin, and he removes the block of ice we bought at the icehouse down on the winding blacktop road in Boggstown. By the time I opened the farm-gate entrance into the campground, the ice had already begun to melt, so when I rode in on the open tailgate, my new white shorts got wet, dang it! (I’m allowed to say that.) Daddy puts the frozen chunk in the bottom of the musty old fridge and we’re set for Memorial Day weekend.

How does country air smell? Fresh, like our sheets after my mother collects them from the clothesline. Of lilacs and peonies, of mint and rosemary. I fill my lungs with the bouquet of this Indiana camp, and I’m home again. Another Hoosier summer awaits; days of endless fun, and skies so dark at night you can see into the next galaxy.

Daddy says I am his princess when I help him prime the pump with creek water, and we will shout “HIP HIP HOORAY” when the Shelby County Health Department says it’s safe to drink from the icy cold well. We trace with our fingers the initials carved by my cousin Marsha and me into the concrete at the base of the pump: “JF MT”

A princess in a canvas throne, I swing the day away while they mop the cabin’s gray linoleum floor and scrape its meager furnishings. Only on occasion do I step up on a concrete block to survey adult progress. I peek through the old and dark, foul-smelling screens. I could help them, but I don’t. Well, when we first arrived I did tote a dead mouse out by his tail and watched him bob up and down as the current took him to his everlasting resting place. But for now the cottage reeks, and I fear I may faint, so in my hammock I remain. Each spring, high water brings the creek bank ever closer to our cottage, leaving a nasty mess inside. Dang, dang, double dang, I say. Always in May, we wonder if we will find our cottage lying upside down in the creek, having succumbed to Brandywine’s savagery.

I ask why they exert themselves so. “We’re making memories, Sweetie, don’t you know?”

Time now for Daddy’s beer break, so he joins me in the hammock. He beckons Nopi, my English setter, and her head bobs happily as she paddles across the creek. Daddy waves to Mommy as she cleans the outhouse. (Isn’t that the way it usually goes?

I shall not clean toilets when I grow up.) Nopi scampers up close to us and ferociously shakes off her creek water. Dang it, Nopi!

My Dad and I make plans to fish and squirrel hunt together this summer. I ride my bicycle without training wheels now, so I will attach bushy squirrel tails onto its handlebars, and they will flutter as I traverse Stratford Avenue’s sidewalks back home in the city. My girlfriends’ eyes will fill with wonder, for they have only plastic streamers. I will once again be a surgeon and remove eyeballs from cut-off fish heads. I will serve them to Mommy on a paper plate, and she will scream, “Ooey, Gooey, Accumpooey!” just like last year, and I will laugh my head off. I will dance around the cabin with a new upside-down mop upon which Mommy has drawn a face, and I will have fashioned its thick, white strands of hair into braids, tying their ends with satin yellow ribbons. What shall I name her this year, my imaginary friend?

Mommy stands over us now with a rake in her hand and tries to look insulted. She asks gruffly, “Where have all my helpers gone?” Daddy offers lame excuses and coaxes her to relax. “Hold the phone, Josephine,” he says with such a handsome grin. She leans over to kiss him and makes a big show of getting beer on her lips. “Oh yucky,” she feigns.

We wait for our guests: grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and their dogs. How fine it is for everyone to have someone to play with, even Nopi.

The campfire will be surrounded by stories and family laughter tonight as clothes hangers walk around in the dark wearing such fashions as hot dogs and marshmallows. Crickets will chirp background music and fireflies will beg to be collected. When we finally slide into our feather beds made up with flower-fragranced linens, I’ll nuzzle my head onto an old goose-down pillow covered with blue-striped ticking, and share my little bed with a cousin more often than not, but some grown-ups will sleep in station wagons or in back seats of Chevys, for the cabin is tiny, but I never hear a complaint from anyone. Mommy will reach up to pull the chain from the overhead light.

Daddy will say, “Who darkied da hole?”

At sunrise Daddy will rattle metal spoons against metal pans and holler REVEILLE, our bugle call, just like when he was in the Navy during WWII on the USS Cliffrose. No one was allowed to sleep in then, so why should now be any different? But we don’t want to sleep our days away, because there is too much fun to be had.

Ducks quack when we feed them dried bread crusts, as we hike across the shallow end of the creek to the big, white farmhouse. The old red barn is a sacred cathedral with sweet smells of fresh cream mixed with new hay. We pay our rent to the farmer who invites us to visit anytime, and be sure to pick his field corn and search the woods for the rare morel mushrooms. Such delicacies! Mommy sautés them with butter in Grandmother’s cast iron skillet, and we close our eyes to savor each bite.

Soon black and yellow bumblebees will bore holes and build nests under the eaves, and lie in wait for weekends when little cousins will become their horrified moving targets. They never really sting us, but we believe they will because they buzz so loudly. We will push each other on the tire swing hung on neighbor Tom Riley’s sycamore, and listen to our Indy 500 broadcast in stereo sounds from AM radios all over the campground. We will leap off the tree that, years ago, fell perfectly across the deep end of the creek, and we will splash and swim and shudder when we remember that one day, long ago, a boy drowned here. We will run around barefoot and pull leeches off each other without a second thought. Just who can skip flat stones the farthest across the creek? We will climb the tallest trees, collect paw paws, and by September will have compiled an enviable variety for next year’s school leaf project.

Everyone is welcome at our cottage, and when we watch the little road leading to it, we never know whose car we will spy on Saturday mornings loaded with coolers and casseroles, cakes and cobblers. Steaks and chicken grilled on our campfire, fresh buttered corn wrapped in foil, and no matter what the vast smorgasbord, oftentimes nothing hits that spot in my tummy like a hot dog. Daddy always tells Mommy to see that I get it; Auntie makes a clucking noise with her tongue and says it’s a shame the way he spoils me, but I am sure she does not yet fully understand the princess concept. Butch Bowman always gets his peanut butter, and I know for a fact there can be no royal blood in that boy.

Mommy, Daddy and me, all in the hammock now—Daddy’s toe tickles Mommy’s ear. I’m wedged in the middle, happily suspended in this moment in time.

Is this really true? They tell me it’s possible one day, a long time from now, I will have to give up one memory of summer camp, and, if so, which one will it be?

I say I’m okay with that as long as I have a lifetime to make the decision.

Hammock with Daddy

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