Summer of Love was the first story I posted on Cowbird in 2012.
I removed it from my thread because I was sending it out to various publications, and was not sure if having it here would be counted as publication - even though this is a story site, not a Literary Journal. I wrote it as a memoir, but it became a memorial for my Father when he died, a year after I wrote it. This story helped me rekindle a friendship with him. He had not realized how much I understood of his experience during the difficult summers of riots and student uprisings on campus, he did not know how much I shared the anxiety of those times.
The importance of telling a story is to share not just the experience, but the understanding and insight we gain from examing what has happened.
Summer of Love
It is August in my memory, and in my mind’s eye my childhood yard is clearly visible. It is early morning, already warm. The light has a peach tinge that is hazy from the humidity of the Missouri summer. That summer morning in childhood was the one where the war in Vietnam and the violence surrounding the non-violent Civil Rights Movement came to our yard. I was six years old, the decade of the sixties was ending and judging by the quiet in the house I was the first one up.
I did what I do every morning, and still do; I went to the window that looked out into our back yard. The trees were tall in our yard, and in our neighborhood. The houses disappeared beneath stands of Sycamore with mottled and peeling bark and hard seed balls that would explode into fluff when struck. They provided immense bowers of shade and lined the streets in unbroken canopy during the summer, like an outdoor cathedral.
The neighborhood was locked up at night at several of the entrances. World’s Fair era brick and concrete supports with heavy wrought black iron gates were swung open during the day. At night a small old man in a uniform drove around on patrol, and during the day he parked at different spots and dozed. One day, as I sat on our porch, I saw him and some other men in different uniforms, surround an elderly black man who was walking, with a cane, in the park and carrying a book, they all talked for a while, they reached into the mans’ pockets and finally pointed toward the sidewalk leading out and away from the park.
It was a summer morning at the end of the sixties. We had recently moved to St. Louis from Boston, from another tree lined neighborhood on the Charles River where we could watch the Harvard crew rowing while we ate our breakfast, where we went for picnics in the Commons and ate deviled eggs with my Grandmother, watching the swan shaped boats move quietly on the flat water.
We moved for my father’s work at the Washington University. He had an office – which I had been to - on the South 40, a name I did not understand, but that was where it was. He was in charge of the students, I knew that, and the students were much older than the six years I was, but not the same as my father, they belonged to a special group that required someone like my father to guide them and they seemed like another family of his. I had met students in Boston; they took my brothers and I to the arboretum, twirled me in the air, promised to give me books, or meet me in our yard. They sometimes forgot and I would be left looking for them.
Students graduated, a word I did not understand, but it seemed to mean departure. They graduated at Harvard in heavy, long red robes wearing black caps with tassels, the students transformed into a long upholstered column, into a caterpillar. I supposed that graduation involved becoming a butterfly. I watched one of the ceremonies from under a table; admiring the enormous glass water coolers that were fastened onto trees the day before and the giant bubble inside the glass as the water was poured from the tap on the side. It was a ceremony involving long speeches with everyone solemn and elegant.
I knew that after graduation our small plastic wading pool could be filled and my brothers and I could splash and play with the gatekeepers son- another gate in another city. I counted the hours until we could have our splash pool. This year, however, graduation meant that we were the ones departing.
Students babysat for us in St. Louis. Two of them played 20 questions with me and my friends in our living room one day. I watched their eyes as they picked the subject of the game. I saw them looking at a black and white photograph my father had taken in Poland with his large boxy brownie, he called it, a pleasantly magical apparatus, that you gazed in from the top and looked out of the front and later there were pictures of us, eating PBJ’s in front of an old castle, or walking by a river. He put the pictures of us in his office and I was proud to see myself there and proud that my father had an office.
This particular photograph was of a cemetery with worn wooden crosses and when the two students began with the first question, “I am very old,” I knew right away that they had chosen that picture as their subject. But I did not want to spoil the game so I joined with my friends shouting all sorts of random answers, “It’s the carpet!” or, “No the Chair,” until finally the students told us that no, it was this photograph of the cemetery. I then felt a remorse that I carry to this day, intensified by what came later. I had let them win and in doing so they were convinced that they were smarter and better than us children.
