Friday, July 6, 2018

Heat Wave

I grew up in suburban Maryland, a mile outside of Washington, DC, a city known for the stupefying heat and humidity of its summers.  Since I was the youngest in my family, my bedroom was the last to graduate to a window air-conditioning unit.

During the day, in truly sultry weather, my sister and I would hide out in her room in the attic, which boasted the largest, loudest, most powerful air conditioner I’ve still ever seen.  A behemoth of a window unit, it took over the whole window, and was installed permanent year-round because no sane person wanted to risk lifting that monster.  In my parents’ room, meanwhile, a more ordinary window unit hummed along with vastly more energy efficiency on oppressive July nights.

In my room, an aging window fan moved the humidity around, the effect much like being the jet exhaust of an airplane.  The room stayed stubbornly hot, but the noise and wind provided distraction.  I remember nights lolling on top of the sheets watching shadows on the ceiling, sometimes with my nightgown wetted down with tap water and the idea that evaporative magic would leave me cooler, not just clammy.  I knew if I turned the blasting fan off -- and I did sometimes when the noise failed to outweigh the swirl of air -- I’d hear the summer crickets and frogs, the occasional car driving by, the rustle of wind through the crabapple tree in the backyard, perhaps a rumble of thunder to go with flashes of heat lightning if a storm lurked.  The sense floated that unlike the climate-controlled inside, I was sleeping outside, awash in the elements, that I was part of nature and velvet night, in the wild zone of secrets bestowed upon those awake while others slept. 

For the last three days, here in my adult life in Fredericton, NB, a heat wave has consumed the city, with highs reaching into the mid-90s.  Floridians (as I have been and will be again) experience this as a matter of course, but not so in the Canadian Maritimes.  As proof, I offer up that my apartment, like many in the city, does not have air conditioning.  For the past several days, I’ve closed the blinds and windows in the morning in the hopes of holding the cool captive inside through the heat of the day.  The apartment and I have shambled along by day mildly cooler and certainly darker and mustier than the great outdoors. 

It’s evening now on the last day of the wave.  The windows are open wide and still humid but finally cooling night air is drifting in. I have the ceiling fan at the 2nd highest setting because at the highest setting it swings from its stalk and makes noises that suggest it might launch itself from its mooring.  The night and the breeze on my skin, the few sounds of a neighborhood mostly quiet, leaves me homesick for summer in my childhood bedroom, for that loud fan and the favorite pillowcase with a cartoon walrus on it, for the shelves crammed full of books and board games and stuffed animals, for the wooden dressing table from my mother’s childhood bedroom and the fish tank in the corner with the one stubborn algae eater sturdier than all the goldfish carted home from the elementary school carnival.  I am homesick for summer in the bedroom with the unquestioned, unacknowledged comfort of my mother sleeping in the next room.

In my adult life here in Canada, July 4th marked the 5-year anniversary of my mother’s death.  I miss her every day in some little way, Mom being woven into the fabric of my every day of childhood, that is to say, the time that I was becoming a person, and so here I am, always a little frayed and unraveled without her.  I often drink my morning tea from the same blue and white ceramic mug from which she drank her coffee.  Some days, holidays and anniversaries and heat waves, remind me more of the details.  So here is what I want to tell you: once or many times – childhood memory being murky the way it is –  my mother and I sat on the screened-in porch and watched torrential rain fall in heavy sheets.  Wind pushed bursts of water through the screens turning it to mist, the storm spray and deluge offering a shared exhilaration and providing a temporary respite from the long slog of a hot summer in suburban Maryland.  

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