I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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It’s summer, and I’m lying outside on a quilt on the grass. The quilt is one of our old ones, thin gray fabric on both sides with lumpy batting in between, top and bottom held together by short lengths of coarse red string pulled though the layers at intervals and tied into knots. My mother always keeps it in the upstairs linen closet, the one I can climb the shelves of like a ladder to sit on the top shelf, where the ceiling is almost three feet high and where I have painted a picture of a Scottie dog on the wall.
The dampness of the ground is beginning to come through the quilt, and the bruised green odor of crushed grass rises around me. The yard slopes down toward the blacktop road in front of our house. The headlights of cars on Route 66, on the other side of the hollow below the road, trail slowly down the hill into town.
Nothing has happened to me yet: not baptism, adolescence, the interstate, going away to college. I have not yet met Marilyn. My dog has not yet died. I have not managed to slip away from this place forever. I am in it, body and soul. The whippoorwill down in the woods starts to call. My dog is lying with me on the quilt. It’s too dark now to read my comic books. The kitchen windows are lighted. Soon it will be time to go in through the screen door, into the embrace of the house, with its smells of food and worn-out furniture and old books and time.
My father is sitting in his vinyl easy chair. My mother is lying on the sofa, her eyes closed. I look at her face, a face I will remember all my life: her straight black eyebrows; her soft, wrinkled skin; her coarse gray-black hair; her large nose with its flaring nostrils; her small, pale mouth with the two sharp peaks of her upper lip; her amber eyes hidden behind her lids. Both my parents are still alive, and we are still a family on our hill in Missouri, ignorant of the sorrows that will come, free of the future, which I imagine will bring me only happiness.
My brother, too, is still alive. He is in his room, listening to the big brown radio, his door closed. He has not yet gone away to college or the navy. And all the objects are in their places, the ones that will someday be lost or broken or given away. And all my friends, including those I haven’t met, are alive, not dead of AIDS or cancer or ALS. To me it is only a summer evening in Missouri, my house riding on its hill, and as the sky outside grows darker, the lights of passing cars and the windows in the other houses on the hill grow brighter, until the lights go off one by one, and we fall asleep, not knowing that someday none of us will be able to return, not even for a moment, to tell each other what it meant that we were once here together, and alive.
“Summer Evening” by Carolyn Miller [May 2012] is as fine a piece of writing as anything you’ve printed, and a demonstration that it does not take a novel to tell a life story.
Carolyn Miller’s short essay “Summer Evening” [May 2012] transported me back to the sights, sounds, and smells of a summer eve in my own childhood. How many of us have similar frozen memories? But, of course, we can’t really return to that time and explain what it meant to be there “together and alive.”
I wonder: how can we tell each other right now what it means to be together and alive?