Baptized into a Southern Summer
by Shannon O’Neil
It always happens in an unexpected place, at an unexpected moment, but in the instant those ghostly fingers of a distant memory graze my heart, I willfully close my eyes, let my present surroundings fall away, and open my mind to a memory.
Orange clay clings to the soles of my bare feet. The sun pushes at my back. I am running.
Hidden like landmines between blades of grass before me are spiky acorns and twisted roots, but I slow for nothing. When my first toe hits the blazing hot edges of the dock planks I know I am in the home stretch.
Seven heartbeats later I am weightless.
It is the best moment of the entire summer. In those long, lingering seconds when I am suspended above the surface of the lake, all the world takes its cues from me. No other moment exists before or after. I am the conductor, my arms are lifted, and the orchestra awaits.
The crescendo arrives as I crash into the cold embrace of the muddy water. Darkness absorbs me in pieces, but when I break the surface of the lake I am whole. I have been baptized into the church of the southern summer.
Swimming back to shore becomes a race. I beat my cousin, but he will beat me five times over before the day is through. We scour the muddy lake bed for rocks, practice swan dives off the dock, and sneak up on our mothers so we can dump them from their rafts (they only get mad if their beers are full).
We break for lunch and the food parade begins.
From the confines of the lake house fridge, Cool Whip containers and Tupperware bowls that predate my existence fall into formation on the table before us with a bevy of offerings. There are sandwich fixings, fresh fruits, chips, crackers, and of course, the Holy Trinity of Southern Salads (potato, macaroni, and chicken). We eat like we might never see food again.
With full bellies and sticky watermelon fingers, my cousin and I wait impatiently while we are lacquered with a fresh coat of sunscreen on the back porch. When the all-clear is sounded, we return to the water. By the time thunderclouds poke their heads over the pines across the lake, I have ten tiny white prunes on the ends of my fingers.
Heavy raindrops on windowpanes mask the soft snores of napping children. I have won the battle for the top bunk in the middle bedroom. Below me, the floor fan whirs in its futile battle against the summer humidity while thunder rattles rafters overhead. I sleep blissfully, filled with dreams no better than today.
My grandmother is guarding the pimento cheese at the kitchen table when I wake. She pulls me onto the bench beside her and shows me how to snap off the pointy ends of the green beans grown in her sister’s garden. My cousin joins us, and sets to shucking corn. Activity circles around the three of us. Trays of meat are ferried to the grill while more vegetables are rinsed and laid to dry on the table. A radio on the kitchen counter fills the spaces between our conversations with old country love songs.
When supper is ready, we gather. Every chair, bench and flat surface in the house and on the back porch is covered with a food group or a family member. Plates are heaped high, emptied, and heaped high again. Laughter echoes across the dark lake and it’s impossible to know if it’s ours or that of our neighbors, enjoying the same perfect evening under the same perfect stars.
My memory never lets me linger long enough to appreciate every ounce of that last moment.
I always resurface in reality feeling unsatisfied, like one more second would have filled my cup, but instead my reluctant trundle back to adulthood sloshed those last few drops free, leaving me forever wanting. Forlornly, I march on and yet inside, I am always waiting for the memory to come back to me. The only justice I can ask for is that when all is said and done in this life, my southern summer dream will come and get me one last time.
Shannon O’Neil is the author of two novels steeped in colorful humor, complicated family dynamics and a touch of mystery. A native of historic (and eccentric) St. Augustine, Florida, she never had a chance at normalcy. Born into a family of parade clowns (by choice, not profession), her earliest memories are of riding through St. Augustine’s cobblestone streets in a little red wagon, tossing candy to other children along the Easter and Christmas parade routes. When she wasn’t enjoying the beaches, culture and kooky charm of her hometown, O’Neil could often be found with her toes in the clay of lower Alabama. From the muddy waters outside the family cabin on Lake Martin to the shaded oaks of her great-grandparents’ farm, she always has one foot in her Southern roots and one in the Florida sand. She currently works in marketing for a multinational corporation, but continues to write freelance for several magazines and hopes to have a third novel out next year. You can find her on Twitter and at her website and read her previous piece for Deep South “Florida’s Identity Crisis.”