The Mowing of Summer Lawns by
50
(58 Stories)

Prompted By My Hometown

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Imagine a summer day on Humphrey Avenue in Richmond, California—a wide street in a quiet neighborhood, a place where kids can stay out and play until their parents call them in for dinner.  If I listen, I can still hear the sounds.

At dinner time, dads cup their hands around their mouths and call their kids home.

If you were awake early enough, you could hear the milkman’s truck pull up in front of your house. You would hear the clanking of metal meeting glass as he took away the empties and left milk, butter, buttermilk, or cream for the week.

Early birds: nothing fancy or exotic, just regular robins and wrens chirping from the tops of the two walnut trees in our backyard: two short notes, then a long one. The trees’ branches whoosh and sway in the wind, making a rushing sound, a long shhhhhhhh.

My father hung a hammock between those trees, one of my favorite places to hide with a book. The ropes chafe against the solid trunks as I rock. We have a wooden bench swing in our backyard too. Its metal chains groan as kids pile on and shriek when we get it moving.

Backyard batting practice near the hammock. Not with a bat, exactly.

Summer days mean the ice cream truck coming slowly down the street, blaring a tune over and over as it snakes its way through the neighborhood.  The truck’s clarion calliope call draws all the kids to the curb, whether our moms will let us buy anything or not. Does it play “Turkey in the Straw” or something else? “Pop Goes the Weasel”? We can hear the notes from blocks away—plenty of time to run into the house and beg for change.  Jump ropes thwack the sidewalks as the girls on the block gather around to chant singsong lyrics—Ice Cream Soda Delawarey Punch, or Not Last Night but the Night Before— until someone misses and the singing stops and the next girl jumps in. The sounds get louder and faster when someone does “hots.” Or the ropes slap down in double time if you have good enough jumpers and turners to do double dutch.  “A my name is Alice and I come from Alabama. My husband’s name is Al and we sell anchors…” “Charlie Chaplin went to France to teach the girls the hootchie cootchie dance…” “Fudge, fudge, call the judge, mama’s got a brand-new baby.” The songs never change; the elders teach the young ’uns and so it goes as we all grow up. One potato, two potato to see who goes first at jacks or hopscotch.

Kids scoot down the street on red-trimmed Flexie Racers, or pull younger siblings around in a red wagon; playing cards stuck in bicycle spokes flap as boys speed by in the street, and some kid yelling “ollie ollie oxen free” signals the end of  hide and seek. You cry, “I got it” or “Mine!” when a fly ball is your catch, playing baseball in the street at dusk. Crickets on a calm night.

At dinner time, dads cup their hands around their mouths and call their kids home.

 

Richmond was a factory town during WWII—the Kaiser shipyards, Rosie the Riveter, victory ships—and there are still factories like Standard Oil and others sending plumes of white steam into the sky.

Real Rosies at the Richmond shipyards

A whistle sounds at noon, but only on certain days: a siren that that starts out low and reaches a crescendo and I can never tell where it comes from.

Airplanes frequently zoom overhead, bound for the San Francisco airport or points east. The sound of an airplane during a rainstorm always comforts me. I think, if the plane is up and stays up, even in a storm, everything must be alright.

I love to hear trains going by in the quiet part of the night. My house isn’t near the tracks, but the sound carries so well you can hear the wheels clicking on the tracks and the plaintive blast of the whistle.

Then there is the hissing of summer lawns, or rather, the mowing of summer lawns. The rows of metal blades on the cylinder, rotating faster, make a particular sound—not metallic, sort of a whirring noise, with shorter intervals when the person pushing it gets to the edge and does shorter strokes—like the soft, snoring sounds of a restless sleeper.

We hang our laundry on a clothesline, wheeling out the wet clothes in a muslin hamper that has a pocket for wooden clothespins. We clip the pins onto the line, attaching each damp article firmly to its neighbor. On a windy day, the sheets snap and flap, straining against the wooden pins. And when the clothes are dry, we take the pins off, dropping them back into the pocket where they softly clatter against the rest.

