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THE FIRST CHILL AIR OF SUMMER'S END


It’s overcast and almost chilly this Sunday afternoon. Rain is expected in the next few days. The tourists have mostly gone home, and there are now welcome gaps in the usually chockablock parking lot. I can take my pick – under the tilleul tree, or against the village wall. Makes you feel like you own a reserved space. Well, until Christmas, when the lot is full again to bursting with extended families all coming back to celebrate the Yuletide with their older relatives. The village bar is still serving lunch on the weekends, which is welcomed by us as a way of entertaining without having to cook the food, lay in some bottles of wine, find a dessert or make our own pastries. We just come in, sit on the terrace, order whatever is the main dish of the day, and slurp some cold rose or white wine while we amiably chat with our invited friends. I always take a seat facing the boules pitch, so I can keep a weather eye out for darker clouds. On this day, there is a clear, deep-blue sky with mountain-sized fleecy clouds carrying nothing more than bleached steam.

The kids are gone again, along with their children, and the house is as quiet as a rectory. I roam around among the shadows and turn on a lamp to enjoy the dim light it casts over the tile floor. The U.S. Tennis Open is winding down and everyone has said his and her tearful goodbyes to Serena Williams, who made the vague promise that this could be her last grand slam. She is feted by friends and family after losing to an Australian in the third round. She has no regrets. She says she will have some connection to the world of tennis, but doesn’t yet know what that will be. She will work hard to expand her clothing line, and continue to do outreach among young Black women trying to get their start in the sport. I applaud her. But the great invisible pendulum of our mortality has swung a heavy arc and left her looking fainter after all the glory, the trophies, the vast riches of her victories, the roar of the crowds. She is like an oak leaf that has grown brittle on the tree and will soon find its way through the air and disappear. I will miss her. Her power astonished me, and left me breathless when she served a ball no one could possibly return. She merely grunted and went back to the foul line to prepare for her next hypersonic serve against a worried opponent. I will have that image of her long after she has faded into the crowds of executives who manage great wealth and enterprise and who will surround her over the next few decades.

I’m feeling old myself. A bit creaky in my right knee, and go up the front steps of the house with cautious, almost faltering precision. Two doctors didn’t seem to know what might be the problem. My leg was massaged, oils were kneaded into the sore bones, and I was left with some electrodes attached to me that produced a current that felt, in the osteopath’s words, like so many ants. But I hobbled out of his office back to the car and tried another doctor, who prescribed a tube of anti-inflammatory gel. It didn’t do much even after several nights of applying it to my complaining joint. I gave up on it. I bought a cane from the junk store and tottered around on it, but it was boring to be so rickety and old before my time. I hung it up on the kitchen counter and haven’t touched it since. I am growing brittle. I know it. An oak leaf hanging from the limb of a matriarchal oak tree in the woods nearby. The second doctor leaned down to my ear and said with a French accent, “You are old!” and went on pushing my leg down against my thigh to no effect.

I admire the grace of younger people as they float along effortlessly on their sandals and bend down to pick up a scrap of paper and toss it into the trash bin. I wish I could do that, but I’m afraid I would need to brace myself and adjust my balance for such a task. The lanky kid whom I observed performing his impromptu ballet of bending and retrieving out on the sidewalk only made me wince. My knee will heal just fine, I know. This bit of pain has happened before and it lasted a few weeks or a month and disappeared again. I’m told I need to put a pillow between my legs before sleep, to keep the knee properly balanced. I may try that.

But for now, the woods are like an old lady combing her graying hair, laying out a pattern of hair pins next to her hand mirror and gazing with bemusement at her aging face. Her beauty is still evident in her high cheek bones and her slender neck, but she is now growing softer, paler, like some plum that has lived past its prime and is now communing with the lords of decay. There is always a feeling of melancholy at this time of year. Summer is long in the tooth, and the fall is waiting patiently, hat in hand, for its time on the stage, as it dismantles all the wonderful fictions of flowering fields and pulsating vines heavy with grapes. It has that duty to fold all the inventions of the recent months into suitcases and to cart them off to some secret hiding place where time is not so importunate as to invade their privacy. I hear Beethoven in the wind, the dark cello tones weaving their mournful motifs through the still glittering high notes of early September. But I smell allspice, and ginger, and observe the color of sunset as if it were some immense Chinese apple slowly coming to earth with its message of ghostly days ahead.

Even the stone wall outside my study has faded into the color of onions, as if some stew pot were ready to reach out and pluck the stones from their reveries and cook up some cold weather stew in the evening. And silence. The silence that is as gray and fragile as the wall, reposing already in a stoic indifference to how the seasons take back everything they loaned to the bright days. Nothing seems to complain that the daylight is perishable and growing shorter with each afternoon.

The truth is, we don’t have any wisdom to guide us at this time of year. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins once wrote, about a girl lamenting how fall is taking away all the fantasy of eternal summer and leaving her pining, “these are the things of man. It is Margaret you mourn for.” Well, yes. We don’t know how to penetrate the mystery of eternity, or how to account for our short lives against the immortal sternness of nature. Death lurks in the fragility of the air as it ebbs away like some tide. “I grow old, I grow old . . .” wrote T.S. Eliot, still a young graduate student at Harvard, imagining what aging is like as he laments his fleeting youth. He watched men reach down and roll up their flannel trousers to walk upon the beach, afraid to take on any sand that might soil the carpet of a boarding house. He knows the mermaids will not sing to him, even though it is their ancient task to lure men to their death by drowning. Perhaps, he surmises, he is too old already to seem vulnerable to their intoxicating songs. But Eliot was always old; he looks papery in his photographs, and so thin and transparent in those strangely sienna-tinted days of the Edwardian era.

A girl smiles at me as I pass her in the supermarket. She can’t have been more than sixteen, but was already blossoming into womanhood. Maybe she pitied me in my dilapidated state and wanted me to know that the powers of magic bestowed by summer could still work their miracles on me. I did feel some tiny rush of my pulse at her lovely face, her warmth, her genuine pleasure at being a girl in this world of tumbling uncertainties. I would love to have shared a minute on the bench with her, posing questions about time and permanence that would fly far above her head, just to see her blink and ponder and possibly lose her composure as she tried to solve the riddle of mortality. I was steering my shopping cart toward the exit when all this happened, and I passed out into the still warm afternoon smelling the stale odor of ozone as a rain cloud shed all its blue conscience down onto the roofs nearby. Cold rain. With a wind behind it, where the dark forces of nature were hiding their black capes and wanting to pass unnoticed overhead. Behind me was the girl, wandering up and down the aisles loaded with the plenty of this world. She had no interest in considering any of this bounty. It was her mother’s world. She was all about wearing bright colors and drifting just out of reach of every vulnerable boy she passed. Her heart was full of amusing thoughts; she had no conscience to trouble her. She was free of gravity. God bless her. May she converse with angels at night and share their secrets, and roll over to the cool recesses of her pillow and let her dreams carry her away down the long corridors of summer’s last days.

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