A friend of mine recently said that it seemed like I’d had a good summer, and I did, but the word had made me sad. Like most Midwesterners and Northeasterners who endure brutal winters, I never want summer to end.
This time of year, after the sunflowers have bloomed and the tomato plants shrivel up, I begin to feel like Warren Beatty’s character in “Heaven Can Wait,” whose guardian angel accidentally takes his soul from his body prematurely. I feel the crisp chill in the air and wonder if someone messed with the calendar. How can it be Labor Day weekend? There must be some mistake. Summer can’t be over. It just can’t. The best season was just getting started.
Summer is so short and so precious that it has what’s thought of in economics as “scarcity value.” The less there is of something, like diamonds and Air Jordans, the more we appreciate it.
The problem is that I don’t think of the season as scarce until it’s over. In spring, summer yawns in front of me like a giant ocean. Before the snow has melted, I plan out every weekend, road trip and camp. I give more thought to how I want our summers to turn out than I give to my New Year’s resolutions. I vow not to waste time on the Internet and to read more books, go to more concerts, make time for jigsaw puzzles and run more miles.
Every summer has to compete with the ones that came before it. Like a recipe I’ve made a bunch of times but keep trying to improve, I think of how I might maintain our traditions while adjusting the ingredients to find the perfect balance of activity and rest, adventure and introspection, alone time and the kind of family time that’ll surely make us the closest family ever.
And then there’s the hook, or the thing that should define each summer so that I can look back someday and think: That was the summer we toured Europe, or the summer we explored the state. Each summer is a scrapbook and photo album waiting to happen.
But turn twice and stores have already set up an aisle for Halloween candy. I’m exhausted. My house is a mess, and I’m craving a schedule. When I’m on the other side of summer, I don’t see the ocean anymore. Instead, I look back and see a puddle. The half-marathon? My bursitis started acting up. Our giant MasterCard bill is the enduring souvenir from our trip to Europe. My kids had jobs and spent time with their friends when they could have bonded with me. And the hook? This was my daughter’s last summer before college, which made this the last summer I’d plan for her.
Still, I cling to summer like I’m gripping a windowsill as I fall out of a building, because, overall it was a good summer – how could summer not be good in this part of the country? I look around at the red barns and the cornfields and feel like I’m in an illustration from a children’s storybook. It’s the one season when it feels great to be outside. What a treat to walk out of a building into warmer air. It doesn’t get dark at 5 o’clock, and there’s no black ice to slip on, no heating bill to dread when I open the mailbox.
Maybe it’s impossible to have a perfect summer, because the season is just too short, and there are only so many street festivals, road trips, outdoor plays and hikes you can take. But there’s always next summer.
Christi Clancy’s work has appeared in the New York Times, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin Public Radio and elsewhere. She lives in Madison, Wis.