SEPTEMBER IN Michigan: majestic trees gear up for the last fantastic copper, brown and yellow blast of Indian summer. Cicadas go bananas with an ever more hysterical warning that fall is here.
That, I remember, was the time for dark, plaid dresses and fresh school supplies: the two-drawered pencil boxes that snapped shut over blunt scissors, gum erasers, pen-holders, unsharpened yellow pencils and sharpeners. But not even the brand-new, triple-decker box of Crayola crayons (including silver, gold, magenta, and chartreuse) could allay my fear of the benighted English teacher who was certain to ask us what we did on our summer vacation.
I always dreaded those essays. Peggy Lucille, whose family owned a wood-paneled Ford station wagon, would show picture postcards of their trip out west: Yosemite, Yellowstone National Park. Digging a hole deep enough to reach China was easier for me to envision than seeing my family on such a trip. Sally's family went up north; Jean's family went down south.Only my underprivileged family stayed home all summer long and did nothing. So my essays were frequently fantasies. Now, 40 years later, I can see those days very differently, for what they really were.
Summer mornings, when the sun was not yet fully awake, I often walked with my father to his junkyard near the railroad tracks on the other side of town. On high, swiveling stools, we would breakfast at Clara's Diner, at once attracted and repelled by the forbidden scent of bacon buzzing on the griddle like blue-bottle flies. We ordered "Adam and Eve on a raft" and then selected fat doughnuts from under a glass bell or a slice of pie ("Lemon meringue, apple and custard today") slipped out of a multi-shelved glass cabinet that stood on the wooden counter. From a blue-speckled enamel pot, Clara poured second cups of coffee into our heavy mugs, wiped the counter with a dingy rag and asked if it was hot enough for us.
After my father undid the chains and padlocks of the junk shop, I headed for the top of the mile-high pile of books and magazines: Liberty, Colliers, Saturday Evening Post, Country Gentleman, Popular Detective, Popular Mechanics. There were "Big-Little" books with Buck Rogers and Dan Dunn and series books such as "Honey Bunch," "The Rover Boys," "The Hardy Boys," "Nancy Drew" and, of course, "The Bobbsey Twins." My heart pounded for Dan and Buck, forever in danger, but I never really identified with them; they were male. I longed to be blonde and goyish like Nancy Drew, whose father was always taking her on vacation.
If my eyes gave out, I could sit on a magazine and toboggan to the bottom of the magic mountain. There were the bundles of taffetas, silks and velvets for doll clothes, stacks of Sunday funnies with "Boots," "Tillie the Toiler" and "Dixie Dugan" cut-outs, and items in the Sears and Ward's catalogues on which to squander the inheritance I was sure to get when my real parents finally discovered I had been exchanged at birth. I would have spent my life in the junkyard if it were not for my mother, who was convinced the place crawled with infantile paralysis and TB germs. No hospital floor was scrubbed clearner than I was once I reached home.
Some days I would just hang around my block to roller skate, a skate-key swinging officiously from my neck. A hot game of hop-scotch required little equipment -- a level sidewalk, a round stone to throw and, most important, a sharp eye to spot the proper chalky stone with which to draw the squares.
A piece of clothesline came in handy, too, for "jump rope." Every girl I knew carried dozens of rhymes in her head so she could jump for hours if she didn't get the sunstroke my mother was always worried about. "Ice-cream, soda water, ginger-ale pop. Tell me the 'nitials of your sweetheart," or "My mother, your mother, lives across the way. Every night they have a fight and this is what they say: Aracka backa soda cracka, aracka backa boo."
The kids I knew followed our milkman for blocks, begging unsuccessfully for a ride on the running board of his wagon. The iceman, however, was often willing to display not only his tattoos ("All I am or ever hope to be, I own to my darling mother"), but the knotted muscles dancing in his arms. Sometimes we persuaded him to lift the canvas curtain at the back of his wagon and chip off a sliver of ice with his pick. We could suck the icicle until it melted and the cold water ran down to our elbows.
Farmers, their carts laden with the morning's harvest, drove by in the early afternoons. My mother would boil corn the moment she bought it, and we would sit on our front porch eating buttered corn and watermelon so ripe it cracked like a pistol when the knife was plunged into it. "Careful" my mother would say. "Don't swallow the seeds. You'll get appendicitis."
