Harmonic Mnemonics

There’s something so mnemonic about the sounds of a summer evening. Walk outside and the air is filled with the thrum and buzz of summer cicadas and suddenly you’re a kid again, running through the sprinkler that your dad usually set up to water the tomato plants (but not on this evening), or grabbing your bike and pedaling up the road as fast as you can after the ice cream truck because the day can’t end without brain freeze from a rocket pop or a tooth-cracking attempt to bite off Buffalo Bill’s icy bubble gum nose.

For me, the sound immediately triggers memories of our annual family trips south to visit my grandparents. Even when I was too young to understand things like the soon-to-be transience of “summer vacation,” I understood that when I heard those big, loud buzzing bugs, we’d be leaving soon. My mom would spend the night before packing all our suitcases while my dad finished his work week on the evening shift. I remember the flurry of activity as she would finish the laundry and sort all our clothes and toiletries for the 2 weeks we would be gone. She’d pack snacks for the 8-hour drive that awaited us the next morning and pile the luggage and the cooler next to the door so that my dad could easily carry everything outside to pack the car.

It’s so strange that I remember all this so well…then again, it was rote for so many years. Life was never simple, but it was less complicated then, at least through the filter of my child’s eyes. There were certain things upon which I could always depend. The fact that my mom would remember to pack my favorite Mickey Mouse shirt and remind me to bring my Snoopy and my pillow for the long drive. That, no matter how much she packed, my dad would always find space for it and us in the Chevette. That, even if I fell asleep, my parents would make sure I was awake to smell the tobacco-tinged air and see the giant cigarette that stood outside the Phillip Morris plant in the heart of Richmond—markers that helped me identify how far into our drive we’d gotten and how much further we had to go.

My parents always tried to arrange our vacations so that we were at my grandparents’ house for 4th of July celebrations. Fireworks might not have been legal in their Carolina, but they were only 20 minutes away from the Carolina where fireworks were sold everywhere, be it from the roadside stand on the way to Myrtle Beach or the back of Roscoe’s truck (surely, there were many Roscoes along the way back then, right?). And back then, leniency was simply a way of life for the folks of that neck of the woods.

We’d slip over the border and load up on sparklers, bottle rockets, firecrackers (Black Cats, right, Janet?), Roman candles, ground spinners, color wheels, jumping jacks, crazy little novelty fireworks in the shape of tanks or cars—I remember one year, we found this strange little novelty with the cardboard shape of a hen on a nest sitting atop a fuse. Of course, we had to buy it, just to see what it did. That night, we went out to the dark and dusty dirt road that led to my grandparents’ house, plopped the little cardboard hen down and struck a match to her fuse. The spark and sizzle slipped quickly upward, igniting whatever was inside and suddenly the hen was shooting little balls of colored fire out of her backside!

It’s like second nature for me to fall into memories like these the minute I hear that ubiquitous cicada song every summer. I can’t help it. I’m suddenly that shy little freckle-faced kid again, watching one of my flip-flops float away on the tide after a particularly high wave swept it off my foot as my parents and I sat on my grandparents’ dock…desperately trying to eat all my Mickey Mouse ice cream before it dribbled down my forearms…taking rides in my grandfather’s motor boat all through the winding tributaries and waterways…going to the nearby zoo to see the animals, only to have the elephant sneeze all over me and my uncle’s wife…all of it floods over me in this bittersweet mélange that fills me with longing for what is no more yet joy for all that once was, and that lives on in me.

When the heart weeps for what it has lost, the spirit laughs for what it has found.

I hope you are enjoying every second of this summer, my beautiful denizens. Make memories and hold on tightly. Oh, and don’t forget the brain freeze…