Every year I ponder this question: should I turn on the air conditioning?
It’s easy to do without it at first, when the smell of lilacs and the sound of mockingbirds drift in through open windows. It’s harder later, when writing paper sticks to sweaty hands and mold blossoms in the seams of the shower curtains.
In the city where I grew up, the burning pavement kept the long nights hot. After dinner, my mother headed the five of us towards cold water: the neighborhood pool, a sprinkler, or the lopsided pool in the backyard. On the worst nights, we went to bed still wet, with towels beneath us and noisy fans aimed right at us. My mother spent her early summers in Vermont and she thought heat was more dangerous than a summer cold.
In our large family, with cousins and grandparents often in residence, my 80-year-old grandfather had a rickety window unit because of his age. His closed room seemed clammy to me, smelling of Vicks cough drops and bourbon.
Before my youngest sister left home, my parents installed central air. On visits, I missed the slamming screen door, the nights watching fireflies, the sweaty badminton games. Once there’s cool dry air inside, it seems nobody goes outside.
As a young wife in Southside Virginia, I watched daytime temperatures hit highs that would have alarmed my mother. But at night, the country air always cooled, and I put my own babies to bed much as she had – an evening dip in a wading pool or a tepid bath, and fresh, cool sheets for the cribs. During the day, I adjusted a system of fans and open windows as the sun moved in the sky.
It wasn’t all good, of course. Flies buzzed in through the screens and settled in milk dripped from the children’s cereal. Dogs dragged smelly bits of long-dead animals under the house, desperate for cool dirt. When I hugged my toddlers, I breathed in a smell like vinegar from their sweaty hair.
By the time my children were in school, we moved to a bluff in Virginia’s piedmont, where summer nights cooled off quickly . But there were always a nights when we’d sit in the shallow pool at Rock Mills and let the icy water run over us.
Do the nightingales and the nights in the river balance the flies and the moldy shower curtains? I can’t answer that question. The best answer is: sometimes, sometimes not.
I’m older now, fitful and restless and unduly affected by days that are too cold or too hot. I don’t believe discomfort always has a point, but I do remember the nights when my children were teenagers, and I didn’t sleep well, and what I learned from that.
As I waited for them to come home, dodging deer on twisting mountain roads, I felt smothered by the muggy Virginia night. I was sweaty and anxious, but there was always an end, at least to the heat: midnight, 2 AM, 3 AM, 4 AM, even 5. Because I woke often, I learned to recognize the wonderful moment every night when the air completely changes, and the breeze blowing across your wet skin is fresh and cool, and as hopeful as the sunrise that follows.
- ▼ June (4)