PHILADELPHIA — 'Heat can do strange things to people," my mother once said, as she set up her ironing board and laundry basket under the old maple tree in our side yard.
That was many unairconditioned years ago, but I thought of her remark when the first 90-degree-plus heat wave hit our city in early June. Now, as repeated high temperatures and near-drought conditions turn lawns into brown stubble, a note of general resignation has crept into our neighborhood psyche. But there have been rumors of other, equally unusual behaviors.
Last Sunday, for instance, after driving 20 miles from his retirement home to worship at the church where he was baptized 82 years before, a very proper Presbyterian gentleman removed his suit jacket halfway through the pastor's sermon. (He did not, however, loosen his tie.)
One mom on our block told me that, with prompting, her 15-year-old son offered city trash collectors a few cans of cold soda and then actually waited to bring back the empty barrels. Later that day, I discovered my adult niece sitting fully clothed in our kiddie pool. Come evening, after checking out our freezer, my husband grabbed his keys and drove 35 minutes and 35 years back to his old neighborhood to stand in line for flavored ice. He said later, he could almost smell the heat coming from the sticky pavement, bringing cooler memories of summer nights long since passed.
After a week spent starring in my own low-budget version of "Mommie Dearest" (in which I kept repeating, "No wet towels on wooden floors!"), I found myself lost for words when my daughter complained one morning, "Mom, this milk tastes funny." Her older sister groaned, "No cereal?" Without a word, I reached for a box of sugar cones and began scooping out ice cream.
At that precise moment, my mother-in-law dropped in. "I know, I know," I said, defensively. "When your son was small, you never served him ice cream for breakfast." "No," said my mother-in-law, "I never did." A pause. "Make mine vanilla."
And so the heat goes on ... and our neighborhood, too. Mom was right: The heat can do strange things to people and that's what makes a little flexibility, tolerance, and old-fashioned kindness as welcome as a cool breeze.
Elizabeth McGinley is a freelance writer.