Summer guilt, 'A Summer Place', Anne Hutchinson and fare home in the dog days.
by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author's program note. I'm telling you right from the get-go. I am going to write this article in the tempi of summer... starting with andante non troppo and ending with non troppo, andante be damned. I go even further: sizzled by sun, devoured by the fastidious creepy crawlies which abound and find my pristine flesh delectable, and urged by all to "slow down and smell the roses," never mind that the roses have wilted hereabouts weeks ago and now give scent only a little and begrudgingly, if they even give scent at all.
These weighty matters, the stuff of every summer, all say the same thing: weary voyager you have earned your rest, sit down in the shade a spell and savor it. I (say I) want to... but it is so very difficult to do....
The first thing you should know about summer is this: it is (for me and my kind) the most guilty season of the year; each day the conflict grows between what my grandmother said (and exemplified) and summer's adamant insistence that the least be done and slowly at that. It is a battle fought yearly in my brain, the more so since I am now that iconic age -- 65 -- the age at which we are outfitted in truss, battered panama hat, a good cane, more free time than anyone needs, and a one way ticket to the eternal destination.
Yes, in my mind's eye, it is one of those happily oppressive summers of endless heat... and tasks only a beloved grannie could even hope to get accomplished.... "First, move those flagstones over there...." In the home of this matriarch and in those of her offspring, the devil's luring ploys for idle hands were not just an adage; they were present realities and if one were not always alert, the wiles of Old Scratch would be one too many for us; and we should be lost to God, Family, and the American way.
And so summer meant work... so much so that even summertime recreational rights and observances often seemed more like work than work itself: "Tuesday, 10 a.m. swimming class. Remember, Jeffrey has a dentist appointment right after. He can change in the car."
This was my summer, every summer, punctuated by Y.M.C.A. Day Camp, which I found exquisite torture. Forced hilarity and good fellowship of the exuberant kind perpetuated by the Rotary Club and exemplified by "Kumbaya" and college-age torturers masquerading as activity directors, "Hey, Jeff, get the lead out", were not for me. This I demonstrated succinctly when, during archery practice, I ran away and walked miles along melting asphalt highways to announce I would NEVER GO BACK. And I never did...
... so concerned parents sent me instead to Christian summer camp, where my father made it clear Jesus would take a very dim view if I escaped... and so I remained, memorizing more Bible verses than anyone. It was not because they were the sacred sentiments of my ancestors... but because winning was better than losing, a sentiment I adhere to to this very hour... and which makes forced idleness, even for recreation and "fun" abhorrent to me... and frightening. Without the incessant labor epitomized by my forefathers, I should be utterly lost, without anchor, in a universe that frightens anyone with a lick of sense, and that I surely have.
Music. It is now time to introduce you to the music that accompanies this article. There are hundreds of songs about summer that make us want to join the chorus and belt out a happy tune. But the "Theme from A Summer Place" is so very right for the honor. It was written for the 1959 film, lyrics by Mack Discant, music by Max Steiner. Many people had a hand in the success of this little number, which was so simple as to be inane. Yet Percy Faith (so aptly named) turned it, his instrumental version, into the number-one tune on the "Billboard" top singles chart in 1960; its run of nine consecutive weeks in the top position remains the all-time record.
But it is the version by "The Lettermen" which causes us to stop, hear again, and somewhat remember and mumble the insipid lyrics that still tug at my heart as if I were 13 or so, an epoch as distant from me and my current circumstances than if warbled by Queen Victoria. We believed the winsome lyrics then, and a part of us believes them still:
"There's a summer place/ Where it may rain or storm/ Yet I'm safe and warm/For within that summer place/ Your arms reach out to me/ And my heart is free from all care/
Go now to any search engine, and you will find it in its many versions, testament to the fact that it tugged at many hearts... and in our turbulent world still has its undeniable allure.
Summer People, Summer Place.
Until my father's annual vacation came, summer did not call us away from home. Except for one great aunt or cousin, we knew no one with a summer place. Hers, in approved Midwestern fashion, was at "the lake". One never said which lake, and it would have been mal vu to ask. The right people knew, and that was sufficient.
Instead, we used the pool in our shaded backyard or the municipal pool which was more likely to be in Naperville (where my mother's older brother resided with his unloved Ultramontane wife Marce) than in Downers Grove where we lived. The water at Naperville was a shade of khaki I have never seen again and tasted of unwashed immigrants and people one was not encouraged to meet, much less befriend. It was, however, not merely acceptable but crucial to our way of life to share such municipal services. It made us the Good Citizens we purported to be.
All this came home to me yesterday as I walked through the dried grass of the Cambridge Common, for the Dog Days of August, dies caniculares, are always days of remembrance, days slow, hot, and lazy that are so perfect you know they will not last. And so even before they are gone, we begin recalling them as so much ancient history. And that is just what I was doing, moving slower than my wont, forced by the heat to give up speed and see everything before it, too, was gone.
In this spirit, I saw a young man and his girl immobile under the great maples, still for a few weeks verdant, not yet a riot of inimitable color. They were bedraggled, wan, vying to be the unhappiest, either because she had now discovered the limitations of her adolescent love or because he not only knew these limitations but knew she knew them.
Almost in unison they piped up out of their lethargy and called for my attention. I was recalled to reality and that meant The Touch, the God-given right of the down-and-out of every place and time. Could they have a dollar? I was senior, I was well stocked with life's benefits... I could afford to spend the time, my attention, and a small act of unexpected kindness. "Why do you need it?" "To go home." "And where is that?" God supplied the answer, "Providence." It is the place we all want to go, and I was being asked to expedite their passage. And I did.
I took $20 from my pocket and handed it over, pausing for just a minute to capture them in my eternal eye, so young, dazed, but given a happiness the three of us would long remember. Their thanks and "God-bless yous" were fervent, excessive.
Before I left, I told them about Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643), one of history's most important women, sometime resident of Cambridge. Hair-splitting doctrinal differences caused her separation from the Puritan establishment of the town they raised as the center of their theology. "My way or the highway" was their solution to problems like this popular woman of heresy and schism, for all that there was no highway, scarcely a path in the woods.
Undaunted, Mistress Hutchinson knew God would assist her... and so He did, for she, banished from the Puritan's utopia, found instead a place of God's beneficence, a place called Providence. Now my young friends were going there, going home, and so was I, each step taking us closer to our destination, as resolute, determined and confident as Anne Hutchinson, who along with the Reverends Roger Williams (1604-1684) and Thomas Hooker, (1586-1647), (whose plaque on the Massachusetts Avenue side of the Common is so often obscured by bushes), helped shape the conscience and tolerance of a great nation which has never stopped needing their humanity and empathy.
"For it knows, there are no gloomy skies/ When seen through the eyes/Of those who are blessed by love/"
Dr. Jeffrey Lant, Harvard educated, started writing for publication at age 5. Since then, he has published over 1,000 articles and 63 books, and counting.