JIM DODSON: Farewell, My Summer Lovelies!
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My neighbors here are an admirably industrious lot, capable of turning any misfortune to advantage.
I read the other day about a lady who lives just over the hill and discovered the likeness of Jesus on her wall after a kitchen fire. She is now peddling her scorched wallpaper on eBay, hoping for a tidy windfall that will fund a complete kitchen makeover.
I had something of a similar epiphany when I stepped out the other morning to begin the process of saying goodbye to my garden and found Condoleezza Rice staring benignly at me from my wife's tomato vines. This happened just before breakfast and a couple hours before I set off for the airport to collect Midwestern friends dropping in to spend the last days of summer.
If you ask me, the tomato's uncanny resemblance to Secretary Rice was undeniable though others in the tribe couldn't or wouldn't see it this way, possibly because their lives are suddenly consumed by activities traditionally associated with the end of summer and the beginning of autumn. All they can think and speak of lately are opening field hockey games and golf matches, old boyfriends and new clothes.
As I ambled in to breakfast with Condi Rice in hand, one son of the household was busy checking out his new sports-themed class organizer, oblivious to the free world. Another was combing the paper for late West Coast box scores -- fearing a further Red Sox tumble. A third was already pondering his what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation essay, stumped for what to say.
"Isn't it amazing how a tomato can grow up to resemble a national figure?" I ventured as the whole bunch demolished fresh-baked scones made from the last of this summer's wild blueberries. "Life is like summer. This splendid tomato will soon be gone, and you will all be grown up and vanished over the horizon, too."
They continued eating like suburban commuters with a train to catch. One child actually glanced at his new wristwatch. Another began sharpening pencils.
"Well I, for one, am going to miss this tomato," I said. "I wouldn't dream of putting it on eBay."
"Dad, you do this every year," said our eldest, a winsome lass who spent her summer on the banks of the Arno and returned looking and sounding like Audrey Hepburn. "It's a really nice tomato. But it's just a summer tomato. Don't go overboard. People will think you're being totesridichilaire. "
"Nice Italian word," I said. "What's it mean exactly?"
A sparkling Cosmopolitan laugh. "It's not Italian, Dad. That's what all the silly rich American girls were saying in Italy this summer. It means someone who is in danger of being totally and ridiculously hilarious."
Let's Move New Year's
In truth, I am something of a serial summer goodbye-sayer, unapologetically totesridichilaire when it comes to saying "so long" to the brief pleasures of northern Yankee summer, especially as the nights turn sharply cooler and the official end finally heaves into sight.
For what it's worth, I long ago advocated (to no discernible effect) a constitutional amendment designating Labor Day as the official end of the old year and start of the new one -- the new New Year's Day, if you please -- because, frankly, who can tell one silly gray winter day from another?
Personally speaking, I'd fancy nothing better than to recline beneath the late summer stars of early September, breathing in the last heady scents of the yard and monitoring the heavens for a stray shooting star. Talk about a civilized way to way to ring in the new.
The arrival of Labor Day marks a clear and unambiguous turning point in the weather and in the daily affairs of mankind, not to mention school-age children. The piles of flip-flops and gritty beach sandals will suddenly vanish from the end of the hallway, the coolers and picnic blankets will be stowed away for another year, the dogs will take on the hang-dog look of neglected friends. There is early talk of pumpkin pies and bean-hole suppers, wood piles and bus schedules. Suddenly there will be an abundance of clean towels in the bathroom. The sunlight becomes more angled and golden.
As I tried to say that morning at breakfast (to no discernible effect) it simply means we've passed another year of growing up and growing older together, a passage that seems to accelerate every year. One son of the household grew an entire inch this summer, and another earned his driving permit. A third boy became the star of his pint-sized basketball league, and our Sabrina returned from Florence quoting Dante and her fellow silly rich American girls.
Is it any wonder that I find myself slipping into a highly sentimental state that soon has me roaming around indiscriminately saying goodbye to anyone -- or anything -- that will listen? Everything is shifting around, going away, closing up. Things I've grown accustomed to today will suddenly be gone tomorrow. Possibly including me.
"A man who is over fifty, as I am," sympathized my Blue Hill neighbor E.B. White many summer years ago, "is sure that he has only about 20 minutes to live, and it is natural, I suppose, that he should feel disposed to put his affairs in order, such as they are, to harvest what fruit he has not already picked up and stored away against the winter, and to tie his love for the world into a convenient bundle, accessible to all."
