Chasing Summer

Books July 5th, 2011


The novels of Henry James have always left me a tad cold, but he was on to something when he said, “Summer afternoon, summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.”  When uttered, they immediately conjure images of lazy days filled with hammocks and pitchers of lemonade, dog-eared books and beat-up game boxes, long hours on the croquet lawn or playing doubles tennis. Think Mia Farrow with her fan in Gatsby or the charming cast of  “The Summer House” (No, not the short film with an especially brooding Robert Pattinson, but the lovely feature with Jeanne Moreau).  Summer afternoons—particularly the idealized versions—are also increasingly elusive. My own are currently not much different than, say, my February afternoons. (Except that in February, I do not spend great chunks of my afternoon in frustrated phone conversation with the AWOL air conditioning repairman, as I have on this very day.)

Of course James was writing in the 19th century, long before smart phones and Blackberries, relentless emails and text messages, 24-hour news and interminable streams of useless information.  Unless you are almost brutally vigilant, there is no such thing as “off” time, much less whole collections of languid hours. Last weekend, I attended a wedding in Cashiers, North Carolina, a place notoriously lacking in cell phone coverage. During brunch at the lovely house of some friends from New Orleans, our hostess told me that at the end of most of her days up there, she could never figure out what is was that she had done. When I asked how they made dates for golf or dinner or a trip to the sliding rocks with no cell phone, her husband told me they made plans well in advance by post or landline and people simply knew to stick to them.  Typically frustrated by the lack of phone coverage when we first arrived, I was almost sick when I heard the familiar beeps signifying voice mail and texts as we got closer to Atlanta.

Every year, I vow to carve out some 19th century style—or even some Cashiers-style—summer afternoons and pretty much every year I fail. There have been some moments, of course. For years, my friend McGee and I put on outrageous beach pageants with my two nieces every summer, complete with complicated plots and elaborate costumes. One year my eldest niece was a reverse Rapunzel held captive beneath the sea with hair that floated upwards as her escape, while her sister was her accomplice in escape, Minnie the mermaid; in another I was a seagull with feathered wings that still hang above my window in my mother’s Seaside house. Our last production was an ambitious musical, with songs written on the beach with the aid of numerous frozen margaritas and my husband-to-be, who was once lead singer in a band. I remain amazed that he married me after we cast him as the Evil Catfish, a role that required him to ruin a perfectly good polo shirt by sticking it with at least a dozen large fishing hooks and then to writhe menacingly—and repeatedly—on the ground.

Sadly, the house’s pageant box, like the jigsaw puzzle box and the game box have been left untouched for far too long.  But my vow this year is to get them all out and have at it.  I also have two whole tote bags filled with books I’ve meant to get around to for something like three years. And then of course there are pitchers to be filled, lunches and dinners to be cooked and lingered over, blender drinks to me made. I once spent a whole day out on the water deep sea fishing with friends, and when I returned to our house around five, my mother and McGee were still in their nightgowns on their second blender of margaritas, having spent the day watching Lethal Weapon I, II, and III. It’s not exactly Jamesian, but why not?

I have a postcard that I bought a million years ago that features a retro black and white image of a couple on the beach overlaid with a photo of a mouse trap. Across the top, it says “Catch summer before it gets away.” As everyone knows, it gets away all too easily.  But this year, I am bound to catch it.


About Julia Reed

Julia Reed is a columnist at Garden & Gun magazine and a contributing editor at Elle Décor. She also contributes to The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, and The New York Times, and makes frequent appearances on MSNBC. She is the author of five books, including But Mama Always Put Vodka in the Sangria, Adventures in Eating, Drinking and Making Merry and One Man’s Folly, The Exceptional Houses of Furlow Gatewood.

Leave a Reply