Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Summertime pre AC, and the Living Was Easy

Hmmmm. Warming up around here. Rain's finally stopping, but the humidity isn't, and the grass is growing almost visibly. Pretty, though. Mornings still cool. Some cooling off in the evenings. It's only days from the first 100-degree day.

I've raised the thermostat on the ac to something I can more possibly afford for the summer. And I think back to childhood again.

We didn't get a swamp cooler (window unit) which works extremely well in the New Mexico low humidity, until I was about eight or nine. A few years after that, we put in central air and heat.

But when I was a young girl, we had no airconditioning at all. What we did have was three big cottonwoods over the house and yard and the occasional breeze. And, of course, the fresh, cooler air in the mornings after the desert had cooled down overnight. Cool curled lazily in the shadows as the sun rose, even in the lacy shade of mesquite. The birds sang incredibly, ending with the "coo-coo, cooo-coo" of mourning doves. Their call is what I remember best about waking in the summer.

Mom and Dad let me sleep later in the summer. It was a treat for me, and I was aware even at the time, a treat for them. Dad ALWAYS woke at 6 a.m--poor guy couldn't sleep later even on vacations--and he would rouse and make the coffee. He would pour his cup, then later my mother's, doctoring it the way she liked with milk and surar, and set it on her bedside table when he woke her. My mother loved this bit of pampering--it was one of her favorite parts of their loving each other. She could then rise and sit, slowly waking up while drinking her perfect cup of coffee. In the summers when she didn't teach, they might go out on the porch to watch the sun rise over the mountains and just visit. They always had plenty to say. Sometimes I would rouse briefly to the rumble of my father's voice and my mother's laughter, then his. And I would subside back to sleep, secure in the music of my home.

And yeah, it really was that good. I was so very lucky.

I would wake while the morning was still cool and the mourning doves were calling, and walk barefoot to the kitchen, where Mom would be doing the morning dishes. A lot of time, breakfast was simply cereal and fruit, but I remember mornings when she had made French toast, coating each finished slice with butter, sugar and cinnamon. Not need for syrup. And bacon, and usually sliced cantalope. Dad planted a lot, so we ate a lot. And figs, and peaches and apricots. We were dirt poor about then, but I didn't know it for years. Kids with full bellies don't.

And I would play. This was necessarily alone, because we lived out from town and the nearest neighbors were at least a half-mile away. Dad had planted Four-O-Clocks along the irrigation ditch, and I had set up my imaginary community there, setting up little cardboard houses and roads, And yes, I had a couple of little die-cast cars. Sometimes the irrigation water would be running and I could wade. And I could climb the trees. One tree was a lot harder to master than the other, but I finally did, and found a fork that gave a perfect view of the hanging nest of Baltimore Orioles about 50 feet away. I spent hours one summer watching them build the nest then raise their chicks. Mother would come outside every few minutes and call me. "Here", I would call, and she would see I was still in the tree, then go back inside. Sometimes she would fix the two of us a Coca Cola over ice and we would sit on the lawn chairs and talk while we drank the special treat.

After I was about 3, I don't ever remember playing with dolls, except the ones with real hair I could comb, and I would make up stories for them to act out, doing all the voices myself, of course. I probably would have loved Barbies.

The kitchen was on the west side of the house. We ate our big meal at noon, so it wasn't unusual for mother to get a jump on meat loaf and vegetables by 10 or 11, to dissipate the kitchen heat before the afternoon sun came in.

One of my favorite meals was her simple summertime supper. We would stop by the butcher's counter and she would get two slices each of all the cold cuts--balogna, salami, olive loaf, chopped ham, liverwurst, that I remember definitely. Then she would get some cucumbers and onions from the garden, peel the cucumbers and slice them in salt water with ice cubes she stuck in the refrigerator a half-hour or so.
Then she dumped the saltwater and mixed apple cider vinegar and sugar in a little more ice water, slicing in the onions, and leaving the whole to marinate till supper.
She would slice garden ripe tomatoes and fix whatever fruit was ripe. We had wholewheat bread and I might make a sandwhich with Miracle Whip, fresh tomato and the meat of my choice, with a big helping, probably seconds, of the cucumbers. No heat. Not one burner on. Smart. And still one of my favorite memories. I think some of that was with the cold cuts, I actually had a choice. I loved it all.

In New Mexico, it is so dry you don't often have sweat rolling very far. It dries first. I was 18 and in Dallas when sweat rolled all the way down my back for the first time, and I thought it was a bug. I didn't "glow." I sweat like a horse that has been steeple chasing. The plus is, that's also when I learned my hair was naturally curly.

Mom would always put me in the tub about 4 p.m., so I would be fresh and clean when my daddy came home. First she had to drag me in, then she had to drag me out. But after having curtailed my fun in the dirt one day, I was enraged to hear my father say, "You need a bath. Just look at you. You're dusty all over." Well, I informed him, I had so had my bath and this was (sadly, I realized) the color of my suntan--dust brown. He apologized.

Later I never could stand to lie in the sun over 10 minutes or so to suntan, so I never tried the baby oil and iodine of my childhood. I was stuck with a smooth, but dust brown tan.

Meantime, I remember the years without air conditioning, but without the misery they were in so many other climates. Most nights it cooled off enough to open the windows and pull a sheet, or even the bedspread over. And cold fresh vegetables and fruits out of the garden were a great way to beat the heat.


Matt G said...

Great memoir. Thanks for that.

ka9vsz said...

Thank you for your words, ma'am. I came here from Matt G's recently-discovered blog. Thank you for summoning my memories of my parents and the smell of their morning coffee.