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One year, when I was what, 9 and going into fourth grade? I attended a special summer school session. It was an opportunity to be challenged and explore with other gifted and talented kids my age and I loved it. The bus was a different animal in summer; many fewer children, and no air conditioning meant that the morning ride was breezy, but ride home in the afternoon could be blistering, even with the windows down. I remember the day I realized that for the other kids on the bus, going to summer school seemed a punishment, not a reward.
Sometimes memory only comes in fragments, incomplete thoughts and impressions. Or it can be confusing to understand because the “memory” is actually the collision of two different events. I remember being in the back of grandma & grandpa L’s car, coming from the east at the crest of the D Avenue hill, and thinking back over that day’s events, visiting the quirky museum with some form of cupola and a collection of odd things of beauty, like the butterfly collection. I believe it was late summer, as I had noticed the fields of golden wheat on the drive back home.
One recurrent memory is that of waking up at grandma B’s, in Rae’s old bedroom that faced the front walk and driveway down below. There were old English roses that had taken over the fence down where the driveway met the walk. Having slept the night before with the windows open – no air conditioning in that place or time – I awoke to the scent of those lovely old roses. I headed downstairs for a breakfast that included Tang and a discussion of the astronauts over the Today show. The fragrance of grandma’s roses has haunted me for nearly forty years.
For many years when I was young, the Independence Day tradition included making ice cream out on the front porch with the old and slow, blue hand-crank ice cream maker. The day culminated in going to see the fireworks at Gull Lake with Bob and Linda. I wanted to see them every year, the magic of color and movement was entrancing, but I was terrified of the big booms. I remember laying on the ground, looking up into the night sky over the lake and covering my ears with my hands, and flinching every time the fireworks exploded at launch.
I have a hazy memory of that end of the year picnic was held for mom’s gifted and talented class. Dad and I went – it was a family event for everyone – although I think we were both feeling rather out of place. I don’t know what park it was held in, but I remember the wide open spaces, buzzing of crickets and grasshoppers, and playing softball – until Craig called me “Thunder Thighs.” The thing I remember most about that day was sitting on the sidelines of activity and watching as dusk arrived over the park with a truly glorious sunset.
I remember the pool party at Mrs. Gibson’s in shadowy outline, but I know the memories are real. At the end of the school year, she invited her fourth-grade class to her house for a pool party, a final goodbye. I think it was the only pool party I ever attended. I was happy to go, but uncomfortable when I got there. The other kids splashed, ran around and played as kids do, but I didn’t quite know how to interact with a large group. I remember eating a brownie, watching the chaos poolside and not knowing what to do.
I really enjoyed summers at Lake Schnabel with grandma & grandpa L, with the beach, the water, and the boating, even if Grandpa did make us wear life jackets. I have hazy memories of that lakeside community, of evenings spent with music and lights shimmering everywhere, everyone gathered outside sitting in chairs or around picnic tables. This summer community was a hold over from an earlier time, when people were their own entertainment. I have often wondered what would it be like to spend a week at a lake like that now - would the isolation caused by modern technology persist?
There was a stand of very tall pine trees in the back yard along the property line between us and the neighboring farm field. I used to sweep dried pine needles into gently raised rows, creating the “walls” for various rooms between the lower pine boughs, and would play there for hours. I also loved climbing the pine trees, as I could get up high enough to see over our house, or across the corn field. At that height, the trunks of the pine trees would sway slightly with the breeze, which was almost better than any amusement park ride.
The summer I had the special summer school session for gifted and talented kids was the summer I came down with chicken pox. Right after classes ended, I broke out with the little red bumps everywhere, even in my throat. I was miserable; it was a very bad case, all I wanted to do was scratch the itch – each and every one of them. As added torment, it was hot, I had to stay inside, stay in bed, and I was bored. And I was pouty because the pox meant I was missing the start of this special summer school.
August was the end of summer and it meant at least a week of camping in Copper Harbor: watching the bears dine at the dump, waiting for the Isle Royal ferry to come in – perching on dock posts like seagulls, sunset from the top of Brockway Mountain, the lighthouse, walking from the lower campground (which we preferred) to Fort Wilkins and the park store, the little gift shop that had beautiful gift wrap, the beach at Eagle Harbor, pasties at Tony’s, breakfast at the restaurant in Calumet City, and of course, sometime or another, cinnamon rolls at the Hilltop Restaurant.
