Tag Archives: Summer

Here come those Crickets Again!

You hear them don’t you?    As evening falls: brreet, brreet, brreet!  The broken up, rhythmic brreeting, at once comforting—it happens this way every year and there’s something to be said for consistency—and disheartening: summer is ending!  Fall is coming!

Don’t confuse their song with the spiral-sounding, siren wailing of the cicadas up in the trees: a long low, buzzing, unbroken, getting higher, higher, more and more shrill, as if someone is swinging a pygmy cat with a kazoo around by the tail—then it stops.  Silence.  Then it starts again, low to high to silence.  Cicada song goes on for the better part of the summer anyway; you hear it during the day.  I associate it with heat and humidity, because that’s what summers are like where I’m from.   Cricket song comes at night.  Brreet, brreet, breet!  And you know just what they mean:

Brreet, brreet, brreet! Grab those last rays of summer, those last days at the shore, over the grill, over drinks with the far-flung relatives whose kids don’t have the same vacation schedule as yours so you won’t get to see them unless someone’s willing to travel on really major holidays.  Brreet, brreet, brreet!  Grab the back-to-school supplies in a hurry: remember how last year you couldn’t find a single pencil sharpener anywhere in your county?  Make your kids try on their old school clothes; make up a bag for good will; find those lunch boxes and see if nothing can be done about the stickiness in hers or the eerie smell in his.

Brreet, brreet, brreet!  I think with nostalgia about Chester Cricket of The Cricket in Times Square, the wonderful 1960 children’s book by George Selden (illustrated by the incomparable Garth Williams, who also illustrated E.B. White’s Stewart Little and Charlotte’s Web among others).  Chester is a country cricket, who—due to a series of picnic snafus, winds up living in the Times Square subway station—where he is befriended by the resourceful, liverwurst-loving Tucker Mouse and the honorable, if wily, Harry Cat.  Chester, adopted by little Mario Bellini (whose parents own the newsstand inhabited by Tucker), is soon discovered to be a deeply talented musician, able to whip off symphonies any time he is inspired, giving one impromptu concert after another.

I’m nostalgic for Chester, not only because my mother read me the story so many years ago, but also because it seems a very long time since I read the story to my own children.  My littlest, Theo, my baby boy, will turn nine at the end of this month.  Funny, when the crickets start singing each year, that’s often my reminder to start planning his birthday party.

Theo at three with a special friend

Theo was already a big fan of Tucker and Harry when I read him Cricket.  He was also interested in music, so the story meant even more to him.  Chester could touch people with the power of his song, even though he was so tiny and, in other ways (being a bug), fairly powerless.  I think, being such a small boy at the time, Theo liked the idea of music magnifying the person playing it.   I think he still does.  Though it can be tough sometimes to get him to practice, he’ll frequently remain at the piano long after he’s finished what I’ve asked him to play.  Theo can spend hours banging out dark, heavy chords, rain-like runs and arpeggios that roll like waves.

“Did you like that?” He’ll say.  “That one was called Midnight.”  Another is Halloween.  Theo’s musical compositions tend to be minor and haunting with names like the above.  (Lately, he’s been working out the Harry Potter movie theme by ear.) He loves playing, even if he’d rather do it only when the mood strikes.

“The only reason you’re making me practice,” he roared at me once, “is because you like how it sounds!”

The truth is that I do like how it sounds though, of course, that’s not the only reason I make him do it.  I make him do it because he’s good.  He’s got something that he’ll be able to do long after he’s done playing basketball and tennis and all the other sports he loves.  Something he can do when it’s raining or when he wants to impress someone or just feel good playing on his own.  Something beautiful and consistent and reliable.  Like the crickets.   And there they are again.

Brreet, brreet, brreet!   Your baby is nine!  You’re not getting any younger either!  Brreet, brreet!  There it goes, another beautiful summer!  Brreet!  Here it comes:  another fall.

Other Side of the Lake

My Dad and me at another lake at an earlier time. I think I'm two.

The summer I was ten, my parents and I rented a big yellow farm house which was a stone’s throw from a clear, blue lake. Everyone with a weekend house in the vicinity used the lake; it was the main attraction of the place.  It had a soft (more likely than not, man-made), sandy bank and a wooden raft anchored in the middle that you could swim or canoe out to.  People would lie out on that raft and just sun themselves for half the day.  No one worried about UV rays back in the seventies; people slathered themselves with baby oil and Ban de Soleil–sometimes held those aluminum sheets under their chins–and baked copper-brown in the sun, myself included.  (I know many people of color who were cautioned as children to stay out of the sun–to keep from getting darker.  My mother, who valued a nice tan in those days, was envious of how easily I browned.)

