Hi, I’m Mary, and this is my column no one asked for about things I like!
This past week, I’ve heard about 18 people say that summer is over. They’ve all stated it in the same bold manner, as if Beyoncé herself demanded they deliver this cold, hard fact to their fellow citizens and they don’t care if we don’t like it. If I know summer, however, and after living through it more than 30 (shhh!) times, I’d like to think I do, it’s not over quite yet. I’ve begun to notice the first hints of gold creeping into the edges of leaves, but summer’s not officially over until a bright orange leaf makes its fiery announcement. Its demise is always long, full of ups and downs, 90 degree days followed by 60 degree nights, torrential thunderstorms that roll through in the late afternoon, clearing the way for peaceful sunsets. It wants us to know it’s dying and that, despite the inevitable, it’s fighting to survive.
I’m well acquainted with this end of summer turmoil because I experience it within my very own body. My leaves, too, are slowly beginning to wither. This time of year is when I experience my most acute seasonal depression, when the weather dictates my own stormy moods. On days like today, the breeze carries an air of chill melancholy, reminding us that all good things end, that we must suffer to earn their return. Many people who live in four season climates long for summer and dread winter, but my sadness has nothing to do with the impending months of cold.
“The body remembers,” my therapist tells me often for I, like many others, am afflicted with acute sense memory. For me, the first cool breeze is a reminder of not what’s about to happen, but what already has.
My mother died 11 years ago on a perfect September day, 70 degrees and sunny, a chilly breeze wafting through the windows of my parents’ bedroom where she lay in a hospital bed in a coma, gasping her last breaths. Her funeral was held on an equally perfect day, the kind of day when the light shines as if being filtered through a gauzy curtain, even when none are drawn.
This has always been my favorite time of year, when beach weather and sweater weather can coexist, often in the very same day, but for the past 11 years, it’s made me sad. From the end of August through the beginning of October, my mood plummets with the temperature. There’s something comforting about this synchronicity, and I sometimes imagine how much worse it would be if my mother had died in the middle of summer, the bright, hot sun still boring through my drawn curtains in the late evening. At least the end of summer invites the exact kind of muted melancholy I feel. The earth itself is mourning.
Last night, the sunset was beautiful. I was biking through Williamsburg when suddenly the sky was glowing, layers of bright pastel stacked on the horizon like cake. It was orange, the color of fall. People were practically running into traffic to get to the waterfront, which offered the best view, everyone frantic to appreciate the day’s spectacular end. I biked west over the Williamsburg Bridge toward the sunset but by the time I got to Manhattan, it had faded to black. I imagined everyone wandering away from the waterfront slowly, cautiously obeying traffic laws. The show was over.
Right now, I feel as though everything is ending, when in fact all that’s ending is summer, a season I’m not built for anyway. My people — at least some of them — come from the mountains, which is my excuse for how I managed to get heat exhaustion in July while staying in a home with central air. Furthermore, I’m not a social enough animal to be a summer person, could never handle its relentless insistence that I go out and interact with the world. As a child, I spent most summer days playing alone in my yard, wandering through the trees and pretending they were a mystical forest when I was old enough to know such activities were childish and embarrassing. Or doing headstands for hours at the local pool, technically surrounded by other kids but completely lost in my own world. I didn’t have a lot of friends and the few I did have didn’t seem to enjoy my favorite pastime: sitting in a tree outside my family’s den watching TV through the window. Even when I was little, the social pressure of summer made me feel like a loser. I was one of those kids who looked forward to the start of school, with its mandatory social engagements and promise of a new beginning. Maybe this year, I’d think, I’ll be cool, or finally get thin, which for girls is the same thing.
Though I still welcome fall and its merciful killing of New York’s relentless summer, it no longer carries this promise of a fresh start. My mother died on September 19, two weeks before her birthday on October 2. Three years ago, her brother John died on October 4, stretching my period of mourning out a few extra days, all these anniversaries stacking up like Legos to form the Millennium Falcon of my sadness.
Fall was my mother’s favorite time of year. Like me, she was meant to live in a turtleneck and a pair of sensible pants. Our thighs were not made for shorts, which I wear all summer long even though my pussy sucks them up like a vacuum. I’ve never had a thigh gap and, unless I get the same surgery Beyoncé had to give her junk some breathing room, never will. In the past two weeks, it’s been cold enough to wear pants a few times, and I’ve enjoyed the singular luxury of a frictionless stride.
