hese days, I’m cold all the time — at work, in movie theaters, in restaurants — blasted by unrelenting, arctic air-conditioning. I carry a sweater with me everywhere, even on the hottest mid-90 degree days. But I can remember how, not long ago, when the last month of summer would settle on us, heavy with its humidity and heat, we did what we could to stay cool.
My grandmother got the laundry out to the clothesline early, carrying the basket of just-washed linens and cotton dish towels and nightgowns to the backyard, and I helped her, cradling those clothes in my arms for as long as I could before pinning them to the line, savoring the coolness of damp fabric.
We fried okra for lunch and sliced tomatoes and ate cucumbers, the six-inch pickling kind, soaked in salt and vinegar, so cold and light and refreshing.
The temperature reading on top of Randolph Savings and Loan in downtown Asheboro told us how hot it was, as if we didn’t already know from the grass in the yard, gone stiff like straw; as if we didn’t already know from our sunburned skin flaking off our shoulders like a papery onion.
My grandmother and I spent our afternoons on her front porch, hoping to pick up a little bit of a breeze on the swing. She kept our glasses of tea filled with ice, and we pressed those sweating glasses to our wrists, a trick she taught me — it works! — and, thinking about it now, I can easily feel the shock of cold traveling through my body, carried along on the blood vessels.
My grandmother collected folding fans, the accordion kind printed with exotic scenes. My favorite was made of silk and lace, and she let me play with it often, folding and unfolding with a flick of my wrist, covering my face like a 10-year-old Southern geisha. For cooling, though, nothing beat her cardboard fan advertising the Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance my grandfather sold. It had a wooden handle like a tongue depressor, and as we’d swing on the porch, my grandmother would get that fan going, and before long, wrung out by the heat and lulled by the rhythm of her arm moving back and forth, I’d slump beside her and drift off to sleep.
In the late ’70s, my grandparents installed a window unit, a Frigidaire with wood-grain panels, in the kitchen. On its maximum setting, that thing blew such icy air that my teeth throbbed when I stood next to it. In the hottest part of the day, we’d close the windows, which meant that the sheers in the living room no longer swayed when an afternoon shower came up. And I hate to say it, but we stopped sitting on the porch as much and stayed indoors instead, in front of the television, walled off from the sweltering heat outside, yes, but also from the perfumed fragrance of creamy magnolias in the evening; from the flicker of lightning bugs hovering above the grass; from the trill of tree crickets and katydids; from the goodnight tuba call of an occasional bullfrog.
FoldinI’m grateful for modern conveniences that have given us relief and comfort, but sometimes I wonder if we gave up something in exchange — permission to enjoy August’s dormancy, to let the cycle of the summer still us and give us pause.
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