Summer as I knew it went down a drain at Perkin’s Family Restaurant in 2002.
It poured out of my skin and rushed through the kitchen pipes.
I guess that’s what happens when you hold a plate dripping in pancake syrup six inches from your baby face and then aim an industrial-strength spray gun at it.
Poof. Just like that. The magic of Youth vaporizes, and Reality soaks in with distinctly maple flavor.
Until that soggy moment, June through August exploded the laws of time. For 15 years, theme days at low budget camps replaced the calendar, and the lifeguard’s adult swim whistle stepped in for the tick tock of a clock.
Physics lost its pull too. Everyone I knew scaled skyscraping trees like chipmunks hoarding crack rock in their cheeks, tied off water balloons bigger than Gorbachev’s head without bursting, and belly flopped from the high dive without a single rib shattering on impact.
As for me, I spent those three months in nothing but a Speedo and rollerblades. No shirt, no socks, no problem. By Labor Day, all of my swimsuits wreaked of mildew, and the brakes on my blades were down to nubs. The Idiot’s Guide to Childhood lists these as the cardinal symptoms of summer spent on a happiness bender.
And binge did I ever. Before the sun went down, I could lose six rounds of Slap Jack with flare, write an impassioned letter to President Clinton about polar bear protection, twirl a rainbow-colored ankle bracelet into existence, step into Christiane Amanpour’s bunker and act out a breaking news report from Bosnia, wash my dad’s Chrysler Lebaron to see just how tacky the gold tires could get, and read a few chapters of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret…dog earing any page that even vaguely outlined how to will bigger boobs onto my chest.
When the fireflies blinked on across the neighborhood, I’d run home in bare feet to gnaw on three ears of corn typewriter-style, throw my brother’s sweatshirt over my still-wet swimsuit and head back out with my best friend to “accidentally” eavesdrop on neighbors’ phone calls with a set of wonderfully defective ToysRUs walkie talkies. Nancy Drew, she had nothing on us.
For 15 years, I burned through 90 days with a fuel accelerant that etched road rash and cacophonous laughter into the folds of my body and soul. A haze of brilliant yellow hangs over every moment.
But then, the body clock struck 16.
Suddenly, I needed gas money to keep my car, and the summer fun, blazing.
So, I traded traded in days dying my tongue with watermelon Italian ice for shifts sweeping stained, paisley carpet. I swapped moonlit evenings-turned-mornings playing truth or dare in Ollie Musekamp’s driveway for hours watching senior citizens gum saucers of cooked carrots.
Lord knows why I resigned myself to a summer job as chief bus girl at Perkin’s Family Restaurant. Maybe it was because I swim like an amputated lobster and burn like one too, so Lifeguard was out. Maybe it was because no one else was accepting privileged white girls whose only “service” experience boiled down to wiping toddlers’ butts. All I know is, it only took one whiff of the employee restroom to know this summer was going to stink.
For eight polyester-filled hours a day, I trucked back and forth from the kitchen in my black orthotics hauling buckets of slop and dripping with envy. Oh, how I longed to hold the splintered sides of the hostess stand, instead of the handles on my PVC dish bucket. That hostess had it good, screaming into elderly hearing aids and wiping down laminated menus. I mentally wiped the smile right off her face with my gnarly dishrag, and then proceeded to disinfect booths sprayed with the guts of war-torn Equal packets and non-dairy creamer tubs. I could swear the cleaning spray was just water with a touch of grapefruit juice.
I learned to sweep “the right way” from a man who did not have front teeth, and I discovered that a coupon is still valid even after you’ve dunked it in coffee like a biscuit and taped it back together with fly paper. Mostly though, I prayed that the baby growing inside one waitress’ belly wouldn’t come out with four arms and dorsal fin. That’s what my 10th grade health teacher told me would happen if you chain smoked during pregnancy, anyway.
But nothing at Perkin’s shocked me quite like that day I filled in for the dish washer, and instead ended up washed in dishes.
The dish room was explained to me as a mini gas chamber, and I was to be the executioner: Line up the dirty dishes on a rack. Pre-rinse with an industrial-strength hose. Roll the rack down conveyor belt. Slide up the industrial metal door. Slide the dishes in. Slide the door down. Press the “On” button. Wait 30 seconds. Slide out the rack of sterilized plates in a haze of steam and blinding heat. Repeat.
But I just didn’t think the plates were coming out clean enough. Chunks of food clung to the porcelain edges, and I wasn’t having it. Three racks in, I pulled out a plate, held it in front of my face and laid waste.
As the backdraft of water exploded across my face, I closed my eyes and broke. I found myself standing in front of an industrial sink and in the middle of a puddle swirling with sweat, tears and dish soap. As the steam cleared, sadness condensed around me. My childhood was over.
Something about that moment literally baptized me as an adult. I realized that Summer as a concept was not a given, but instead an ephemeral privilege. I knew from that moment on, I had closed the scrapbook on incandescent months draped in freedom and carelessness. The years ahead would be messy, challenging, heavy and often humbling…365 days a year. I would need to keep sight of my dreams and my passions, because the world would not carve out a season for me to explore and expand them anymore. I would have to build my own sanctuary in physical spaces and in relationships, instead of in a fantasy world mapped out between the borders between May and September.
This past Memorial Day, I sat on a blue deck lounger watching my 10-year-old niece and 5-year-old nephew catapult into their community pool. A heavy rain had just blown through, and the sun was winding down for the night. The sweet smell of dew and freshly cut grass hung in the humidity. As the breeze brushed me, I put down my camera and smiled. I caught a whiff of my brother and I as we watched summer thunderstorms light up the afternoon sky as kids. A bolt would strike, we’d count for the thunder, and squeal with delight as the count got lower and lower.
My niece streaked across the sky in a cannon ball tuck, as my nephew gingerly adjusted his goggles.
The canon ball exploded a bomb of water across the deck, and chlorine drizzled down my legs. In that moment, I almost wished the baptism process could work in reverse, and the cold droplets would take me back to 10 years old. But I know that’s not possible.
So instead, I tossed another kind of prayer into the wind that night. I wished for these two magical little people to have a season of summers just as whimsical and inspiring as mine.
Because, when they face their dishwashing moment all too soon, they will need that bank of memories to sustain their wildest dreams and their best friendships.
There is no doubt in my mind, this is why God created Summer.