I had let my group down by pretending to be ignorant, and I was disappointed that my friends had not caught them as I had. I hated my silence.
Students babysat for us that summer. One woman was from China, or her parents had come from there, and she looked very different than we did, but was no different than any other person I had ever met. She sewed when she stayed with us and would give me scraps of fabric to make dresses for my bears.
One night while she was reading to us, a group of students gathered outside under the 1914 street lamp, on the corner of the park outside our house. We knew they were there because they began to chant my father’s name over and over again and we were frightened. Our babysitter told us not to worry, that she knew karate and even though I did not know what karate was I felt that it had some magic power to keep us safe from words and deeds, to keep the darkness outside.
Another student took care of us that summer while my parents went on a float trip on the Merrimac River, which meant canoes and water. There were poisonous snakes here in Missouri, not like the Charles River where there were Alewives fish. But one babysitter took me to campus, which was always a special treat. I did not understand what I saw there, it was different than my father’s office.
There were people playing guitars, and the fire hydrants were opened so that the whole courtyard was flooded and someone was being dragged, shouting, through the water. Sheets hung out the windows with words that made no sense; “Free Angela Davis,” or, “Hell no, we won’t go.” People seemed angry in slow motion, the summer heat holding all of us down.
That morning in August I was excited, it was the weekend and my Father was home, he had been out late for weeks working at the campus because the students were occupying someone’s office, I had seen my father’s office and it was not very big and there was nowhere to sit, but the students sat “IN” so that was different.
My mother had recently hidden the school paper from me. I asked her to read me the cartoon inside. She got angry and took the paper away.
“No, you can’t read that,” she said.
“ Why not? It is a cartoon and they are funny. Please can I read it?” I persisted.
“No, you can’t read it. It is about your father.”
“Why, what is so funny about him?”
The answer was that nothing was funny and some bad people were saying bad things because they blamed my Father for problems that were not his doing. Then why a cartoon, if it is not funny, why?
“Why do you have to go to work today Daddy?” It was a Sunday, and that was different. My father was tying his shoes, a process still new to me and vaguely mysterious. He had just waxed and buffed his shoes with the special can that had the little metal handle, which he let me open to reveal the dark smooth paste inside that smelled wonderful.
He had a small brush that he applied the wax with and then a soft red cloth that he called a shammy, and his shoes went from dull and scuffed to a soft mellow shine. He wore dark trousers because he was a grown-up and not allowed to wear shorts like us kids. His shirts had to button at his wrists, he could not go to work in his underwear, as I had suggested.
“Daddy it is so hot, why don’t you just go to work in your underwear?” He laughed and laughed at that.
“Daddy why do you have to go to work today?”
“Well,” he said it was because of the war, and the students were having trouble with it. I thought that he meant all the water that they had flooded the campus with and he was surprised that I knew about that.
“No, that was not the war, the war was in Vietnam,” he said. I only knew Boston and Poland and Yugoslavia and Maine and St. Louis, so this was news that there was another place and a war that made people angry.
“Well, they don’t want us to be fighting,” he said.
“Then why do they fight? Why can’t they just take lots of cake and ice cream and have everyone eat it and then it won’t be a war anymore?”
But he said that would not cheer them up, or end the war, and I could not believe that! My friends and I squabbled often but at the mention of a snack we would all scamper to the table and forget everything.
I approached the window that August morning excited about the day, which had not yet begun and which I had first dibs because I was the first awake. I looked out my window, at the Rose of Sharon tree in bloom, from the window that was mine because my Father had picked it for me. He said when he first looked at the house; he knew this would be my room. We had lived in an apartment before and it was very special to have a room with a window and a flowering tree. The cherry trees were full of ivy and the mulberry tree was full of mulberries that were ripe enough to pick now and the dark purple fruit was juicy and sweet.
The wading pool that was actually a horse trough made of galvanized steel was bigger than the one in Boston. All three of us kids could fit in with room for our neighborhood friends and make a whirlpool. We spent hours in the trough with the hose, ready to add more water as we splashed it out.
Our rabbit hutch was on the other side of the yard and our Dutch rabbit Wiff-Waff, a black and white bunny, lived there. He was not allowed to go in and out of the house like our cats were.
