I always feel like summer really starts in May, almost a month before the actual solstice, as the days get longer and longer and the air starts to fill with that scent specific to summer. It’s a hard scent to pin down. There’s a sort of dryness about it, grass crisping in the sun and laurel leaves falling to carpet the ground, earth slowly cracking as it loses moisture. Spring has a wet, heavy smell and summer has a dry, light one. Sometimes it’s overlaid with fog, and there’s something almost acrid about it. Not quite petrichor, but close.
One of the tragic things about growing older is that summer starts to mean less and less over time. I used to associate that smell with freedom and think about all the things that would be coming up in the following months. My father and I would spend hours at Jughandle trying to redirect the creek, swimming, tidepooling, collecting driftwood and seaweed. We’d go out to the river and swim on lazy summer days, lying on the sand and reading books, eating dense brownies made from Indonesian cocoa so intense the brownies would be almost pure black. We’d eat at the giant utility spool off the back deck, pushing back nasturtiums to take a seat, and on late, lingering nights people would drink wine and lurch around in the yard to the sound of old records while the scent of Drum tobacco wrapped around us.
Now summer is just like the rest of the year; there’s nothing particularly special about it, except that when I want to go to bed early, I have to wear a face mask so the light doesn’t keep me up. I feel old and dull and boring on those nights, slithering between the sheets while the sun is still high over the horizon, lowering the shades to plunge myself into the gloom, lying there and willing myself into somnolence. Sometimes I feel wide awake no matter what I do, even when I desperately need to sleep.
On the solstice the day is the longest of all and the sun is bright and assertive, the king of the world. As it creeps across the sky, I work like I always do, always finding more reasons to be trapped indoors, all of them urgent, none of them ever ending. As soon as I clear one thing away there’s another, and another, and another. I can’t imagine escaping as far as the beach, let alone spending a whole day at the river thinking about nothing in particular.
It makes me wonder how my father managed to do it all those years, to spend all day playing with me without ever once betraying nervousness about things being left undone, to happily dredge buckets through the mud at Jughandle beach without getting impatient as I fussed over the latest iteration of our beach improvement plan. He always seemed so calm and relaxed on those long summer days when my energy never ended, as enthusiastic as I was about whatever scheme I had.
He must have had work piling up around him everywhere, but he never said so.
People talk about childhood as a time of innocence and purity and in many ways it was not for me—though through no fault of my father’s—but I definitely remained unaware of the day to day grind of being a grownup. Summer was always a period of pure delight to me because it represented hours of endless play without obligations, without requirements, without the need to be anywhere by any particular time. Long days stretched on for what felt like forever because my sense of time was so deeply disrupted and distorted by the fresh, heady air of summer days. I thought summer would never end each year and was always disappointed come September.
And I know my father enjoyed summers as well; he got time off from school too, after all, but they also must have been incredibly stressful. He had a full-time small child on his hands and still needed to get things done, with limited support, and he had to find ways to entertain me and keep me fed and clothed and housed, without a break. Caregiving is hard, especially when there’s never any break from it, and that’s the case for a lot of single parents, especially those living on a limited income. Even in communities where they have a network of friends and fellow parents, it can still ultimately be highly isolating, especially with, ahem, difficult children.
Father’s Day just passed here, and I can’t help but think that summer is one of the greatest gifts my father gave me. He never tried to force me into summer school or classes or endless play dates to get rid of me. He simply let me be a kid each summer, and he was there every step of the way no matter how tired or stressed out he was. As I grow older and my father and I grow more and more similar, his feat seems all the more amazing to me; I may be a bit more quick-tempered than he is, but both of us have a low tolerance for nonsense and a bit of a perfectionist drive, and those things must have made some summer days sheer torment for him—but he never once let on.
It makes me ache to think that so many children won’t have the summers I did.