When I was a little girl, summers seemed longer and hotter. Perhaps it was because I grew up in an era when window fans were scarce and air conditioning was practically unheard of. On scorching summer days, my mother would pull the window shades to keep the house as cool and dark as possible, and when night fell, she would put a small table top fan in our bedroom. Its metal blades reminded me of airplane propellers and it hummed a hypnotic tune that lulled me to sleep on hot August nights. I knew fans were dangerous, as my parents had warned me that the spinning blades could sever a small child’s fingers, leaving her without a finger to wear a diamond ring. Still, I was intrigued, and more than once, cautiously poked the tip of my index finger just inside the metal grid as the blades slowed to a stop. Fortunately for me, my finger was not long enough to reach the blades, but the thrill of taking the chance created chills along my spine, which cooled me more than the fan’s breezes.
Most of the shops in the middle of my home town had huge oscillating fans that stood on the floor and swept gentle breezes across the merchandize in lazy back and forth patterns. There was a fresh produce store in the center of town and on hot Saturday mornings, I would inhale the pungent aroma of peaches and plums, as my mother waved away fruit flies and piled grapes on a squeaking scale.
The meat market was similar, as was the bakery and the five-and-dime. Some of the fans had small ribbons attached to the grids that fluttered in the breeze. I watched them with delight until my mother took her change and handed me the paper bag. We would walk from one store to the next, ducking under striped awnings to avoid the blazing sun, watching a haircut through the windows of Smitty’s barbershop, peering at dress and hats on the mannequin in Nikki’s Store, and as a rare treat, licking an ice cream cone from the soda fountain at Galas’ Drugstore.
The library was a good walk from our house, and my siblings and I frequently trudged down Green Street and up Academy Hill to spend an afternoon within its cool granite walls. Half way up the hill we would pause to look over the bridge that spanned the railroad tracks. Along the edge of the tracks was a small spring that trickled water down the granite ledge and into the ferns and moss below. Out of reach, it taunted our parched throats and dry tongues, and we would yearn for just one swallow of its coolness. After a short rest, we would continue our trek until at last we reached the marble sink just inside the library entrance. Standing on tiptoe, we would guzzle water from the faucet and then spend hours browsing the aisles to choose an armful of books to carry home. On rare and wonderful occasions, Mary Reed Newland would present story hours on the library lawn. She was a wonderful artist and author, with a love for children and a flair for dramatic story telling. We children gathered on the emerald grass to listen to her spin tales of adventure and fantasy. She filled our heads filled with dreams and images, our sweaty bodies cooling in the shade of the maple trees.
The dog days of summer seemed endless, and so were our tactics to keep cool. We swam in Wally Lunden’s pond. We ran through rainbows created by the running garden hose and danced in the summer showers when the yellow skies turned gray and big drops splashed down on the parched pavement of the driveway. We slurped slushy popsicles that dripped sticky and purple down our arms. We scratched tic-tac-toe in the dark soil beneath the shade of the catalpa tree in the side yard. And at night, we rested our pillows on the window sill and read by the street lamp while soft breezes lifted the shades and slapped them against the screens.
These days I go from an air conditioned apartment to an air conditioned car to an air conditioned office. And although I enjoy the cool dry air that the technology and Freon afford me, summer no longer is lazy and relaxed like when I was a kid. I can’t help but wonder if our cool comfort has robbed us of the excuse to sit on the front porch with glass of lemonade, or to snooze in a hammock for an hour, or to stay up late and watch the heat lightening streak across the sky. Gone is the slow, easy pace that came with the heat of summer. I accomplish more these days. I sleep in silent comfort with the windows closed and the central air running. But sometimes – just for a moment- I long for blistering days when the cicadas sang to the sun god, and I took the time to notice that the baking heat was lifted for just a moment by the lilt of a breeze or the hum of a fan.