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An Ode to the Endless Summers of My Youth

What do you remember of those dog days of July? Share your vignette in the comments!

Dorothy Woodend 10 Jul 2024The Tyee

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

Summer isn’t what it used to be.

The volume of recent writing that addresses how the season has changed keeps coming. Heat, storms, even more heat and insect invasions (hello, cicadas!) are certainly real.

Things have changed, but the greatness of summer is not completely gone.

When I was in Montreal a few weeks back, I took a walk around Place des Arts, the city’s cultural district. There were people of every age out and about: little kids, old folks, young couples, teenagers.

Even in early June, the heat was already in full effect. When the sun dropped below the horizon and a gentle darkness descended, it was still warm enough to walk around in a T-shirt and feel like the demarcation between one’s skin and the air was non-existent; you couldn’t really tell where you left off and summer began. For me, that’s the surest sign that summer has truly arrived.

The scene in Montreal felt extremely civil, in the best sense of the word. It didn’t cost anything to sit outside and people-watch. Within the soft light of restaurants and bars, I could see people drinking, talking and flirting.

Vancouver has its own nightlife, but it feels different here: there are harsher divisions between people. Harder lines drawn between more privileged folks and the less accommodated and furnished.

There is something about summer that eases the borders between people. There are things we can all agree upon, like the hit song of the summer, or silly movies. And of course, silliness in general.

All of this on top of the freedom that comes from fewer layers of clothing, and the simple joy of taking off our shoes, a ritual I remember well from my wild-child days in the Kootenays.

There is something about the annual return of sun, heat and unstructured time that brings back fulsome memories of summers past. I’m not exactly sure why this is — certainly the rest of the seasons have their nostalgic qualities — but summer reigns supreme in the burnished business of remembering.

Maybe it has something to do with long Canadian winters, or a reprieve from rules and more-regulated schedules, but the interlude between the early heat of Montreal and the more recent sun in Vancouver surfaced a tidal surge of sensory recollections.

They came tumbling out, willy-nilly and sometimes hill-billy. They were a reminder of the simpler pleasures of just being alive.

With kids now loosed from school, I’m reminded of the dizzying joy of this period. In June, once school was done, textbooks hurled into the air, papers strewn with anarchic abandon, it was high time to lose the shoes.

No matter how hot or dry, it was far better to be footloose and fancy free than imprisoned in hot, sweaty sneakers.

Over the course of the next two months my tender feet toughened up, and by August they were deeply bronzed and tough as iron, able to leap lightly across burning sand, sharp rocks, thistle bushes and the like. I could walk over a newly mowed hayfield and feel no pain. Well, maybe a little bit of pain, but it was worth it. The trick was to slide your feet forward so that the pokey bits flattened underneath your gait.

Freedom for the feet spread upwards into liberation for one’s entire being.

‘That Summer Feeling,’ a 1983 folk classic by American singer-songwriter Jonathan Richman, captures the youthful promise of July. Video via YouTube.

Turned out of the house, we became wild beasts

As kids, we would be turned out of the house in the morning and return only when it was getting dark. After a long day of lighting fires, falling off cliffs, swimming underwater and running off “the summer people” (what we called the town kids whose cabins abutted our farm and who were always stealing cherries from our orchard), we’d be dirty, sunburned and slightly feral.

I recall the feeling of looking at the lighted window of our house, knowing that there was food, warmth and certain comfort there. But going inside also meant a return to domestication, and a temporary renunciation of the joy of being a wild creature.

It was a perilous feeling, hanging on the knife edge of knowing that you had to go home, but tarrying as long as possible in the deepening darkness. “Bittersweet” doesn’t quite do it justice.

The pain-versus-pleasure principle was a large part of the summer experience in other ways as well. In the era before sunscreen, one had to endure a few epic sunburns, the kind that required sleeping in damp towels to offset the pain. But after that, the caramelization process of my small body was well underway.

By summer’s end, the point was to be as deeply tanned as possible, the place where your bathing suit straps crossed over your shoulders starkly defined by strips of bone-white skin.

Back to other pleasures for a moment. Things like drive-in movies. In Creston, the drive-in opened as soon as it was warm enough to avoid hypothermia and closed when the snow returned. I exaggerate, but only slightly.

It was a ritual, attended by carefully formalized procedures, like hiding as many bodies as possible in the deepest caverns of the back seat of the family Chevy.

The films, sure, those were good, but the most critical aspect of the drive-in was the snack bar. How much candy you could afford, what kinds. The back-and-forth, to-and-from snack bar routes created a conveyer belt of sugared-up children.

It wasn’t all fun and frolic. As farm kids, picking fruit was a large part of the summer season. Boredom was also an issue, but it led to some creative habits like lying on the floor wondering what it would be like to live on the ceiling, or wide-ranging reading habits.

The dread of not having a book was a real fear, but luckily, in the upstairs room of my grandparents’ ancient green farmhouse, a mélange of books that different folks had left behind crowded a makeshift shelf. You never knew what you were going to find. If fortune was with you, maybe it was something vaguely smutty.

When September rolled around once more and children were rounded up and sent back to school, it was the equivalent of shoe jail. My feet were again imprisoned in leather and canvas, toes squeezed, heels raw. Now recite the multiplication tables. Louder!

But before that eventual inevitability, the expanse of time yawned, summer as endless as the sea, days bounded only by bright-blue mornings and diamanté nights.

To mischief, to friendship, to freedom

The poetry of the summers of my youth lingers in small details like the smell of hot dust, as fine and soft as silk on the soles of your feet.

Sleepovers when we awoke at dawn and, in the pale-dove light, staged raids on the neighbour’s garden.

The eating of the stolen carrots took place in the backroom of our best friend’s house, where we listened to the collection of old records that were just lying around. I can still hear the triumphalist strains of Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” however many decades later.

Other things break the surface, like thimbleberries gracing the end of each fingertip, fluttered like a fancy lady. Snack bars, jukeboxes, sundresses — the kind where the straps immediately fell off your shoulders. And of course, bare feet.

Now that it is officially summer, let the memories of seasons past spill out and over, an overflowing vessel.

Let the season suffuse, catch you in amber, suspended forever in honeyed light.

What do you remember of the summers of your youth? The gloamier the better — not gloomy, Dorothy Woodend suggests. Sound off in the comments!  [Tyee]

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