(Excerpt from) American Summer by Joan Didion

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Joan Didion pictured with her daughter, Quintana Roo

Joan Didion (born December 1934) is an American author and journalist. Raised in Sacremento, California, Ms. Didion was a defining voice in the New Journalism movement, and through her writings became a leading moral agent of American literary media throughout various cultural uncertainties and upheavals in the late 1960’s and ’70s. Writing for Vouge in 1967, before the height of her fame, “American Summer” details the singularly intoxicating moments of youth with clarity and dignity, relaying her personal past experiences via clear-eyed prose that would soon detail the absurdities and idiosyncrasies of present events.

 


It is the summers of our middle childhood that we remember with an almost impossible clarity. We may forget the summer we were married; we do not forget being twelve years old and lying face down on the deck of a red-sailed Star and trailing one hand in blue Maine water, so cold it seemed to burn the bone.We may forget the summers we traveled, may no longer see clearly the rose windows at Chartres; we see instead, as if the retina had been indelibly scarred, the yellow of the columbine, the white rush of water over rock, somewhere near Colorado Springs, the summer we were ten. Because my own middle childhood was spent in the Sacramento Valley, where summer is less a season than a five-month siege, my mother and brother and I would go, come June, to a place on the Marin County coast called Stinson Beach: unkempt, desolate, so rickety that geraniums obscured even the sunbleached Coca-Cola signs; a sandspit with approximately the resort pitch of the Outer Aleutians. Summer is, after all, the season of escape: the landscape in which to contemplate, alone, our failures and our possibilities; the safety valve, the frontier that none of us wants—or can afford—to see closed.

stinson-beach
Stinson Beach, CA, where Ms. Didion spent her childhood summers

What we remember later are the alone moments, the impromptu moments. Few children remember their swimming lessons; we remember instead the feel, summer nights, of a faded batiste nightgown against our legs as we leaned out an upstairs window and tried to hear the music down the lake, and wished we were old enough to get kissed. We remember, imperishably, later, how it felt to sit up all night on someone’s terrace listening to old Mabel Mercer records and watching the sun rise, veiled and white, on steaming New York mornings. We remember the mauve twilight wastes of Park Avenue on August Sundays, when we could put on a silk dress with no slip and exchange desultory summer gossip in cool lovely places like the Blue Angel and the Stanhope Gate and not worry a great deal about dinner. We may not remember where we were going, but we do remember the hot and littered airports, everywhere; the night jets between New York and California that flew, perhaps five nights a week, with six and seven passengers, four of them in shirt-sleeves.

mother-and-son-at-the-beach-seaside-1950s-vintage-old-film-8mm-home-movie-251_sdf0iexx__s0013“Summer is, after all, the season of escape: the landscape in which to contemplate, alone, our failures and our possibilities; the safety valve, the frontier that none of us wants—or can afford—to see closed.”

We recall the evening fogs blowing in over Cape Cod and Cape Ann, and how on the last afternoon of one Labor Day weekend in Rockport the leaves had already begun to drift across the square. We remember the rain falling every afternoon about four on the North Carolina Piedmont, and watching tobacco sold in towns like Durham, and drinking Dr. Pepper and Grapette, that deep violet liquid which runs in the veins of the Middle South. We remember walking alone on the endless white dunes of the Fire Island Reef; we can see, with our eyes closed, the blown cypress at Carmel. We recall in dreams a burning, shimmering, improbably moving, never-never stretch of the Green River in Utah—seen once, from the windows of a Western Pacific Zephyr. So many places to be alone, so many escapes. So many summers that we can keep—if we want to—for ourselves, keep forever. And we had better. Because you just turn a corner, someone once wrote, “and the sweet swift years are gone.”

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