Only my wife, who baked the blueberry scones and spent the coolest, wettest summer in memory coaxing the Condi Rice tomato from New England's stony earth seemed truly to appreciate my sudden valedictory mood. If she thinks my grassroots campaign to have Labor Day made the new New Year's is totesridichilaire, she has yet to say it.
Instead, she patted my hand.
"You just go ahead and say goodbye to whoever you want to, dear," she said. "That's exactly what Labor Day is for."
So I began this year's rounds of end-of-summer goodbyes by thanking a trio of tall white spire birches that won't be standing out front when I return in late September. They have graced our front yard for nearly two decades but mysteriously gave up the ghost this summer, with no explanation given. Trees, like people, come and go from our lives, often without being properly appreciated.
"Goodbye, birches!" I said to them, giving each a small but grateful squeeze. "Farewell, my lovelies. You'll sure be missed. Thanks in advance for the extra firewood."
As I was on my way to the garage, a baby robin crossed my path, flapping downy new wings and crying for its mama. One of the boys fetched a box, and we dug up the last of the summer's earthworms, dangling them into a wide and eager mouth. A short time later, the mother reappeared, rebuking us sharply for keeping her scion from his autumnal obligations. We placed him back on the grass, and he hopped a dozen yards before flying away.
"That's my summer essay!" cried our stumped theme-writer. "I've been imprinted by a baby bird!"
Goodbye, young robin. Fly brave and well. You too, earthworms. Burrow deep. See you next spring.
We took our Midwestern friends to see our secret beach, which used to be secret until USA Today listed it as one of the best beaches in America and Paul Newman showed up to film a movie called "Message in a Bottle," at which point every beachgoer north of the Bronx came to visit.
This day, however, a heavy, cool fog was rolling in -- quite common for this time of the season -- and the parking lot was half-empty. The tomato whisperer speculated that perhaps the cool summer weather prompted families to pack up and head home early in order to get a start on school shopping. Or maybe they simply don't care for sunbathing with a parka on.
I led our houseguests down the beach to a spot where you can wade out to a large rock island that appears and disappears rather magically with the fog and tides. As they hunted for interesting shells, I sat on a rock where I used to bring a pair of small children and continued saying my goodbyes to summer 2006.
Last week, the Red Sox were swept at home by the Yankees, starting their annual September collapse a few weeks early this year. This week, Andre Agassi is hanging tough at the U.S. Tennis Open against players half his age before officially saying goodbye.
This week was the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. An estimated million Gulf Coast and Crescent City residents have yet to return home and probably never will -- a mass farewell that looks shamefully more and more like the American Book of Exodus.
I suddenly realized I had not seen a banded garter snake in my garden all summer long.
Goodbye, Pluto, I thought, deep in my private island fog. You sure got a raw deal. But maybe the pressure to be a major planet is off now and you can just have some fun with the other ice dwarf planettes.
So long, John Mark Karr. What end-of-summer fun you and the cable networks had.
Bye-bye, mosquitoes, vanilla ice cream, Mamhoud Anadinejad! Maybe I'll send you a new windbreaker from the L.L. Bean Labor Day sale for the Muslim New Year!
Final Greasy Burger
On the way back into town, heading for supper at Fat Boy's (our favorite deep-fried drive-in restaurant, closing for the season any day now), we stopped off at a friend's saltwater farm to see how summer was ending there. Suzy is a crack gardener, and her purple butterfly bushes were covered by hundreds of fluttering golden Monarchs.
"This is my late-summer gift," she said happily, "They'll be leaving any day now for their southern migration."
"I know the feeling," I said.
Fat Boy's was gridlocked with cars, the last of the tourists and locals grabbing a final greasy burger and shake for the road.
We went home instead and took a walk down our own road in the cooling blue twilight. At one point a spotted fawn jumped out of the forest, looking as startled as we were. My wife suddenly said she wished she'd brought her sweater.
"I know!" she added brightly. "Let's have grilled pork chops and apples tonight. I'm in the mood for something autumny."
Even she had suddenly vanished into another season. Before going in, however, we had a late-summer gift of our own -- a large Gordian knot of tiny yellow-banded garter snakes, just hatched and coiling together under my garden bench for warmth. I sat down in the grass and let them slide around my fingers for a while.
"Hello, my summer lovelies!" I said, greeting each and every one. "Better late than never! Find a hole and climb in fast!"
After a while, I covered them up with a golf towel and went in to make myself a delicious pre-dinner tomato sandwich from Condoleezza Rice.
So-long, eBay, I thought. I may be totesridichilaire, but I'm not stupid enough to waste the last summer tomato.
Jim Dodson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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