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It was February during one of the worst winters on record in Montana, and I had a rampant case of cabin fever. So when my son invited me to spend the summer with him and his family on the Greek island of Alonissos, I said yes without hesitation.
My daughter-in-law, Marinela, is half Greek and has spent every summer of her life at her parents’ rustic villa on the remote side of the island, which is covered with pine and olive trees. When we arrived on July 4, she said it had been cold and wet but was about to warm up.
A week and a half later the mercury shot to 44 degrees Celsius — 111 Fahrenheit. The breeze stopped, and there was no relief. I felt ill and wondered if I would make it.
When I asked Marinela if it could get any hotter, she told me about the time the dust-laden sirocco winds had crossed the Aegean Sea from Libya in 2007: The chirping of the island’s cicadas, generally considered a temperature gauge, became deafening. She and my son heard popping noises and thought it was dying birds falling from the trees. Then they realized that the pine cones were exploding in the heat. As the wind reached the nearby hills, the cones ignited like fireworks.
My friend Julie and I were baking in the sun on a boat dock at Kings Beach in Lake Tahoe. I was fifteen and full of longing to look cool and meet boys. Just then two honest-to-goodness hippies with sexy long hair, bell-bottom jeans, and bare feet sat down next to us and started flirting.
“How’s the heat around here?” one asked.
“Really hot in the daytime, but it cools off at night,” I responded, hoping I did not sound as awkward as I felt.
He laughed, stripped naked, and jumped in the lake. I was both confused and excited. I didn’t know why he’d laughed, and I’d never seen a naked man’s body.
Walking back to our cabin, Julie told me that when the hippie had asked about the “heat,” he’d been inquiring about the local police presence. Any feeling I’d had of being cool seeped away into the hot pavement.
In the summer of 1958 I was ten years old and living on the fourth floor of a six-story walk-up in the Bronx. My three sisters and I, all under the age of twelve, spent as much time outdoors as we could. With the other neighborhood kids we’d take over the streets and courtyards as our mothers sat nearby at card tables, playing mah-jongg or canasta and keeping an eye on us.
But that summer was a hot one, and the heat and humidity would sometimes become so oppressive that even the dark of night didn’t bring relief. Fans only circulated the hot air. On nights when we could barely breathe, the whole family would tote blankets and pillows up to the tar-covered roof, where the air was cooler and we had a breathtaking view of Manhattan.
Dressed in the flimsiest pajamas we could find, my sisters and I would listen to the sounds of the city below while Daddy read by flashlight and Mom told us stories about growing up during the Depression. Once we quieted down, they’d retreat to a corner of the roof in their folding chairs, smoking unfiltered cigarettes and sharing news of the day with neighbors, who’d also brought their clans up to the “tar beach.”
The ritual ended a few years later when my father bought an air conditioner — a newfangled machine that actually cooled a room with the push of a button. Nobody else on our block had one. I was excited and more than a little proud.
The air conditioner was installed in my parents’ bedroom window and used only at night, to keep the electric bill to a minimum. Now, when it was too hot to sleep, my sisters and I dragged our blankets and pillows to the floor of Mom and Dad’s room. We enjoyed the coolness, but I missed the camaraderie and excitement of sleeping on the roof, the gathering of the building’s families. Somehow the summer night had lost its magic.
Apex, North Carolina
I remember having to get my hair done for church when I was a little girl. The process usually began early Saturday, so my hair would be washed, pressed, and shining on Sunday morning.
The part I enjoyed the most was the actual washing of my hair: my mother’s hands on my head, the way her fingers massaged my scalp. Whether I received this care in the bathtub or standing on an old crate, bent over the sink, the feeling was the same: heavenly.
Then she would take a big towel, rub my hair as dry as she could, and sit me in front of the tv while it finished drying. The images on the screen barely held my attention. All I could think about was that hot pressing comb.
I watched as my mother placed the comb on the gas stove and the flames tickled each tooth. I listened as it popped and sizzled. And I waited, back stiff, hands clenched, sweat beading on my forehead.
When the comb was ready, my mother would take it off the stove and wave it back and forth, smoke clouding the room. Then she’d tell me to be really still while she took a piece of my well-oiled hair and ran the comb through it. As she did this, she’d always blow on my scalp. I didn’t know then what the blowing was for, but now I know it was meant to give me a little relief from the heat.
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