There were growing things to be busy with. We picked apart lilacs and sucked the nectar from each tiny floret, gathered shut the trumpets of morning glories and blew into the stem end to make them pop, fashioned hollyhock dolls from a blossom and a bud, wove daisy chains and stuck dandelions under each other's chins to see "if you like butter." We stole cherries in early July, then risked a bellyache from the tart, green apples that followed.
Peaches came next, shaken from the tree, and yellow pears on the grass buzzing with wasps. Best of all were the fragrant Concord Blues -- the green "eyes" of the grapes swallowed whole, the dusky skin chewed for its dripping sweetness and then spat out in endless distance contests.
On days when it was too hot to do anything but whine, I went to the PUBLIC LIBRARY. (For years I worried about how embarrassed the stonecutter must have been over that "V" when he climbed down from the scaffold and stepped back to admire his handiwork.) There, in the cool, softly lit interior, so like the Christian church I had set foot in once on a dare, I tiptoed past the shushing librarian's curved mahogany desk to the book-lined rooms smelling of library paste and canvas bindings. Little by little, I chipped away at my goal of reading every book in the place. Louisa May Alcott, Bess Streeter Aldrich, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Gertrude Atherton -- on and on I went, even though my mother assured me I would go blind from all that reading.
Rainy days I stayed in bed late, watching the fat drops collect on my bedroom window until they were so heavy they ran down the glass in sheets. Later, I could eat my corn flakes and read the back of the cereal box without worrying that I was going to be late for anything. If it happened to be Monday, I might convince my mother that I wouldn't get my arm caught in the wringer, and then she would let me lift the sodden clothes out of the Fels-Naphtha suds, feed them into the clenched lips and pull them, flat as pancakes, out the other side.
We went to the movies on Saturday afternoons, clutching our quarters: 10 cents for admission and 15 cents for enough Jujubes and Nonpareils to last through a double feature, cartoons, "The March of Time" and prevues of coming attractions. Of course there was the serial, too, with its heart-stopping finish, guaranteed to entice you back next week.
On sunny Sundays we might drive to a nearby lake fed by water so clear the sun shot through it to dapple the smooth stones on its wrinkled sand floor. We piled into my uncle's Chevy, loaded with picnic baskets, lemonade jugs, towels and sweaters, and sang popular songs all the way to the lake. "Down in a Meadow With an Itty Bitty Poo," "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?," "Playmate, Come Out and Play With Me . . . "
My mother, in her bathing dress and yellow coolie straw hat, sat near the edge of the water and kept a sharp watch. We were allowed to go in up to our knees and no further. None of us could swim; the water terrified her. We laughed and splashed. She would step in gingerly and pour water down her front with a cupped hand. In shadowy wooden bath-houses, we pulled off our wet suits and dressed, our clothes suddenly a size too small for our languid, sun-prickled skin.
Threading through the lazy days like a circuit that connected us all was the radio. Up and down the neighborhood we shared the travails and joys of our favorite daytime serial characters: "Our Gal Sunday," "The Goldbergs," "Vic and Sade," "Just Plain Bill." The voice of Harry Heilman blared out all over the block, describing, play by play, the fate of our beloved Tigers as they battled in Briggs Stadium. I drew scorecards, computed averages, dreamed of the day when I would be lucky enough to see a game. Evenings we listened to Jack Benny, Fibber McGee and Molly, George Burns and Gracie Allen.
President Roosevelt's "Fireside Chats" were solemn events. We ringed the radio, and even my little brother had sense enough not to talk. My father would look at the photograph of the president hanging on the living room wall and say, "Roosevelt is a friend to the Jews."
One summer night, late in June, my whole family gathered to hear the world's heavyweight championship fight from Yankee Stadium in New York. Our favorite, Joe Louis, of Detroit, knocked out Max Schmeling in the first round. My father pounded his fist in his palm and said, "Dood. To hell with the Nazis." He and my uncle drank schnapps. I understood it all had something to do with what was happening in the old country, and I was so excited I ran around the block with the other kids banging two pot lids together.
Some special evenings we might all walk down to the corner ice cream parlor and slurp sodas at round tables under whirling wooden propeller fans. Sometimes we just sat on the front porch to cool off. My mother and father would talk quietly about I don't know what and, safe in their shadow, I would think perhaps I belonged to them after all. Hot nights like that, we carried our pillows downstairs and slept on the living room floor, my mother and father, side by side, my brother and I at their feet.
So the long, lazy days wheezed away, with only the July 4th fireworks for punctuation. Was it any wonder, then, that when my teacher smiled at us in September and asked, "What did you do on your summer vacation?," my answer was a shamefaced "Nothing."