Summer Magic

Originally published at HerStry 2/25/2021

Summers lingered, with pancakes for breakfast and sometimes for lunch, too. Mom peeled carrots and left them in a Pyrex bowl of water on the kitchen table. I’d grab one for a snack, running through the house and out to the backyard, where the fun happened. 

Popcorn breaks were frequent; Mom made it on the stove; she’d wipe out the oil after each batch, never really cleaning the pot. “Not worth it,” she’d say, “just gets dirty again.” The sticky, oily drip lines remained for decades, tattooed on the old aluminum cookware, discarded, finally, when we grew up, moved away. 

It was an in-between time of my childhood. I hadn’t yet moved beyond neighborhood loyalties to the bigger world of middle school friendships. I spent the days barefoot, clad in my one and only summer swimsuit. This was before SPF 100; Coppertone Oil ruled. When my shoulders burned, I’d peel them, then pull a t-shirt over the top of my suit. 

On hot nights, we kids would sleep in the basement or in our oversized shed in the backyard. Never far from our above-ground pool, bought at Sears and carefully constructed by Dad, we woke with the stars still in the sky, hopped in for a dip to cool our sweaty bodies. “Don’t bother with your suit,” Mom would say. “There’s no one there to see you.” We’d drag ourselves out of the water, still warm from the days of heat, and onto the tops of sleeping bags and old basement couches, cooled, tired. 

A neighborhood kid came by one hot July day with a pack of balloons. Mom showed us how to fill them from the backyard spigot, tie a knot to keep the water inside. We divided up, boys versus girls, my brother’s team bigger and faster. “Not fair,” I complained. “They’ll get us!” 

Mom was a teacher and taught us so many games, but rarely participated. Although home in the summer, she was usually too busy for fun, mowing the lawn with our big tractor, leaving grass clippings to stick to our feet, rubbed off on the cement before swimming so as not to stress the pool filter. 

If we were the actors in her play, she was the producer of ours. Mom chalked hopscotch boards and donned roller skates, demonstrating how to temper our speed with one foot on the grass, one on the pavement. She called out encouragement as we pumped our legs on the swings, going higher and higher until she called, “Jump!” Mom taught us swimming and swan dives, how to dry our bodies on the hot pool deck, no need for a towel. And, on this day, as the summer heat beat down from a perfect blue sky, we had water balloon battles to add to her litany. 

I twisted the neck of each balloon as she showed us, and we girls dragged our hoard to a safe spot, back over behind the shed, away from the boys’ home base, the side yard “burn pile,” where we burned our trash when the town started charging for collection.

Safely guarding our munitions, we prepared for combat. “Start on three,” my brother pronounced. “If you get hit, you’re dead. The team with the most players at the end gets to push the losers in the pool.” 

The boys shrieked and laughed to celebrate their victory before the battle began. Chris was a year older than me and louder, more confident, strong and athletic. With Anthony and John and a few other neighborhood boys, my brother plotted how to defeat the girls. 

We huddled together, Marie and Patty, my younger sister Phyl, and a few of her friends. “We’re never gonna win,” I lamented, looking across the yard at the boys’ excited preparations as they assembly-lined the filling and piling of balloons in their growing arsenal.

We girls gathered a weapon in each hand, eager to get on with it. There was a shout of beginning, a count to three. Our small army braced for the bigger and stronger brother brigade. 

As balloons flew through the air, a larger, more powerful force exploded behind us. It was Mom; she’d leapt off her mower and into the battle, joining the girls team and giving us an advantage, if only for the briefest moment. She laughed and hollered along with us, threw a balloon or two, then got back on that mower — in her red and white bikini suit and grass stained sneakers — and finished the lawn. 

We lost the war (the girls, in my youth, always lost). Marie, Patty, and I, along with my sister’s crew, took turns being thrown in the pool, before moving on to a lazy respite, lying in the grass, chewing on the corn Mom had popped earlier in the day. 

***

That afternoon is a glimmer that defines my childhood. When I grow wistful for my mother, for my youth, I take the scene out and run it through my head, feel her excitement and her joy. I ruminate on the summer days of long ago, before responsibilities, age spots. 

