When I was a kid, my grandfather used to say: “After the Fourth of July, the summer is over.” He said it every summer when my brothers and I visited him and my grandmother in Philadelphia. Each time he said it, we looked at him like he was from Mars. Back then, as a pre-teen and as a teenager, the summer seemed like it stretched out forever. Every day was long and languid. Every hour was sweet and satisfying—except for the Sunday night backups for the nickel toll on the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge as my parents and my brothers and I returned from the Jersey Shore to North Philly at the end of a beach weekend.
A nickel toll! Heck, we would have paid a buck just to save that hour. Why couldn’t they charge a dime going out of Philly and let people return to the city free? Same amount of revenue. Today, it might seem like they should pay us to go into Philadelphia, but that’s another story….
So, summers were good, whether riding bikes and playing baseball on a vacant lot across the street from my house in Arlington, Virginia, or visiting my grandparents in Philadelphia and taking side trips to the beach. Back then, school let out in early June and didn’t start back until September. Nobody even advertised back-to-school stuff until the second half of August. There was some unwritten rule: Don’t mar the kids’ idyllic summer with that awful reminder of the returning school year. In fact, I remember, seeing every kid from North Arlington at the Ayers five and dime on the afternoon of the first day of school; you carried the mimeographed sheet listing required supplies, and you bought your stuff and waited in line with every other kid from North Arlington.
But I filed away that sentence. “After the Fourth of July, the summer is over.” I didn’t buy it, but I must have been worried that it might come true someday. Never mind the beach trips and amusement park visits and countless ice cream cones and flipping baseball cards and pickup baseball games (we made up our own rules) and setting up those little plastic Army men in opposing lines and hurling dirt clods at them until it got too dark to see, while my mom’s voice could be heard echoing among the red-brick houses that ate away steadily at the suburban Virginia forests. Never mind that the phrase “to-do list” was years away from my sphere of experience. Never mind that each day was as good as the last, if not better—or at least, so it seems in deep retrospect.
Then, one summer day in the 1060s, Joseph Kliman, “Popop” to us, was gone. Heart failure claimed him at too early an age. I had known he was ill: A couple of weeks earlier, my parents had left my brothers and myself in a locked car in a suburban Philadelphia hospital parking lot for a couple of hours while they visited him. No good news reached our ears after that, and we knew on some level that his condition was perilous. But it still was a shock. This was the always-smiling, spoiling grandparent that you couldn’t help but love. He would chide me and my brothers endlessly and good-heartedly about wasting our allowances at “Soupies,” as he would call the corner store, where our modest 1960s investments in baseball cards have earned a better return on investment than any other money I have every spent or ever will spend. We would laugh at him and at ourselves. Here was a man who ate a soft-boiled egg every day, shell and all. A man who sold merchandise to local stores out of his garage and who called his car “the machine.” Born of Russian stock, living the American dream, but gone too soon. And with him, that still-curious pronouncement about summer’s fleeting nature.
After I went off to college and graduated and entered the world of work, his pronouncement about the Fourth of July still seemed distant, irrelevant. In your twenties, you still feel immortal. Time still stretches out beyond all horizons. Starting my first garden helped sync me back to the seasons, but still, the calendar is the calendar. June, July and August are what they are.
Then came my thirties, and forties. The birth of a child and other life-changing events. And one day, all of a sudden, I knew what my grandfather had been talking about. You get so busy with summer activities, you don’t notice the days and weeks flying by. You try to stay out of the worst of the summer heat, and you lose track of the changes in the yard and garden that mark the passing of time. You stop the newspaper, you hold the mail, you head toward the beach or the mountains, you change your patterns, and all of a sudden, Labor Day is staring you in the face.
So, he was right, I must admit now.
Yes, the summer flies by, more so every year. We don’t plan and do as much as we used to do in our youth, or even in our early-career years. But time just keeps sliding through our fingers. Joni Mitchell has a song that documents it better than I could: The Circle Game.
But, paradoxically, my grandfather was wrong, too. He was wrong only because we have the power to decide when and how and why the summer perishes. He was wrong because we can decide to cherish each moment of each hour of each day—even though we forget that decision, only to remember it, and then lose it again. We can use the searing heat and drought as physical alarm clocks to interrupt our forgetfulness and burn into us the full conception of the season we have unfolding. We can cheat time. We can live in the moment, or at least try.
Popop: I can almost see your impish smile. Because I know that up there, it’s always summer.