The Scents of Summer

July 1, 2016

We’ve officially moved into the Summer Season, the one we dream of during the dreary, wet days of February and the long brutal nights of Winter.  The thermometer has begun it’s annual low boil of mercury, keeping the glass over the 90 degree mark opaque but I am not complaining.  This is a glorious time of year, when the earth seems to spill over with an abundance of living things and I am its eager audience.  More than any other, Summer is a season of scents for me and a single whiff sends me into a cascade of memories eternally tied to this season.

Lilac I grew up in a two bedroom house, unprepossessing in appearance.   Between the patchy lawn and the faded exterior, it would never draw the eye except for 10 days every year when the wall of lilac surrounding the house blossomed.  For the rest of the year the bushes were just as a privacy fence between us and the neighbors, but each year, between May 1 and my birthday, they burst into glorious bloom, drowning the block in scent and turning our wren-brown house into a thing of beauty, framed by that delicate color. In the morning, I could bury my face in the blossoms or pick armfuls of them for pleasure.  In the evening we sat on the porch and I watched my mom tilt her head backto immerse herself further into the waves of this marvelous perfume.  The flowers would eventually fall, leaving behind long, leafy saplings that my sister and I cut and pealed to create “hiking staffs” for our rambles to imaginary summits.  New owners took possession of the house and, I understand, eradicated the wall of lilac.  I can’t understand this.  Without that waterfall of flowers, how can they know when summer begun?

Swimming Pool Smells  A sub-group of people in this country think of summer whenever they start to do laundry.  They should be known, collectively, as the Pool Kids. Not every generation equated summer with swimming and not everyone had access to a pool but for a certain number of years, those of us who did spent every spare minute and penny we could in that concrete hole full of chemicals and water.  From late spring until the next school year started, we prayed for sun each day and then begged our mothers for the price of admission.  Kids spent a lot of those summer days dressed in swim suits, either for the morning swimming lessons or for the afternoon free-for all and more than one blonde head turned green over the summer due to long-term exposure to the chlorinated water.  Of course, chlorine is only the base note of the Swimming Pool perfume.  The complete fragrance also carries the scent of Baby-Oil and the grace notes of Coppertone and Hawaiian Tropic.   Older girls drenched themselves in this marinade of emollients and then laid by the side of the pool, hoping to roast to a golden-brown and attract the attention of boys.  That pungent combination of unguents and chemicals is a time machine on me.  One whiff and I’m back at the five foot ladder listening to the whistle of the life-guard and the ker-splash! of a cannonball dive.
Peaches At one time, I couldn’t stand Peaches.  When  I was very small, Mom would stop by orchards that would sell all the fruit we could pick for a pre-specified price.  The only thing was, we didn’t pick the fruit.  Mom stood under the tree and directed me up the trunks to pull the fruit from the branches. climb down and hand them to her.  Between the heat, the small, knobbly branches and the fuzzy fruit, the trees were a misery to climb and with every peach, I was terrified that I’d also pick up a worm.  I didn’t care about any of the wonderful desserts or preserves Mom promised she’d make from my labors and no amount of explanation could help her understand why I loved climbing the mimosa tree at home but hated everything to do with peaches.  It took me years to reconsider.

The American South is justifiably known for it’s incredible bounty of peaches and one of the “Peach Capitals” of the region is where I changed my mind.  Years ago, a boss took me on a late summer field trip that ended in one of these Peach Palaces. It was just after harvest and the late summer sun made the afternoon dusty-hot but my boss knew her way to the air-conditioner and a plate of home-made Peach Ice Cream.  I could have wept for the sweetness and the foolish years I had wasted avoiding the miracle of peaches.  Since then, I’ve haunted fruit stands and farmers markets for peaches and when they are fresh in the store, I sniff them like a bouquet of flowers.  Peaches are the last, rich, best part of summer for me, vibrant, juicy and sweet, already spicy in their own nectar.

There’s something to love about every part of the year, some stillness or quickening to appreciate.  There’s glory in the color of the autumn, joy in the blossoming of spring and a reverence in the still, white, silence of winter.  Enjoy them each in turn but don’t neglect the scents of summer.  They’re a feast for the senses.

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