Averyell A. Kessler
I am only child, so my mother had one shot at raising a “normal” child. I’m not exactly sure what normal meant in those days; maybe well-adjusted, eager to learn, mannerly, and in possession of minimum social skills. Maybe something else, but Belhaven folks smiled at polite children and shooed neighborhood troublemakers away. (Put that slingshot in your pocket, Billy! Don’t leave your roller skates in the middle of the driveway! And the ultimate disgrace, bringing home a note from the teacher, or worse, the principal.) Ergo, my mother was well schooled in parenting skills she gleaned from Dr. Spock, back fence chatter, The Ladies Home Journal, and the Fletcher’s Castoria label. Most importantly, she followed her basic instincts, especially her love for me. However, when summer arrived, a seasonal litany of rules took force the moment Power School closed its doors, the temperature rose, and I ran loose in Belhaven’s leafy paradise.
-No swimming until 30 minutes after I’d eaten. It didn’t matter if I’d only consumed a scant handful of M & M’s or an enormous chow down of mustard coated pronto pups, a bag of potato chips, an Orange Crush, and a dripping Nutty Buddy, I waited on the side of the pool as thirty unending, molasses-slow minutes tick by and I learned the meaning of eternity.
-Keep your band-aids dry, especially if a bleeding ankle has been slathered with Merthiolate. Although it is akin to an inkblot tattoo and stings like an angry hornet, it works. The arrival of stingless Bactine was a childhood miracle.
-Do not step on an ant hill. Never scratch a mosquito bite or touch anything that crawls across the sidewalk, slithers down a honeysuckle vine, chitters, chirps, or hides in the azaleas. If a critter jumps out of the bushes and growls, run. Roses have thorns, stickers grow in grass, and snapping turtles are aptly named.
-Do not track mud, sprinkler water, or freshly cut grass into the house. Dripping bathing suits belong outside, not hanging over a towel rack in the bathroom. Going to sleep with damp, chlorine scented hair is a no-no. Although green is a lovely color, it doesn’t blend well with Sunday school outfits. Neither does bubble gum or dirty fingernails.
-Avoid swimming pool earaches at all costs. My friends taught me the skill of tilting my head and hammering each ear with an open palm until water drained out. Voila!
-Make sure all the checkers remain in the box as well as the Monopoly dice, get out of jail free cards and tokens, especially my favorite, the top hat.
-Failing to brush your teeth for three days in a row ends badly, especially if you have braces. Not quite approaching the sin of losing a retainer, but close.
-Avoid opening a paint-by -numbers or airplane glue on the good sofa in the living room.
-Dropping peanuts into a spewing Coke bottle is an outside activity.
-And finally, lick an ice cream cone from the bottom not the top. The same goes for grape popsicles, push-ups, and anything else from Shady Nook’s drink box, Seale Lily, or Parkin’s Drug Store. Drips in the car are especially heinous.
My rules for an easy, bubble gum summer were simple. Keep my saddle shoes in the closet, a frozen coke in the fridge, and a quarter in my pocket in case the ice cream man appeared. Visits to the dentist were forbidden, as well as spelling tests, piano lessons, and mushy green beans in the school cafeteria. The ultimate bete noire, my arithmetic workbook, was cast aside as damaged goods. I had a choice between Riverside pool and the blowup one in the back yard. The rigorous efforts of the Presbyterians melted away and I abandoned memorizing anything, ever.
In summer, my imagination blossomed as grown-ups stepped back and allowed me to soar. I made up my own stories and plotted out my own games. Hide and seek evolved into a multi-person competition that incorporated four adjoining backyards, a solid boxwood fence, and a musty garage storage room. The library was a wonderland because Peter Pan lived there, as well as Anne Shirley, Madeline, and Babar. So did Winnie the Pooh. Organized activities did not exist; the adults in my life made no attempt to stifle the simmering pot of childhood creativity. The smothering heat of July meant nothing except running through the sprinkler, making clover necklaces, and watching Daddy lift a dripping paddle out of the ice cream freezer. Better yet, television had not captured my soul.
I knew summer was not endless. When September approached, as it always did, my summer days would fade like dandelions edging the front walk. Power School would open again, the rattle of my alarm clock would shake me awake at dawn, and Mama’s Chevy’s would resume its slow path to Riverside Drive. As a rising fifth grader, my status at Power would be substantially upgraded, and anything was possible. But while freedom reigned, I would wring the last bit of sticky, sweet juice out of every vacation day. Summer is a glorious time, perhaps that’s the most normal thing of all.