I was never much of a baseball fan, but for a few years there, I learned the lingo and was able to follow a game. A Tiger’s game that is, and live at Tiger Stadium with Grandma & Grandpa L; Grandpa loved baseball. They’d pack up the Lincoln (I swear, it was always a Lincoln of some kind) and we’d start driving east, with an overnight stay at a hotel, either the night before or after the ball game, and many times, the outing included a day at Cedar Point. Which may be the only amusement park I’ve ever visited.
My parents convinced me that the first summer I went to camp I should only go for a week. The idea of all that adventure, but for only a week? I was sure it should be two weeks, at least. But by the end of the first day, I wasn’t sure I would last a week. Although the particulars have long since vanished from my memory, I do remember that I felt so out of place, the food wasn’t very good, and there was no place to be alone, and the bathrooms were somehow worse than when we went camping.
I made it through that first week of summer camp, and ended up having such a good time that I went back again the following summers, for two weeks each time. I can remember the arts and crafts hall – the wooded, dappled sunlight approach to it. The lake: both polar bear mornings, and passing the canoe exam, tipping the canoe over, crawling back in and paddling back to the shore. I remember the two week session for horses; we didn’t do nearly as much riding as I’d hoped, but did more grooming and cleaning out stalls than I thought possible.
I was delighted to go to Blue Lake music camp the summer before 9th grade. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, the level of competition in a larger group beyond my own high school. I hated the idea of the uniform. After living in open walled, covered shelters at girl scout camp, the cement block “cabins” seemed claustrophobic, especially with bunk beds. The camp was much larger, but still filled with that rustic, woodland charm: any open area in the woods became your personal practice room, and dancers took every opportunity to leap along the paths.
The first day of camp begins with a marathon audition session for everyone: musicians, dances, actors, we were all nervous, excited. At the end of the day, the answer: what group are you in? What seat did you get? In band camp, there were several opportunities for challenges, where you could move up a seat or two if you were successful. There were daily rehearsals, running to eat meals at Marek Hall. Finding time for the camp store was difficult, as was standing in line while hoping for letters. I wonder what they do in this day of cell phones?
It was an odd combination of circumstances that led to an odd combination in the driver’s ed car. Barb and Karen were both a year ahead of me, but there we were, all together in the same class that summer. Barb was afraid of the center line, Karen afraid of the side of the road, I was safely in the middle, rather like real life. We were three very bright, quirky friends and the car was never quiet, even if the instructor didn’t understand half of what we said. Despite his mutterings, we never had an accident of any kind.
Mackinac Island and bridge. The half-way point to Copper Harbor, more or less. I loved looking at the bridge at night, it was lit up like a steel Christmas tree. The first few years we made the trip, I wouldn’t look out of the car as we crossed the bridge, as bridges were a kind of magical concept to me that didn’t bear close scrutiny or the magic might fail. In later years, going over the bridge was like an amusement park ride, and I had my nose to the window looking out to the water and the big ships.
I never thought it odd that Grandma B made pies and jam when we were camping in Copper Harbor. Didn’t everyone’s grandmother bake pies when camping??! Huckleberries, blackberries, gooseberries, whatever we could find to pick in the morning, she’d set up things in the Airstream’s miniature kitchen and several hours later, we’d enjoy the end product after dinner. Maybe before dinner, if it looked really good to Grandpa; a pie that fresh never lasted very long when camping, even if it had gooseberries in it. The jam would come home with us and be part of that year’s jam supply.
Copper Harbor was THE family vacation when I was growing up. Easter was Gatlinburg with dad’s parents, New Year’s might bring a visit from, or to, the family in Rochester, and the three of us would do weekend camping getaways to Ludington or Newaygo, but Copper Harbor was the prime attraction. With a tent camper, there was someplace to sit comfortably if it rained (at least one day, generally). Food was stored in the cooler, in the car overnight (Bears! Oh my!). Cooking over the camp stove wasn’t exotic, but cooking over an open fire was always interesting to me.
I alternated between lazy delight and sheer boredom in summer. I could get up late, read, paint and draw to my heart’s delight. Mom would make macaroni and cheese for lunch, or goulash or one of the other things we loved that dad didn’t like. Maybe I’d get a sandwich with potato chips, if there were chips in the house. Of course, if I ran out of reading material, or the afternoon was particularly hot, I would find myself complaining to mom that I was bored, there was no one to play with. Which was the complete and utter truth.
