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Fireflies And Summer Rain

by Julia Sneden

Summer has many wonderful things to recommend it: long hours of daylight; fruits and vegetables fresh from the garden or a Farmers' Market; swimming outdoors in ocean, lake or pool; the distinct lack of formality in dress; outdoor sports like tennis and golf; comfort in one's loose-fitting clothes; and a chance, perhaps, to enjoy a bit of vacation at home or away.

For children, of course, there is that delicious anticipation of the last day of school, and the thrilling first moments after the final bell when the whole beautiful summer spreads itself before you in your imagination, not one minute of the precious time yet squandered. For teachers, too, it's a buoyant moment, followed shortly by the exquisite treat of going to bed and NOT setting the alarm clock.

Growing up in northern California, I loved to spend idle summer hours sitting up in the top of my special live oak tree, or playing wild games of Monopoly or Canasta with my best friend from next door. Once a week my mother would take us to the library and we'd stock up on books, three or four at a time. I can still recall the scent of that library, and see in my mind's eye the wooden card catalogue and metal shelving in the children's section. The name and face of the librarian are long gone from memory, but she was a beloved resource who kept tabs on everyone's special interests and level of proficiency, and could suggest books that were an appropriate next step.

On hot days, my brother and I could bike down one hill and up another to a little green puddle partly ringed with a stone wall and a gate with a curved sign above it that said: "Emerald Lake Country Club." There was no clubhouse; no tennis court; no amenity beyond a couple of outdoor restrooms and a trucked-in sandy beach. The lake had a raft in the middle, and a tall swing next to the high diving platform on the edge. On the Fourth of July, there were swimming races for children. I won mine a couple of times when Kay Belden moved up to the older age group, but in the years that we were in the same group, there was no touching her. I learned to dive by watching Kay, and every now and again she'd deign to notice my efforts, and offer advice, which thrilled me.

My brother used to drive the lifeguard (and my mother) mad by slipping beneath the surface and disappearing for a long time. He was a natural sinker, and could hold his breath for what seemed like forever. The water was so green that you couldn't see three feet beneath the surface, so you never knew where he'd come up next. Often he shot out of the water beneath the inner tube on which I was floating, turning me over. Sometimes he grabbed me by the feet and yanked me down. Try as I might to swim underwater, I always bobbed back up, so he could easily escape my outraged efforts for revenge. I suppose that there's an advantage to being naturally buoyant (it'd be hard to drown me), but at the time it seemed like the bane of my life.

In California, the grass-covered hills turn golden in the summer. It doesn't rain from May to September, so the tall grass cures in the sun. That was when we got out the cardboard cartons we'd saved all winter, flattened them, and rode them down the hill in the same way that children in the East use sleds in the snow. It could be a hard and bumpy ride, but the dry grass was slick and the slopes were steep, and we could gather enough speed to shoot the small, dry creek at the bottom of the hill. (Well, at least my brother and the other big boys did).

Once or perhaps twice a summer, we'd have a really hot spell, as high as 90. There would be headlines in the newspaper about little old ladies collapsing from the heat. But usually the "marine layer," as the weathermen now refer to fog, would roll in over the coastal mountains that were known simply as Skyline, pouring over the slopes like a great ocean comber, making our nights chilly enough to sit by the fire, even in summer. It was nature's own air conditioner, at least for those of us who lived near enough to the ocean.

On rare nights when the fog didn't come in, my brother and I would sometimes lie on our backs in the tall grass and swat mosquitoes (and get bitten by them) as we watched the brilliant stars wheel overhead. Smog hadn't yet come to the Bay Area, and the dry air was very clear. The first poem I ever wrote, when I was about 8, ended with: "...and stars at night, a million stars, hung low."

The first time I ventured east of the Mississippi, I was five years old. The War had begun, and my parents knew that soon travel would be impossible. As soon as school let out for the summer, my mother, brother and I boarded the train at the Oakland Moll and headed back to New York State to visit Great Aunt Julia. She was then 88 years old, and my mother, who was her closest relative, was anxious to see her one last time.

Aunt Julia lived with a companion in a small town in upstate New York. She had a big old house with nooks and crannies to delight children, including a dark back stairway just made for haunting. There was a stuffed loon on the dresser in my brother's bedroom, and in mine, a small white china cat holding a purple and gold velvet ball that was a pincushion. Best of all there was a barn out back (empty, alas), and a lawn and big trees where we could play tag. I remember the first evening at dusk when we sat out on the porch, still a bit in awe of our aunt, and on our best behavior. Suddenly there was a small gleam of light in the air right by my foot. I wasn't sure I had really seen it, but shortly there was another, a little farther away.

"What is it?" I breathed, not the least afraid because it seemed somehow friendly, a bit like the stars I loved.

"Ginger Blue!" said Aunt Julia. "Has the child never seen a firefly?" (I think I was almost as entranced by that "Ginger Blue!" - which turned out to be Aunt Julia's favorite exclamation - as I was by the fireflies).

Bottles were quickly provided so that my brother and I could catch fireflies to our hearts' content, a task I adored because the fool things were so easy to capture, and didn't sting or bite like our California bugs.

The next leg of our trip took us to New York City, where it was hot and humid, and then to New Jersey to stay with cousins who had children about our ages. The afternoon we arrived, there was a good rain, and because the grownups hadn't heard any thunder, we were allowed to put on our bathing suits and go out to play in it. I can still remember the wonder of that: it was lots better than playing in our sprinkler on a hot day at home. In California, the rains didn't come until the weather had turned cold, and you'd no more go out in your bathing suit in rain than you would in snow.

The rest of the trip took us to our Mother's old college, where we saw snapping turtles in the lake, and then on to Chicago, and to Pentwater, Michigan, where we visited Mother's former roommate in her wonderful house by the lake. It seemed strange to be playing in the sand dunes and then swimming in fresh, not salty water, but the winds off the lake were cool and welcome.

That trip also provided me with my first glimpse of lightning, as we came across the Great Plains. From my upper berth, I could look out the little window and see huge bolts of lightning on the horizon, although because of the distance, or possibly the noise of the train, I never heard the thunder. I was quite afraid of the lightning. It seemed unpredictable, and looked violent even though it was beautiful.

Now that I have lived more than half my life in the East, I've gotten over being afraid when I hear the first rumbles of thunder, although I still don't enjoy it when there are strikes so near that you can hear the fizz-snap simultaneously with the bang. I have never stopped loving fireflies. On evenings after a rain, or when the grass has been freshly cut, we can count on a large number of winking lights, and the woods in the hollow behind our house are often like a fairyland of tiny stars moving lazily about among the trees.

One of the things I most appreciate about the East in summer is that despite horrible daytime heat, and humidity so thick you'd swear you could squeeze a handful of air and watch it drip, the evenings can be pure magic. With no coastal fog to chill us, we can sit out on the deck at night without even a sweater and enjoy watching those fireflies, or perhaps the flying squirrels that come to our bird feeder.

And, if we're lucky, it will rain often enough so that we're not eternally tied to the garden hose, although during a dark and rainy spell like the one we've had this past week, we find ourselves grumbling that it's good weather to grow mushrooms and not much else.

But after all, summer is summer, no matter where you live, and it needs nothing else to recommend it. In any guise, it's a time for living lightly and slowing down to enjoy whatever nature brings you. If you do it right, when Labor Day rolls around you'll have begun to be bored with summer, and you'll be ready for Fall's up-gearing once again.

In the meantime, let insouciance reign.

 

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