By Marianne Leek, a retired high school English teacher, current part-time community college instructor, and contributor to The Bitter Southerner. This is a contributor-submitted Voices piece. Want to join the conversation? We invite you to write for us. Learn how to share your voice here.
“Summer’s end’s around the bend just flying. The swimming suits are on the line just drying…” – from the song “Summer’s End” by John Prine
I am in love with summer, specifically summertime in the South. Most people prefer spring to the harsh humidity and steamy afternoon rainstorms that accompany the sticky season, and many have attempted to sway my opinion making a fairly convincing case for the season of rebirth and resurrection, a season alive with a palette of pastels and a savior’s redeeming grace. My counterargument is that summer is the manifestation of that divine promise, a season of eternal sunshine.
As summer has commenced into fall and winter is fast approaching, I think about 2020 and our nation’s loss of innocence. In many ways, this year has been a metaphorical end of summer, but it has also been a year of thanksgiving. We are thankful for creative ways to find human connections and the boundless love of family and friends. We have a renewed sense of appreciation for neighbors and compassion and empathy for complete strangers. We are thankful for change resulting from an inevitable tipping point in history that galvanized people to unapologetically take a stand fervently defending the human rights of others. And finally, we are thankful for a country no longer willing to tolerate hatred.
But I digress. This is, after all, an essay about the end of summer.
For the past thirty years or so, many of my summer afternoons have been spent at the homestead of my mother and father-in-law who live in the heart of Appalachia in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina. While summertime in the South means sweet tea and tomatoes, gardening and canning, little league and summer camp, rope swings and swimming holes, what always seems to signify the impending end of the summer season is the blooming of Grandmom’s sunflowers. Their Fibonacci pattern, a pattern found abundantly in nature but most dramatically on display in the center of a sunflower, has always been to me, proof enough of God’s existence.
I don’t know where she got the first seeds she planted. I suspect it was probably where she gets her tomato plants each year – at the annual customer appreciation day at our small town’s local community bank. I do know that every year since she has taken the heads of those sunflowers, dried them out, and harvested those seeds to plant the following season. There is something infinitely hopeful in the act of harvesting seeds to replant the following year.
For many years, when summer commenced, so did an unspoken agreement that family would meet on Saturday afternoons or Sundays after church up at Grandmom and Grandpop’s house. The grown children would bring over the fixins’ and promise to man the grill, and Grandmom would provide sliced tomatoes, potato salad, coleslaw, and pound cake. In July, the poundcake was inevitably garnished with strawberries, blueberries, and whipped cream. The adults would sit and talk, while the third generation of toddling grandchildren, the cousins, played in brightly colored plastic swimming pools until they grew weary.
As they began to grow, the cousins moved their adventures to a Crayola colored treehouse and spent evenings swinging on a tire swing that hung from the old oak tree at the center of the pasture as the Carolina blue sky slowly turned a cotton candy pink, the sun slipping quietly behind the ridgeline. And as the fireflies began to twinkle, young ones carried mason jars to capture these tiny beams of light, while the tiniest of the family fell asleep in the laps of their older cousins.
Much has changed. The paint is chipping on the Crayola colored treehouse and the old tire swing has been cut down, but the giant oak tree at the center of the pasture remains. The children are aging, some have retired, most of the grandchildren have moved away to go to college or start jobs in Asheville or Atlanta. Family gatherings are largely reserved for the trifecta of holidays – Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.
“Well you never know how far from home you’re feeling, until you watch the shadows cross the ceiling…” -John Prine
But from time to time a few of us still gather outside on the porch, just to sit a spell and talk about our day. COVID has dramatically changed the way we gather. Grandmom and Grandpop do not understand these changes. When we tell them we can’t come inside, Grandmom never fails to ask if we have the COVID while trying to persuade us to move the conversation indoors, “You’re not gonna give us nothing. C’mon inside.”
This past summer – the summer of 2020 – I watched the sunflowers. During quarantine, one of the youngest grandchildren, now a teenager, planted last summer’s seeds. The burgeoning stalks became fodder for our outdoor conversations where we could still visit while social-distancing. We measured the passing of time, the changing political climate, and the promise of a time when they will once again be able to safely leave their home, against those growing sunflower stalks.
I think about what COVID has taken from them – physical touch, hugs, human warmth – grandchildren who just months ago would have unabashedly run up and thrown their arms around their necks, kissing their wrinkled, wizened cheeks. Trips up the hill hand in hand with Grandpop to see his barn, listening to him while he tells his stories about his collection of antiques, a visual ode to our family’s past. Dusty, black and white photographs hang askew on the walls of the barn, snapshots of a simpler time, accompanied by old tools, vinyl records, sports equipment, jars and cans, ice skates and sleds. Ghostly objects, now of little importance.
“Come on home, Come on home. No you don’t have to be alone. Just come on home.” – John Prine
This year, in particular, I have measured this season of change in the blooms of Grandmom’s sunflowers. This year they were particularly beautiful, in all their whirly, swirly, Fibonacci, goodness. And I watch the woman, now 81, who has loved me infinitely since that day over thirty years ago when I first fell in love with her son, gather the center of those dying blooms and set them to dry, a beautiful promise of a new year and another summer season.