Summer's End

PETER A. JAY

September 06, 1992|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- Tomorrow is Labor Day, and two weeks and a day after that comes the autumnal equinox, but these events may be disregarded. The season has already turned its corner, reached what Dylan Thomas called "God speeded summer's end." Forget the calendar. Summer's gone.

It may have ended when the door swung shut for the last time at a family cabin up in the mountains, or at a little bed-and-breakfast at the shore. It may have ended when the first school bus turned into the road past the house. It may have ended when the barn swallows left. It may have had a thousand ends. Anyway, summer's gone.

In what are known to the guidebooks as Resort Areas, there's no question about when it is that summer ends. It's when the summer people go. For both those who go and those who stay behind, this is a time of nostalgia, of farewells, and sometimes of a poignant kind of envy.

Ride with a summer family, vacation over, as it drives out of town in its overloaded station wagon. There are bikes or maybe surfboards lashed to the roof, a boat towing behind on its trailer. Sunburned faces look out for the last time over the harbor, or across the lake, or up the mountainside.

At the gas station, or in front of the general store, a few local residents observe the departure. Their faces are neutral, but their body language is eloquent. In a passive but unmistakable way, they are declaring victory. The summer occupation is over. They have outlasted the occupants, and now they are getting their town back.

Inside the departing station wagon, the homeward-bound visitors observe this unspoken declaration of victory and feel a pang. They wonder wistfully what it would be like to stay on in this enchanted place for the winter, or for a year, or for a lifetime. It would be a good time to write a book, or take up ornithology, or. . . . But then the road takes a turn, and the daydream fades. Summer's gone.

At the gas station, meanwhile, the locals watch the car go out of sight around the bend, then turn back to come face to face with end-of-season reality. Not everything is perfect in paradise.

With the tourists gone, there are parking spaces at last in front of the post office, and here and there prices are coming down. Now the locked gates of the summer people can be climbed over, the No Trespassing signs safely ignored. Life is more relaxed. But the seasonal stores are closing, and the summer help has been paid off. Along with the visitors, a lot of money has left town.

Some of those left behind are wondering what it would be like, living in the city in a warm house with a good job and a new car. These are winter-season thoughts. When they return, it's confirmed. Summer's gone.

Most of us know people who have tried, in one way or another, to make their summers last forever, struggling to extend their vacations indefinitely by camouflaging them as careers. Examples can be found in any resort area in the off-season.

Thus you might find an engineer living in a boathouse writing poems, a former law student repairing outboard motors, an airline pilot guiding fishing trips, or a couple of professors running a catering service. Most of these ventures fail eventually, when either the money or the determination supporting them runs out, but occasionally they are wildly successful. And when they are, there's a catch.

Those who put aside a confining career in order to begin an exciting new venture are, if they succeed, likely to find themselves just as confined as ever. You can make a vacation look like a career, or a career look like a vacation, but underneath the camouflage they're either one or the other. One's work and one's play. As the King of Siam said, it's a puzzlement.

When our own family vacation ended this year, we came home, brushed the sand out of the car and the cobwebs from around the doors, and picked up more or less where we left off. School began, and in a few days, if we hadn't had the photographs that proved otherwise, it might have seemed as if we hadn't been away at all.

But we do have the new photos, and they're as startling and unsettling as ever. When they're in the album, next to the photos of last year's vacation and all the vacations before, they'll document the racing, out-of-control passage of time. Year after year, the sea and the sand look the same, but the people, even the youngest ones, keep getting older.

The pictures are reminders that no matter how much we go through the same rituals, visit the same places, swim in the same waters, every summer is something special, something that won't come again. There will, of course, be other summers, but 1992's is history. We tried to hold onto it and slow it down, but it slipped through our fingers, and now it is gone.

Peter A. Jay's column appears here each week.

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