“He wouldn’t know to come back,” my mother explained. How strange that he wouldn’t remember us, it seemed silly. Once, when I was sick and had a high fever, I asked to see Wiff-Waff. My parents brought him inside to sit on the bed with me for a while, so I could pat his very soft fur and stroke his long thin ears. He was quiet and patient with us and we thought he was very special. After all, he was Dutch.
I looked out my window at all that was now familiar to me after the strangeness of moving. There was something called a snowball bush that bloomed in July; the children next door, who we caught, sneaking through the fence and peeking at us as we swam, were now our friends, even though they talked differently than we did.
Then I noticed something else. I did not know what it was. It was on the sidewalk that ran through the center of the yard down to the garage, a small dark building where we kept our garden tools and not much else. A tall wooden fence ran along the side of the garage to the corner of our neighbors yard and an alleyway ran behind the fence. Behind the fence was another world kept away by slats.
There was something on the sidewalk that had not been there the day before and I was the first one up so I got to see it before my brothers did and I was going to tell Mom and Dad. I ran into their room, wide-awake and excited. They were asleep on their very big double bed in their big room that looked out to the front of the house in the foursquare layout.
They were asleep, but that did not stop me from announcing that there was something funny in the back yard and I was going out to see what it was. It was not unusual that I would have something big and mysterious to do so, they barely woke up and sort of mumbled their approval and I was out of the house fast in my pajamas and into the yard.
I still have the gourd that I grew that summer, it rattles when you shake it. We had a small garden every year. One year, in Boston, it was zinnias, another year a pepper; this was the year of the gourd. But I did not stop and look at the garden. I was on my way to inspect the something that was funny in the yard. I could see before I got too close that the something was black and white and I could see at the same instant that the wooden slats on the side of Wiff-Waff’s cage had been broken and pulled off leaving a hole in the side of the hutch, which rhymed with Dutch, and I thought very quickly that Wiff-Waff was out and would not know how to find us again so I needed to put him back in.
It was Wiff-Waff on the sidewalk but he was curled up in a ball sideways and his white fur was red and his neck was twisted so his head rolled to the side. I was back in the house in an instant shouting and the whole house exploded into motion, and then the police came and talked for a long time with my father, and said that a dog would not have done this, that it was a person, and then I heard later that Black Panthers were mad at my Father, and maybe it was a panther and for me the why was too huge.
How could a person be a panther and why could a person be so angry with my father that they would kill our rabbit?
By the end of the summer my Father had some thing called hives that he had caught because the students burned the ROTC building to the ground and someone got killed. My father needed medicine and my brother had butterflies in his stomach so he needed medicine, too, and I did not know how the butterflies got into his stomach.
Then fall came and a new school and I was the only person in my class that wanted the Boston Red Socks to win the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, even though I had met the daughter of the Cardinals pitcher, Bob Gibson, who was a very famous black man and his daughter could run faster than I could.
The next summer we went back to an island in Maine where we had been before when I was really a baby. There was no one around, besides my family, in a big old house by the ocean; the city was gone. There were huge granite rocks that were pink on foggy days in the cool early part of the summer, and bleached and pale on the bight clear, clear days of August. We fished on the rocks and our cat Waffle joined us, my father caught mackerel and pollack and showed us how to clean them and we cooked and ate them at night in the big, dark wooden house that we stayed in and sat around the radio at night by the fire in the huge granite stone fireplace, by kerosene lamps, and listened to the Goonies with their English accents telling jokes.
“ Elephant eggs, elephant eggs, elephant eggs,” said a man reading a menu, “I think I will have the elephant eggs.”
“ Sorry sir,” the waiter replied, “The elephants are not laying today.”
We laughed until we cried.
We were right by the ocean where we could fall asleep at night listening to the breath of the planet inhale and exhale. We looked out to the horizon where it disappeared into the sky.
Years later they said this was a summer of love, but that was a lie.
My family learned to love summer again and then learned to cling to it with an almost desperate passion for the escape to that island that has been repeated to this day.
We desire to see the earth disappear into ocean and ocean disappear into sky, we long for transformation, for transportation from the everyday and to be made whole again.
That has never quite happened, but through the ritual of repetition we continue to try.
It is like a prayer.