Most years, Memorial Day is to the calendar what the Bay Bridge is to carloads of hopeful vacationers: a beguiling gateway, a last threshold to that place and time where the days are finally longer, the skies sunnier, where the sand sticks between your toes, burgers sizzle on grills, and more sailboats than you could ever count fill the waters all the way out to a blissfully receding horizon.
It's summer, the holiday says. It's starting now, and you're invited.
At least, that's the way it's supposed to be.
What weather forecasters call a "sizable trough in the upper atmosphere" has made things unseasonably cool all over the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic this year. May's temperatures here have averaged 4 degrees lower than normal, including a few days that dipped into the 30s. John Darnley, who keeps an eye on such things for the National Weather Service, sounds downright wintry when he speaks of the "systems of instability, cyclonic flow, and cool air pooling around the system" that have "allowed more colder air to drift down from Canada."
Mother Nature has played havoc with the Farmer's Almanac, leaving us all pretty restive at a time when summer should be dawning. Especially, says Darnley, people like him, folks "who want to get their hands in the soil."
Darnley, a weekend gardener who lives in Sterling, Va., is piqued that he hasn't been able to plant his tomatoes, squash and morning glories as usual. He knows you can't hurry nature, but he should've had them in the ground weeks ago. He checks the meteorological tables every day to see if the cold air is dwindling.
With Memorial Day's impending arrival, he'd had enough of waiting.
"I'm putting everything in the ground this weekend," he said.
Boaters, too, have been in dry dock. Barry Scott, a loan officer from Abingdon, normally has his 24-foot Sea Ray in the Bush River by late April, but rain, wind and cool weather have kept the craft on land.
Friday, just in time for the holiday, Scott finally got it launched. It wasn't exactly a pleasure cruise.
"The water's choppy. The wind's blowing. Conditions are still pretty terrible, unless you're a sailboat guy. But I'm a boater, and I'm itching to be out there."
So it would seem we're owed a summer to remember. But don't ask the forecasters to promise it. They won't offer more than a guess.
"Spring isn't a good predictor of summer," explains Scott Stevens of the National Climatic Data Center. "You could see a flip of the switch for June, July and August ... it may well be sweltering."
Sweltering? Not exactly the adjective we were hoping for. Balmy would work. Or delightful. Would intoxicating, joyous or rapturous be too much to ask? We've suffered through instability and cyclonic flows. And now we are offered sweltering?
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Right now, we have the rest of May's last, long, lazy weekend to enjoy. As we head for the bridges, the beaches, the barbecues and the ballfields, we'll hold onto the same shining vision of the summer we imagine every year. Because whether it's sweltering or sublime, it will be over before we know it.