Our second week at the house, a group of boys arrived at a nearby estate.  There were ten of them, all about thirteen, all black, hailing from a place called “Inner City,” of which I’d never heard.  These boys had been awarded this special trip as a prize for academic excellence in a program which was basically for smart kids from rotten schools.  In addition to staying in a huge, old manor house and having access to a lake and the beautiful country, the boys were also taking enrichment classes in all the major academic areas.  Sort of like The Fresh Air Fund meets Prep for Prep.

My dad loved to observe these boys as they play-wrestled and exchanged insults involving one another’s mamas.  They were loud and wild and splashed a lot.  Most of the well-heeled regulars stayed away when the boys came out to swim—Inner-City-brand hilarity not being the vacationers’ speed.   The boys always greeted my dad with respect.  They could tell he understood them, though they didn’t know what to think about our family.  The boys seemed surprised that my mother—The White Lady—wasn’t afraid of them.  She spoke to them like a teacher would, even stepping in when their routine scuffles got out of hand.   They certainly didn’t know what to make of me.  Once the boys saw that my parents had no problem with them—didn’t clutch me and flee when they arrived, like the other parents did—they felt it was safe to approach me.  They never asked my name, but addressed me as “Little Girl,” referred to me as such amongst themselves.  As in:  “There go the Little Girl, y’all.”

The way I talked, which was nasal and squeaky with prominent r’s, amused them.

“Hey, Little Girl, you better watch out: Jaws is in the water.” (The film had been released earlier that summer.)

“No he’s not,” I’d say, not realizing they were trying to get a rise out of me.  “This lake is fresh water.  Sharks only live in salt water.”

They’d howl and slap each other’s hands as someone else would come up with a question for me, just to hear me talk.

The reason my dad got such a big kick out of these boys was that he had been one of these boys.   He had grown up in the thirties on the South Side of Chicago, part of what was referred to as “The Black Belt.”  His father—whom I never met because I was born too late—was a Pullman Porter, which meant he was always employed, even throughout the Depression.  So compared to those around them, my father’s family was not poor–my grandmother even took to leaving meals out on their front porch for those who had none.  Nevertheless, they were still black; they still struggled and faced the same kind of pervasive racism that all “colored people” faced back then, regardless of class.

It was immediately apparent to everyone that my father was a smart little boy, taking after his brother, Stan, who was eleven years his senior and clearly headed for University.  My father wore glasses from an early age, which no doubt helped people take his intellect seriously.  But it was more than that.  By seven, he was reading everything he could get his hands on; by ten, under his brother’s tutelage, he could differentiate Mozart from Beethoven from Schubert.  In Nineteen thirty-seven–seventeen years before Brown versus the Board of Education–my father was one of a very few black students who began attending a white high school, where he joined the staff of the school newspaper, ultimately becoming its chief cartoonist.

Still, his friends were the boys from his neighborhood.  They splashed around in their lake—Lake Michigan—and derided one another’s mamas just like these boys did.  Of course, the mobile sunshine delineated the white section of their beach.  If the sun moved while my father and his friends were in the water—which it invariably did—the racial divide moved.  That meant trouble.   As Dad would ultimately write:

‘No one had ever designated which sections of the beach were for white and black.  There were no signs as I had seen south … saying “white only, “ or “colored.”  But rigid segregation prevailed.  And the group of pugnacious white men and boys was always there at some arbitrary dividing line, with bats in their hands, watching us.  It was a different group every time we came to the lake, but they always looked the same.  Thin, fat, or muscular, narrowed eyes, tight little mouths and hard frowns …

If any black swimmers lost their sense of direction, or place, they would hear the shouts and curses and racial epithets.  If that didn’t do the job, into the water the group would come, eager for the attack.’[1]

Watching those boys at the lake that summer brought my father back to his beginnings: what it was like to be young, black, smart and way out of place wherever he went.   He never talked to me about those days when I was a kid, only when I found drafts of his memoirs later on and asked about them.  What stories he did tell me of black life in the 1930s on the South Side of Chicago involved a world very far removed from my own.

I spent my whole childhood without a single overt incident of racism—that I noticed.  I know I was raised in a bubble: a city where biracial was common, a private school where the black kids were no different socioeconomically from the white kids.  I had no frame of reference for relating to my father’s tales of segregation and fear.  Also, my father’s job in publishing meant later hours and more business trips than those of my mother, who was a teacher.   Mom was with me more, meaning I negotiated the world accompanied by a white, educated woman.  We may have gotten more than our share of looks when we went places together, but that was an easy trade.  No matter where we went, my mother’s race provided access.

Still, the trials my father endured as a youth, the character they built in him, paved the way for me to have a very different sort of life, in a different sort of time and place.


[1] From Untitled Memoir by Mel Williamson (The manuscript is undated, but he worked on it continuously between 1985 and 1994. ) This excerpt takes place in the summer of 1940.