The Secrets of Summer
The Secrets of Summer
by Harold Graham
As any school marm or her students will tell you, summer begins when school is out and ends when school is in. Never mind what the calendar says to the contrary.
Fifty years ago summer began the day that a slightly-built Choctaw woman, Maggie Solomon, appeared at our doorway, a syrup bucket brimming with huckleberries in her hand. Her dark black hair, then streaked with gray, was held in place by a series of combs. Maggie wore the traditional dress worn by the women of her tribe and known as Chota hoyo ilifoka. The garment began at mid-neck line and covered the rest of her body, with the exception of her hands and bare feet. Intricate rick-rack, beads, and ruffles were sewn into the fabric and an apron extended from her waist to the ruffles of the hem-line. The dress had been made from brilliant red calico when she was a bride, but was now faded from the sun of many summers.
Maggie offered the huckleberries for trade. Following negotiations with my mother in apatois of English and Choctaw, Maggie left with a bucket of lard which she would use to cook the days meal for her family. The huckleberries disappeared into our kitchen where they would reappear a few hours later in the form of a berry cobbler, the best that this teen-age boy had ever tasted.
We did not ask Maggie where she had picked the berries, and even if she had spoken fluent English, she would not have told us. That was, after all, one of her secrets of summer.
We all had our secrets of summer in those days.
Along the dusty road there were dewberries waiting to be picked. Most were simply wiped clean and eaten on the spot. In a cutover there were blackberries. Some made it to a cobbler, others didn’t, and in the days before few commercial insect repellants were available we were taught to saturate rags with kerosene and tie these around our ankles and wrists to discourage the red bugs that infested the vines, but which preferred human hosts.
At an old abandoned house place there were wild plums growing both yellow and red, but that plum orchard long ago gave way to a baseball diamond.
We shared that baseball field or another field near by with a Choctaw team from the community. It was a game played without uniforms, steroids, out-of-control parents, or sore losers, but in jeans and tennis shoes we felt like world champions. Our only fear was that Beamon Charlie, who swung a huge homemade bat with the power of Babe Ruth, would lose our only good baseball in the pine thicket behind right field.
At the first real burst of warm weather the fish in the creek came out of hiding. There were goggle eyes lurking beneath sunken logs and red bellies to be found along the sandbars. Bream were scattered in the shallows. The fish were hungry and anxious to be fed. Worms and crickets were no problem, but the wasp larvae that the bream seemed to prefer presented a special problem since Mama and Papa Wasp, who had built a nest under the eaves of a shed, had no use for the teenage boy who attempted to smoke them out and retaliated with their own counter-offensive of sting and conquer. Duck!
The boys had their private swimming parties in the creek or canal, clothing optional, but on a weekend we often joined the girls at a neighbors pond for a more civilized swim, clothing required.
A neighbor had grown far more watermelons than he could ever use and the melons lay baking in the blistering July sun. Late one night (or so I am told), teenage boys, in a great act of mercy, relieved the farmer of any surplus watermelons that he might have.
By mid-August the muscadines had grown black on the vine that embraced a pine tree on the hill behind our house. The fruit were so full of sweet nectar that they often exploded upon contact with the ground. By night raccoons and possums raided the vine; by day a teen-age boy took the leftovers.
It was at this time that Maggie Solomon reappeared, this time her arms akimbo with baskets that she had made from canes that she had gathered along the creek bank. She departed later five dollars and a dozen eggs richer and we were left to admire our new treasure. Fifty years later we still wonder how Maggie, whose education was considerably less sophisticated than our own, could create such a work of art. How did she do it? Another secret of summer.
I could carry you back to all these places today. My feet certainly know the way. The baseball diamond, however, has been converted into a trailer park, the swimming hole is full of brush-tops, and the body of Maggie Solomon, having seen ninety-one summers, was returned to the dust from whence it came in 1974.
The teenage boy? He doesn’t live there anymore.