The Carnation Life: Night Watering

July 2015

After the light fades–10:30 p.m. these long days in the Pacific Northwest–I throw on a headlamp, and, with a glass of rose in one hand, the hose in the other, begin to water the gardens around my cottage. After a week of ninety degree days, the cool of the evening settles on the grass around the fairy handkerchiefs made by the funnel weave spiders. A full moon–the Hay Moon–peers over the lip of the Cascades. A nearby fence bears the arched silhouette of Guinevere, the calico next door.

My neighbors, most of them, are asleep in the dream-scented air. In the hushed stillness of the hour I hear beetles crawl in the grass. Bats sew invisible lines back and forth above me in a sky saturated with insects and faint stars. A streetlamp over my front lawn, the one I talk of shooting out for its bothersome light, throws Hopperesque shadows onto the lilacs and porches. The trees breathe in the silence. From down the street comes the rhythmic squeak of a rope on a limb, made by a teenage neighbor who swings under an apple tree. The swinging must soothe her, as the sound does me. When I hear the creak of that swing I know I’m in the thick of summer.

In several days it will be the Fourth of July. I’m not particularly patriotic, but the Fourth is my favorite holiday. Perhaps because it marks high summer, or for us in the northwest, the start of that ephemeral season. It’s a holiday one needn’t buy presents for, the weather is clear and hot, and most everyone, except the crabbed woman across the alleyway, has good cheer. I like the equipoise it creates, a hushed waiting for the big day of celebration. Something about it makes me feel I’ve stolen time and am back in the few and rare halcyon days of my 1960’s childhood. Perhaps because Carnation hosts the quintessential old-timey celebration that draws spectators from around Seattle to our bucolic river valley. Our parade marches straight out of a western small-town history book:  a Grand Marshall leads old green and yellow tractors nursed along by sullen teenagers or elderly farmers, acrobatic country line dancers twirl in unison in satin blouses and blue jeans, my fifteen year old friend Julia leads gymnasts in handstands down Main Street, classic cars float by with ladies in evening dress at the wheel, Mexican dancing horses drip with foamy sweat, politicians hand out leaflets and candy, and a Model T Ford brings up the rear. Throngs of spectators line our main street, then gather at the biker bar or the beer garden in the campground to drink and listen to bands until the fireworks at night.

People picnic on iced tea and potato salad and chicken, the same salad and barbecued chicken and tea that their folks made when they were kids. My friends will host parties, and I’ll spend the afternoon visiting, most of the ladies wearing skirts and short sleeved blouses, fanning ourselves under the shade trees in the heat. I’ll walk to the swimming hole, where I’ll read undisturbed on a bare rock while the cool river passes by. At nightfall the neighbors who don’t stroll to the park will open up their folding chairs on the edge of the street–old man Warren and his wife, kindly and thin as sticks, will unfold the same chairs they’ve used for decades, in the same place they’ve watched the fireworks for the past fifty summers when they first moved here. The display will last ten minutes, long enough to make the ospreys–there are several this year–cower in their nests, until the booming echoes snake upriver and fade into the foothills.

It’s the kind of Fourth I wish I had as a child. Most of our fireworks happened inside the house, a chaos that reverberated across decades, a chaos that, through years of decoding, has gradually dissembled. For now, moths rise and flutter as I drizzle the plants. A memory rises, too, with the moths: watering corn and tomatoes in my backyard garden in upstate New York. I was eight, dreaming of lions in East Africa, of exotic locales. Of the life I would have. Watering a nascent nostalgia before I was old enough to earn it. On Monday, after the festivities, I’ll come back to 2015.



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