Still, some part of me is always sad to see summer go, especially this year because I actually enjoyed it. Last summer was terrible, full of heartbreak and bed bugs. This year, my summer yet again involved bed bugs, but fortunately wasn’t full of them. They returned in late spring and by the official start of summer I had moved and left the bugs behind (knock on wood). Once I settled into my new apartment, I had time to relax — or at least try to. I went to the beach, a baseball game, a barbecue (all the best summer activities start with a “b”). I ate lots of ice cream. Last year, tomato season passed me by, but this year I’ve been going HAM, whipping up gazpacho every weekend, devouring tomato, peach and mozzarella salads nearly every night. I’ve been charring ears of corn on my stovetop, rubbing them in a little butter and crunching into them while standing over my kitchen sink in the middle of the afternoon. It’s as good as the corn I ate as a child, which my mother would buy from a farm a few miles away. I loved to go with her, to drive down that dirt road in the early evening, the windows down, our light jackets whipping in the wind.
In my quest to indulge in the best of summer, I got really into zucchini. The bounty at my local farmers’ market was too beautiful to resist, so I decided to buy some and figure out a recipe later. I made a zucchini and ricotta pasta with lemon, braised chicken over it with a charred scallion salsa (in case you couldn’t tell, I’m obsessed with New York Times Cooking, whose writers appear to shop at the same farmers’ markets as I do). One day, I decided to roast it plain, tossing it with white wine vinegar, olive oil, salt, pepper and a little parmesan. Somehow, this humble combination of ingredients yielded a dish so delicious it didn’t even make sense. I made it for my boyfriend, my sister, my father and my friend Greg just to make sure I wasn’t delusional, and they all agreed it was nonsensically delicious. I made it every week for a month, ate it with my fingers fresh out of the oven and cold out of the refrigerator.
Last week, I bought the only two gnarly-looking zucchini I could find at the market and prepared them using my favored method. The result was disappointing. The vegetables were tough and comparatively flavorless. Zucchini season is over but everything is not ending. While obvious, I have to remind myself of such things right now. I have to remind myself that apple season is just about to begin.
The photo attached to this article may seem incongruous, and maybe it is, but I’m in the habit of taking pictures of myself, which I’m loathe to call selfies, for this column. When others post similar photos on Instagram, I judge them harshly, but I excuse myself of this same behavior in this space because I assume no one’s looking. I took this Wednesday when I looked decent and was in a good mood, when it was hot enough outside to prevent the gravity of the past from pulling me down. I assumed I would write about something frivolous this week: a skin product or a recent unnecessary purchase. But when I woke up yesterday morning, the temperature had dropped and these words were rattling around in my brain. I had to get them out, to write them down so I could organize them. So I could read them back as truth. Not everything is ending.
Somehow, after 11 years, my end-of-summertime sadness is still a surprise. Every year, I think it’s been long enough, it can’t possibly be as hard this time. I thought the 10th anniversary of my mother’s death would surely bring some relief, but it didn’t. It hasn’t. Here I am once again finding myself sitting in the corner of a roomful of people I know, staring at my phone, retreating inward. The grief hits my body before it hits my brain, before I recognize what’s happening as exactly what’s happened the last ten Septembers. What’s wrong with me? I wonder. I must be getting my period, a cliché but often the reason for my mood swings. But wait, I just had it. I forget, but the body remembers.
Next week, I’m going to California. I’m excited, and also curious. I’m interested to find out if removing myself from the Northeast’s violent seasonal mood swings will stabilize my own, if going to a place where the climate remains more or less the same year round will displace my body from this particular time of year. If the body doesn’t remember, will I?
I’ll be back in New York, however, just in time for the anniversaries to start rolling in. Just in time to start remembering exactly what happened each day, each hour, where I was, what I did. To remember all the birthdays I celebrated with my mother, all the birthdays she didn’t get to celebrate at all. Now she would be this old. Now this old. But she’s not. To remember how light John’s ashes were when I held them in my hands before letting the wind sweep them away and across the top of his favorite mountain. To recount each loss and its impact, year after year. People keep saying it’s over but it will still be summer for another month. This my body knows.
As I do every year, I’ll weather the storm, emerge mid-October with a clearer head, a survivor once more. Winter will come, full of root vegetables, then fresh and lovely spring with its sugar snap peas and delicate young lettuces, followed by summer’s beautiful bounty of zucchini. But the zucchini, once again, will grow hard and bland, just as the corn grows sweet and the tomatoes plump and juicy. The light will start to wane, the leaves to yellow and, like summer, I’ll once again fade away. Before my mind can catch up, my body will begin to relive all this death, to feel like I’m losing what’s been lost for so long.
Sometimes I wonder how long this can last, if I’ll be caught in this seasonal cycle of grief all my life. If, year after year after year, I’ll outlive my own tragedies while leaves die all around me.
Only my body knows the answer.
As always, I’d like to clarify that this is NOT a sponsored post. I received nothing for it and am pretty sure no one cares about my incredible recipe for zucchini. Still, if anyone is reading and ever wants to give me literally anything for free, zucchini or not, I WILL TAKE IT!!!!!!
Anyway, I hope this was helpful. I’ll be back with more unsolicited recommendations soon!