If I could recapture one and only one of my childhood misconceptions, it might well be the sense that summer, once arrived, meant forever. My earliest impressions of summer swirl about my long-term memory in a kind of timeless limbo - close, vivid, and somewhat cross-eyed images of Dutch clover (try looking at a lawn on your stomach); the damp scent of comic books on a beach towel; the cling of cornsilk from husking a dozen sweet ears for dinner; and the satisfaction of slipping into the nubbly cool cleanliness of seersucker pajamas as moths beat on a screen.
No reference to beginnings or ends. The falls, springs, and arctic upstate New York winters bracketing my out-of-school idylls exerted as little force on my summer psyche as distant galaxies. It was simply summer until one day there I was back in the classroom. Plonk. But for the brand-new teacher calling off our names, June, July, and August might never have come and gone with their lovely lazy grace.
Today, though, I am acutely aware of seasonal shifts and of the month-to-month gradations behind them. Summer, in particular, is a wonderful season to anticipate on a raw February day - something I never did as a wool- legginged child rocketing down Rochester's glacial hills. It's hard to say goodbye to as well.
I'm feeling especially nostalgic for the ungrieving innocence of long ago Augusts in the ebb tide of this summer. The signs of its climax are everywhere - in the tapestries of wild daisies, chicory, and Queen Anne's lace spread out upon the pastures, in the brilliant red of the garden "glads," in the ever-shortening days and in the sheer abundance of their gold. Everything from finch to field has the touch of the Greek god Midas.
"August, the aureate month" wrote naturalist Donald Culross Peattie, "draws to its blazing close - a month of sun, if ever there was one." We drive about with eyes peeled for the fragile flutter of monarchs and swallowtails - for whom roads are as incomprehensible as time is to children. The impulse to brake for them is somehow deeply parental.
By the time summer is at its zenith and the purple top blooms, much of the business of new life is over. The high, insistent energy of dawn has long since given way to the less urgent chirping of birds whose hatchlings have struck out on their own. Among the last to go are the second broods of the barn swallows, looking as big and ungainly in their nests this week as teens on trikes. I'm keeping an eye on them, because by month's end, they'll take flight to South America, ousted youngsters and all. The barn will be the poorer for the loss of their swooping vibrancy.
The barn swallows, more than anything, define summer for me, though they arrive in April, well before the calendar announces the season, and leave a month before its official end. I suppose it's because so much of what summer means to me now involves the elements of anticipation and of loss. I shouldn't be thinking ahead so much, but its hard not to do as an adult, and especially one with almost-independent young. Soon now, my son will head back to the classroom for his final year of high school - which may be why I'm particularly attuned to the swallows this year. This is, perhaps, the last time their annual departure means no more than another summer's waning.
I know I'm missing the real gold of what summer offers by such broodings. It's a season best savored by a child oblivious to what it means when bats join the fireflies, Vega blazes in the sky, stove pipes cease to echo with the chorus of chimney swifts, and swallows quit North American barns.
Then again, the summer-struck child can't have it both ways. It takes years of practice to take the sultry punch out of August by daydreaming ahead to the first frost on the pumpkins.