I’ve asked my siblings about the great water balloon battle, and although they are confident that there were many, this memory is just mine. Marie and Patty, too, connected with me through the miracle of social media, do not recall the girl-boy war or Mom’s sneak attack. “Sounds like your Mom,” Patty tells me. “She was unique.” 

Although the recollections vary, the setting remains the same, carrots on the table, popcorn and pancakes rotating as the main course. Each day gently became the next, as we lived the summer paradise Mom created just for us. 

There were few rules, no chores. Together, we read books and played Rummy on an old mattress she’d pulled outside and set in the shade, under a Birch tree. When the clouds gathered in the sky, blocking the sun and threatening thunder, she’d encourage us to jump in the pool as the darkness turned to drizzle. “Get in!” she’d say. “The water’s warmer when it rains!” 

My youngest son was teetering on 12 when Mom took her last breath, six years ago. I mourned her then, but I long for her now. I want to sit at the table for hours and hours, warming our hands on mugs of tea — mine, herbal, hers, the same tea bag reused for days at a time, weaker with each steeping. I want to laugh about the antics of yesteryear, recount the remember whens and how ’bout the times. 

Perhaps it is because my own children are in an in-between time, transitioning from our small town to the worldly adventures that stand before them, college and adulthood. I wonder what they’ll remember from our own backyard full of childhood fun. Will it be pool alligator, where I’d swim circles around them, trying to chomp them alive? Or chicken fights, my youngest boy perched atop my shoulders as we battled his older brothers, pushing and dunking and laughing to victory? When the sky darkened, threatening rain, we’d run to the basement, where my sons would leap from the tall back of our tattered couch to the old mattress just below. They’d perfect moves and try them poolside, when the sun shone again. “The water,” I’d say, “is warmer after a good storm.”  

***

The great balloon battle behind us, July turned to August. With the unknowns of middle school looming, I worried about fitting in and measuring up. 

As September became barely visible on the horizon, my brother’s neighborhood friends, who just weeks earlier had been rivals in competitions, piqued my interest in ways they hadn’t before, as they seemed to transform from adversaries to the more interesting boys. Rearranging my room became a priority, with a David Cassidy poster on the wall and a beanbag in the corner. I discovered the lock on the bathroom door, sprayed Love’s Baby Soft behind my ears and wrestled my frizzy mop into Farah Fawcett wings. 

Mom’s super hero status changed, too, no longer as powerful as in the past. While I once gazed in awe at her red and white suit, now I focused on the purple scar protruding from Mom’s bikini bottom. Before, I had marveled at the mark left by my cesarean birth, this place from which I burst forth from my mother, now it was simply ugly, shameful. 

 “Mom,” I’d say, exasperation leaking from my voice. “Can’t you put on shorts or a dress?” 

She’d acquiesce, recognizing the struggles of adolescence. We didn’t have long talks or heart-to-hearts. Her style was one of action, and yet, she did what she could, blended, as much as possible for one as visible as she, into the backdrop of my blossoming. 

On one of those nights shortly before middle school started and my priorities forever shifted, I curled into my bed, exhaustion sweeping over me, from hours full of playing, growing, becoming. My bedroom windows were thrown open, the attic fan sucked the oppressive daytime heat up and out. Beyond the whir of the fan, I was lulled to sleep by crickets and katydids, a few restless bullfrogs calling to each other in the lake down the way. 

After minutes or hours I was jostled awake, rubbed at my eyes as I felt the presence of my mother. 

“Mariboo,” Mom whispered, using my childhood nickname, one I would discard at the door of my sixth grade classroom. She shook my shoulders, pulling me from a dream of cannonballs and fireflies. “Wake up, come see.”

Mom guided me to the high windows above my bureau. I pulled at my nightgown and struggled to drag myself on top of the dresser. My slumber had released me, for the moment, from the awkwardness of impending puberty. I became Mom’s little girl once again, eager to get a view of the latest magic she’d wrought. 

There in the star covered sky, we watched a celestial battle as meteors launched from a singular direction, as if balloons exploding on contact. There were no words between us as our eyes scanned the heavens, one bright light burned to blackness giving way to another, another, and more. 

I nestled in tight with my head on her shoulder, smelling her smell of grass and popcorn, sweet sweat and wonder.

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