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As summer turns to autumn, I’ve had to face yet again my own finitude.
At the beginning of every summer, my optimism is unmatched: my baseball team (which shall go unnamed for its own protection) is finally going to get it together, and I’m going to be fabulously productive on every front. To be honest, I didn’t do too badly this summer—but, of course, nowhere close to the aspirations on that to-do list I put together in May.
I realize I’m not the only one with unrealistic summer expectations. Almost everyone I know who is a parent seems to want every summer to be the “best summer ever” for their kids—filled with fun activities! Educational experiences! And memories to last a lifetime! But from what I read on social media (so it must be true), there’s a fair amount of fretting over the less-than-perfect season that actually tends to materialize.
So, as a public service, I’d like to reassure parents, in particular, that their children will not be harmed by a less than stellar summer.
As evidence: the summer of my junior year in high school that I spent cleaning out my grandmother’s house.
My Grandmother Kline was a life-long resident of Des Moines. Her house had been built in the late 1920s by my grandfather on land that she had won in a dancing contest (a subject for a whole other blog, obviously). Like most Midwestern homes of that era, it wasn’t a large house, though it did have an attic and a basement. But sixty years on, it was well-filled with a lifetime’s worth of stuff. My grandmother had been quite the clotheshorse, and she had carefully lined the rafters of the attic with her wardrobe. Part of her career, she’d work for Meredith Publishing (home of Better Homes and Gardens) for some twenty years, and she’d kept many of their early publications, neatly tied with string in her attic. She’d canned fruits and vegetables, jellies and jams every year, so a small room in the basement was filled with her productions. Most of all, my grandmother was an inveterate reader and book collector—and so every room in the house featured bookcases. And thousands of books. In fact, in the basement, she had installed canning shelves in the main rooms, so that she could get two rows of books on each shelf.
Sixty years of stuff would have been bad enough. But because she had grown ill, she had come to live with us in New Mexico, and so the house had sat empty for many months. Eventually the task could be put off no longer. As an only child, my mother had no one else to help her, except for me and my brother and sister. So off we went.
It was unpleasant work, to be sure: the Iowa summer was unremittingly sultry, the hot and sticky air amplified by the close, un-air-conditioned atmosphere in the house. After months of being shut up, dust was everywhere. It was hard, tiring work, sorting and packing and toting trash to the curb. Worst of all, the shower stopped working soon after we arrived. The plumber didn’t seem to think we were much of a priority, so we made do with baths as well as we could.
And yet, my siblings and I often talk about this summer with great fondness.
Here’s why: we got to eat out a lot that summer—and at every restaurant, our mother let us order an appetizer. This was, in itself, a big deal. But my mother made it into something more: we kept a running comparison going all summer of the many kinds of onion rings available in the restaurants of Des Moines. (You might be surprised, actually, at the varieties available). Dorky? Probably. But it was also a silly, fun thing—something we looked forward to at every meal. Something we still talk about when we remember our mother, now gone these many years.
It makes me think of the proverb that reminds us “Better is a dish of vegetables where love is/Than a fattened ox served with hatred.” It doesn’t take much to make a good summer. Sometimes it just takes a onion ring.