Baseball on the radio: Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons, calling the Giants games with long lingering pauses between cracks of the bat and the noise of the crowd. Hour after hour on KSFO, all summer and into fall, these two voices, making jokes I don’t understand, deep plummy voices rising with excitement during a close play or a “bye, bye baby” home run.

And the most memorable sound from those days: my father playing the piano, his fingers sliding easily over the keys for hours, like Tatum, like Shearing, like himself. Gershwin, Carmichael, Arlen, Porter, and of course, Rogers and Hart: It’s all “It’s Easy to Remember, and So Hard to Forget.”

The sounds of summer days, a long time ago, in my hometown.



Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Oh, so beautifully written, Risa, a feast for the senses! We had so much in common even though we were in different parts of the state. I’d forgotten some that you have now sparked….thanks for the memories!

  2. Marian says:

    What a beautiful story, Risa. I love how you take us through the details of a day, both very specific and at the same time almost universal for our age group. I wonder, do girls jump rope anymore? We sang “A my name is Alice … ” when we bounced a rubber ball and swirled our leg over it. It’s hard now to imagine Richmond as it was then, but why not? El Cerrito seems like it could be just like that today, and Richmond is just a town away.

    • Risa Nye says:

      Marian, it turns out my family moved to El Cerrito after my 7th grade year. Even though the two are so close together, I totally lost touch with the kids I grew up with, except for a couple that I connected to accidentally through FaceBook! Thanks for your comments. And I think some girls–and boys too–do double dutch still.

  3. Suzy says:

    Risa, I love your description of all the sounds of a summer day. Your language is so poetic. Some of what you describe is familiar to me – the ice cream truck, and “A my name is Alice” and some not. But all very evocative.

    Your title reminds me of a song that is just out of my grasp. It has the same rhythm, but I can’t think what it is. You are musical like I am, so I bet you had the song I can’t remember in mind. I tried to google “the something of summer something” but it didn’t work. What is it?

    • Risa Nye says:

      Suzy, thanks! What you were grasping for is Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns. I considered using that as my title, but decided to go with my twist of “mowing.” Thank you for your kind words!

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    So evocative of time and place, Risa. Like you, I sang out the same tunes while bouncing balls or jumping rope (never double dutch, I wasn’t that good). Sometimes “red rover” with groups of kids in the neighborhood, or in gym class at school. It seems universal. Your language brings back those times perfectly.

    Then there is the shift to wartime production and we get the feel of the industry of the factories and the woman at work, the planes overhead, the real feel for the port and the hum and bustle. This is just exquisite in its detail, from backyard to factory yard. Thank you for sharing you memories of childhood with us.

    • Risa Nye says:

      Betsy, thank you so much for these kind words about my story! I loved writing this one, especially recalling those jump rope songs. It’s amazing how this stuff sticks in the memory. And how great to have the opportunity to share our stories of long ago with each other here!

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    What a perfect description of the way I remember summer as a child, Risa. The love how you evoke powerful memories of childhood rhymes and games. I could hear and picture the milkman, the ice cream truck, and playing hide and seek with a gang of neighborhood kids. Being from an era when people mowed their lawns using hand-mowers (my brothers’ job to assist) and hung laundry in the backyard on clotheslines (my job to help my mother), I loved your story. Baseball on the radio, every game, was also the backdrop of my summer days. Thanks for so beautifully taking me back to the sounds of summer growing up.

  6. Oh so lovely Risa, you made us see and hear it all, and made us remember the sights and sounds and smells of our childhoods too!

    And I love the first person, present tense telling – I too find when writing from my child’s eyes, I write in first person, present tense and for the moment we’re once again that wonderful, innocent child, aren’t we!

  7. Wonderful! I love all the sensory details. You describe a manual lawn mower perfectly. Same with the milkman’s delivery of glass bottles in metal carriers. And playing cards clipped onto bicycle spokes. All vivid memories which you capture so well.

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