One of my most vivid memories is summer with Babe and the Leonard family in the city. However hot I thought the House on the Hill was, it was no match for the concrete of the city. Upstairs, with no air conditioning, Babe’s bedroom was sweltering. On the flip side, we could walk to see a movie. We walked – alone!- to the Walgreen’s or other stores downtown, on the outdoor mall, where we window shopped; our allowances didn’t stretch very far. Or we could walk the other direction to the corner store, where we could always find something to buy.
Grandma B was an elementary school teacher “in the city,” such as it was. She taught in a poorer neighborhood, where there wasn’t a lot of green, just concrete. At the end of the school year, or just afterwards, she would host a lunch at her house for all the city kids in her classroom; I was generally along as an observer since she lived next door. It allowed the kids to have some time out in nature – there were bird, bunnies, and insects galore in the back yard. I wondered at these kids who had no exposure to nature.
Next door to the House on the Hill, about ten feet from the edge of the house, was a farmer’s field. The phrase I remember hearing is that it was a“110 acre corn field” but there was a year or two when it wasn’t planted with corn. And it must have been that the flowers that dad had planted and tended in our front yard spread themselves into the fallow field, because it seemed to me that it was a field of flowers. That year I couldn’t stay off the neighbor’s property, I was drawn to the field of flowers.
I remember bolting out of bed, grabbing a bowl in the kitchen and picking up speed as I ran out of the back door, down the steps, across the concrete and up the little hill, turning a hard right between the pine trees and Grandpa’s shop and hit the raspberry patch. It was still early morning, the sun had not yet fully hit the berries to warm them. When I had picked a bowlful, and eaten a few straight off the bush (just to tide me over), I went back inside to the kitchen and poured cream over the berries.
After grandma and grandpa L moved “up the cliff” at Schnable Lake and were much farther from the water, their trailer had an above ground pool in the backyard, which I loved to splash in and escape the heat, just like every other kid in summer. But then there was my swim shirt: in addition to always wearing a once piece bathing suit, I always had a lightweight, short sleeved, white shirt that I wore when playing in the water in summer – sunscreen alone couldn’t do the job. The back of my neck and shoulders were particularly likely to burn.
At the House on the Hill, I loved climbing the oak tree out front. There was one branch that I could grab and use to swing myself up, grab with my legs and pull myself up. Once I was off the ground, I would climb as high as I could go without the tree limbs bending beneath me. Our property was about twenty feet higher than the road; from the tree I would watch the houses across the street and traffic cresting over the hill just east of our property before beginning the long downhill stretch to the corner.
My favorite things as a young girl, were my Pooh bear and my books. I don’t know how old I was when I got the little record player, but the record player and my records (no point in having one without the other) were definitely next in line. I can still see how the room set up when I first got Pooh, with my bed facing the front window, the little bookcase along the wall with the record player, and I’m dancing around the bed (not on it!) with Pooh. Although much worse for wear, I still have my Pooh.
One of the things I disliked about summer was that Grandmother would empty out her classroom. That meant bringing back to her house all the fish tanks that were filled not with fish, but with creepy crawlies – spiders and snakes - which she then set up in her back mudroom. And of course, coming across the backyard from my house, the mudroom door was how I went in and out of her house, so I had to pass through the room. I hated and feared spiders and snakes so much, I would run across the room or close my eyes.
For several years, my summer began by going with mom to her school for the last day or two and running around with her students. Such a thing wouldn’t be allowed now, but back then, in a school that was designed as “open concept” (anyone here remember “pod” classrooms?) no one seemed to care. I made copies on the mimeograph machine (ancient technology), helped box up the paperback books and checked off names when the class books were turned in. I loved watching a movie in the big media space, kids sprawled everywhere, in chairs or on the carpeted floor.
Those summer evenings seem to go on forever when I was growing up – Michigan is rather far west for the time zone, and the House on the Hill had a broad view of the sky in all directions. Sitting out on the front porch (a concrete pad, really) trying to catch a cool breeze, it seemed that it would never be truly dark, it was such a slow, dimming of the evening. There were fireflies to watch, sparklers on the 4th of July and kool aid pops to enjoy. They truly were the long, lazy days – and nights – of summer.
I was probably the only kid who loved back to school shopping. The new clothes were fun, definitely, especially back in the day when clothes were considered suitable birthday and Christmas presents, before personal electronics. But geek that I am, I got excited about folders, paper, pencils, the real “back to school” supplies, and the idea of going back to school. By August, after the long weeks of summer and the diversion of the family vacation in Copper Harbor, I was ready to go back, to learn and study. Summer was fun, but it was just a break, after all.
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