Heat and Memory
The simple pleasures of a Southern boyhood come full circle
By Jim Dodson
Something unexpected is happening to me.
I’m starting to really like summer.
I know, crazy huh? Who the heck doesn’t like summer? Evenings on the porch. Weekends on the lake. Vacations with the kids. Reunions with aunties and uncles and old college chums. Golf and gardening till dark, sun tans, gin and tonics, grabbing a nap in a hammock with your favorite novelist.
Summer pleasures are seemingly endless.
But once upon a time, that was exactly my beef with summer. Summer was too hot, too long, too much of everything I didn’t enjoy doing including visiting elderly relatives on Sunday afternoons,
I used to think my constitutional dislike of summer stemmed from being a true son of winter, born during a February snowstorm. To this day, I still feed off the energies of snowstorms that shut down the world — probably the reason I could happily reside on a forested hilltop near the coast of Maine for two decades. Summers in the North Country are sweet, cool and brief, all seven or eight days of it. My hostas grew the size of Volkswagens almost over night.
I also wonder if my somewhat solitary childhood in the Deep South might have ruined me for summer. During my first six years of life, we lived in four different states because my dad was a newspaperman whose career took us to Texas, Mississippi and two places in the Carolinas before coming home for good to Greensboro. Our houses in those places were always older affairs in sleepy neighborhoods where I knew no one my age and there were few if any signs of human life beneath domes of summer heat and stillness. The only sounds I heard were those I made or the lonely drumming of cicadas in the long afternoons.
To break the spell, I spent many hours conducting elaborate ground wars with my plastic armies of Roman soldiers and Medieval knights in the cool, shaded earth beneath our house, pausing to examine interesting spiders and other critters I found beneath our porches. In an age before TV dominated daily life, I spent many an afternoon reading chapter books lying in a creaky glider on one of the screened porches, hoping for a thunderstorm or puff of breeze to stir the world and cool me off.
My mother suffered a pair of devastating miscarriages during these years. She was slowly recovering her strength and learning to cook from a lovely African-American woman named Jesse May Richardson who came to our house every weekday one summer in South Carolina. Jesse May drove me to Vacation Bible School in the mornings in her Plymouth Valiant and picked me up for lunch, sometimes stopping by the newly air-conditioned Piggly Wiggly market on the way home. I liked the Piggly Wiggly much more than Vacation Bible School, I’ll admit, even more so after a prune-faced teacher named Miss Betty informed me that Jesus saw everything I did and wrote it down for future reference. As a result, I spent summer days compiling mental lists of things so that Jesus couldn’t possibly know what I’d been up to, like how many legs are on a caterpillar or what Miss Jesse May would be making for supper.
Needless to say, I greatly preferred the company of Miss Jesse, as I was instructed to call her. She not only taught my mother — the youngest of 11 and a Maryland beauty queen — to cook “Southern style” vegetables, biscuits and fried chicken, but also showed me how to “feet dance” to gospel music that played from the transistor radio she kept in the kitchen’s screen window. I was skinny enough to stand on her bare feet holding her hands as she shimmied us around the kitchen to tunes like “I’ll Fly Away” and “Just Over in the Glory Land.”
When I complained how hot and dull summer was and moaned how I wished cold weather and school would return, Miss Jesse would give me a certain look and declare, “Better not wish away time, child. The Good Lord only makes so much of it. Besides,” she added, “summer is when things grow, including you. Why look at all them books you can read now? It’s best to love what you got right now.”
She had a point. Miss Jesse sometimes took me to her own backyard to fetch greens for supper and encouraged my recovering mama to plant peonies that autumn, flowering shrubs that prefer cooler weather but somehow were radiant the following spring. Peonies were my mom’s favorite flowers.
By the time we moved home to Greensboro for good in late 1959, she was hooked on gardening and cooking and in the fullness of time became accomplished at both. The peonies she grew on Dogwood Drive in Greensboro were second to none and were still putting out voluptuous blooms when I reluctantly moved her to a beautiful assisted care place on the coast of Maine decades later. Forcing her to say goodbye to her beautiful backyard shade garden and sunny perennial beds was perhaps the toughest duty I ever had. She took her old dog Molly with her.
Two years ago — proof that life really is a circular affair — my wife Wendy and I purchased the Corry house just two doors from the house where I grew up on Dogwood Drive. The pleasant woman who bought my mother’s house is a serious gardener who seems to be giving our former backyard a major overhaul.
Two doors away, I’ve spent a year and a half redoing the gardens of my mom’s best pal, Merle Corry. I’ve planted several peonies that should be something to see next spring. The Japanese shade garden I filled with hostas from my Maine garden and various kinds of ferns absolutely exploded this summer.
Working alone in my summer garden is a kind of therapy, a little like being that solitary kid in the dirt beneath our porches in South Carolina. My favorite garden tool — by a wide margin — is a small saucepan with a wooden handle that my mom used for boiling eggs and making hot chocolate. It’s perfect for scooping soil and mulch, and connects me to her love of Southern cooking and gardening.
The summers here are still a little too hot for my taste at times, but the unexpected pleasure of an attic fan and the cooling effect of afternoon thunderstorms are even better than air-conditioning at the Piggly Wiggly.
Best of all, I’ve learned that Jesse May Richardson was right. The good Lord only makes so much time and I’ve learned to love what I’ve got, even in summer — a garden where I can disappear for my sanity, friends coming for supper on the porch, dawn and evening walks with my wife and the dogs, just enough vacation time to miss home, books galore and even family reunions where I’m now as old as the uncles and aunties. Heat and memory weave their own magic.
Besides, summer makes autumn — when it finally comes — all the more welcome. Summer pleasures aren’t endless, I’ve learned. But they are real.