Here's is by Amy Bickers' answer to the question I'm asking this summer. Amy is a Birmingham-based writer. A former newspaper reporter and magazine editor (Southern Living), she's currently working on her first book, a memoir. (It's going to be big, and I'm not just saying that because she's my friend. It's really that good.)
She was kind to share this beautiful piece about what she learned during summers with her dear grandparents, Wes and Carlene.
Thanks Amy. And if you're inspired by her piece to submit your answer to "Summer Is ________," let me know. I'd love to hear your voice too. (Click here to learn more.)
Summer is...Neil Diamond
By Amy Bickers
Each June, my mother drove me and my brother to Jackson, Tennessee where we met my dad at the Shoney’s Big Boy for the annual exchange. My parents were divorced and my dad lived in Carmel, Indiana, a long drive from our home in Shreveport, Louisiana. My brother and I spent our summers with our dad in Indiana. Because he and our stepmom worked, we spent a lot of our time with our granddad and grandma, Wes and Carlene.
In our family, we like to talk about how beautiful my grandma was. That’s easy to see in photographs. She had dark hair and green eyes and olive skin that made her a tiny bit exotic. When I lie out on a sunny summer day, even knowing it’s bad for me, it is because I am trying to look like this gorgeous creature.
Grandma was beautiful on the inside, too. She and my granddad were the kindest people I have ever known. Neither of them ever said a harsh word to me or raised their voices in anger. I felt loved when I was with my grandparents. I felt unbelievably special.
Grandma and Granddad owned a pontoon with seats covered in bright orange fabric and we spent our summer days floating on Geist Lake in Indiana. We ate O’Malia’s fried chicken and Mike-Sell’s Old Fashioned Potato Chips. At the end of the day, when the sun was setting and the temperature dipped, I sat next to Grandma, wrapped in a beach towel and in her arms. She had the softest skin I have ever felt. I’ve never forgotten the silkiness of her skin when I would snuggle up against her. My younger brother Tim would steer the boat with Granddad.
We listened to Abba and Neil Diamond cassettes as we crossed the lake to the dock. When I hear Neil Diamond songs now, I cry. You can laugh at me if you want but my grandma loved him. His voice is part of the soundtrack of my childhood.
My heart aches remembering those summers because they were so beautiful. I’m pretty sure I recognized how wonderful they were even then. I knew how lucky we were.
When we weren’t on the lake, my brother and I spent hours playing “pretend” at my grandparents’ house. Our favorite game was “detective.” I wore my grandma’s sundress and played the part of the femme fatale. I don’t think we knew what a femme fatale was then but I was glamorous and I needed a crime solved. The dress I wore was white with black polka dots and red trim. It wasn’t the kind of dress grandmas wore. But then my grandma wasn’t your typical grandma. She was the stuff of movies. She was a film noir star. She was a dream girl. She let me wear her jewelry. All of her necklaces hung from a hook in the bathroom. I remember a red bead necklace and a gold necklace with a butterfly hanging from it. I remember a gold locket with an Olan Mills photograph of me tucked inside.
After we solved our mysteries, we played soda shop. My grandparents’ family room had a bar and we served up vanilla ice cream in glasses and poured root beer, foaming and fizzing, on top of it. When it was time for lunch, Grandma indulged my preference for cheese and mayonnaise sandwiches. Afterward we ate marshmallow cookies.
One night, sitting on the porch swing, Grandma talked to me about what it felt like to have parents who were divorced. No one had ever really talked to me about how it felt before. I remember the dark night, the porch lit softly from the glow of the living room lamps beyond the windows. There is something about sitting in the half light, the mix of inside and out, on a pleasant summer evening that makes it easier to say exactly how something feels.
During another summer many years later, my mother, stepfather, and I drove to Indiana to visit my brother. He had moved there the year before, wanting to be near our dad and maybe figure out the kind of man he wanted to be.
My mother met my dad when she was in high school in Shreveport, Louisiana. She’d become a part of his family at a young age and, even after a divorce, still called Grandma and Granddad “Mom and Dad.” That’s just the kind of people they were. When they loved you, they loved you forever. When we showed up, years and years after my parents’ divorce, with my stepdad in tow, they welcomed him with open arms. They were generous with their love. They were amazing. My mom and stepdad brought my Grandma a Creedence Clearwater Revival CD knowing she loved their music. When my grandparents said they didn’t own a CD player, my mom and stepdad went out that day and bought them one.
If you had the chance to be with these people, to be loved by them, you would buy them a CD player, too. You would buy a CD player and play them a hundred songs they loved. A good number of them would be Neil Diamond songs.
A few years ago, my granddad was in a hospital across town. My grandma was at home, unable to make the trip to visit him. As her grown children left the house to see their father, my grandma said, “Tell him I adore him.” It was her last message to him. Within days, my grandma would be in another hospital and my granddad would leave his own hospital bed to go to his one true love and hold her hand as she slipped out of this world.
A part of him slipped away too. He didn’t say much after her death. He didn’t leave the house. If you’d known him back when, you’d know this is not the man he was. Wes and Carlene had “happiness” parties. They drank. They smoked. They laughed and loved. And loved and loved.
My granddad passed away last summer, the day after the 62nd anniversary of the day he married my grandma. I like to think my grandma was waiting for him, her arms thrown open, to welcome him back to her. Hello again, she might have said.
“Hello, my friend, hello.
It’s good to need you so,
It’s good to love you like I do
And to feel this way
When I hear you say:
Carlene and Wes