Summertime, what does it mean to us?
As children summers meant endlessness days and nights that often drifted into one another. We ate watermelon and chased fireflies and swam in lakes and pools and oceans. We dug deep into the sandy shores wondering what we would find. Our days were spent outside on bicycles or roller skates with friends and family. Sounds of the ice cream truck rolling down the street, or heavy rains that fell from the skies with sudden booms of thunder, and crickets and peepers together gave us the most memorable and magical memories.
For those of us now grown with children of our own, we strive to recreate those magical moments for them, reliving our own as we do. Even grown with a full and busy schedule, a myriad of responsibilities and children of our own, there’s a certain sense of freedom and easy living that accompanies summertime.
It’s an amazing thing to say that, just a couple of years away from my 50th Birthday, my summers have always been at the shore. In fact I cannot think of one summer that was not spent beside the sea. As a child I had the incredible fortune to spend my summers in the South of France where I saw in the clear waters of the Mediterranean and watched as little octopi clung to the docks and small fish swam at our feet, seemingly wanting to nibble at our toes. The water was mild and salty and crystal clear. Upon the shore we’d dig holes and build castles as we watched airplanes write across the sky. Our tanned skin was protected only by Bain de Soleil #4, a wonderful sticky red gel that to many of my generation brings back a flood of memories. At the end of the day, I’d collapse onto my bed and listen to stories and poems that were being read to me. I loved the summertime stories the best. Perhaps those were my earliest days of summer reading. The impact those books and stories had on me remains with me even today. An early favorite was Robert Louis Stevenson’s At the Sea-side. I would close my eyes and listen. Perhaps this was the first time I got lost in a summer story. That’s what a poem is, after all – a short story.
“A wooden spade they gave to me
To dig the sandy shore.
My holes were empty like a cup.
In every hole the sea came up
Till it could come no more.”
Robert Louis Stevenson
When I was down beside the sea I made my mother or nanny read this poem to me over and over again, til they were practically blue in the face. During my childhood I had other summertime favorites. Robert McCloskey captured summertime so perfectly with One Morning in Maine, Blueberries for Sal and Time of Wonder. I had never been to Maine at that point, but when I got married many years later, I started to spend my summers on Maine’s sandy beaches. The memory of those stories came back to me and soon I would be sharing them with my own children.
And so my summers are as much about the seaside as they are about books, especially those whose stories are about or near the sea.
As I grew older and into my teens I would find myself on the beautiful beaches of Newport, Rhode Island. The beach was both a social setting as it was one of quiet repose, with time to work on my tan. The Bain de Soleil was replaced by the coconutty Hawaiian Tropic – the less sunscreen the better. I’m quite sure we weren’t aware of the sun’s potentially damaging rays. Skin cancer and wrinkles were not yet a part of my vocabulary. We drank Tab and listened to our music on our Boom boxes, the music of the bubble gum music and loud and jarring sounds of the 80s slowly gave way to those of the 90s… Songs by Nathalie Merchant, Matchbox 20 and Hootie and the Blowfish could be heard up and down the beach… We started listening to the whimsical, soulful lyrics of Shania Twain, Garth Brooks, Melissa Ethridge and Faith Hill. And books were still very much a part of our summers and they still defined the season, the brief moments of our lives. I would discover Pat Conroy and lose myself in The Prince of Tides and Beach Music. I developed a fondness for southern writers, for they had an ease about them that was to me what summertime was about. I lost myself in Ellen Gilchrist and Anne Rivers Siddons.
During those years I had endless hours on weekends to bask in the sun’s rays and soak in my wonderfully colorful beach reads. I kept lists pages long of the books I had read and planned to read. I had piles of books by my bed waiting to be devoured, sitting there eagerly waiting to be cracked open. My summertime reads were choices that, for the most part, were not literary masterpieces, but remarkable in their own right in their ability to transport me into different worlds and characters… easy breezy reading perhaps, but impactful and memorable nonetheless.
My beach reads differed slightly in my 30s. I had my arms full with one, then two, then three young children. Trips to the beach no longer involved a towel, sunscreen and a Tab. Our trips were more and more cumbersome as we dragged strollers and wagons and coolers filled with snacks and food and drink, umbrellas, toys, diapers and industrial sized jars of sunscreen… One’s beach experience changes greatly when children come into the picture. The words beach and relax no longer belong together in the same sentence.
I didn’t have endless hours on my hands any more. My eyes constantly roamed the long beaches of Newport and Maine as I kept my eyes on the children as they played along the shore or swam with them in the cold waters of the coast. Young mothers don’t have much opportunity to sit for long periods at a time. And yet I was fortunate in that I still found some time to settle in with a good story.
It would be on the sandy shores of Maine that I would discover the wonderful stories of Anita Shreve whose books all took place near the cold waters I swam in. I believe I first read The Pilot’s Wife and I was instantly a fan – instantly hooked by her compelling story telling and well developed characters. It was there, on the beaches of Maine, as I read Fortune’s Rocks and Sea Glass that I too became enamored by the beautiful pieces of broken glass that had been weathered and smoothed by salt water, sharp rocks and time. Many of her books were read over a decade ago and for the most part I remember the stories and characters as clearly today as I did back then.
In my late thirties I would also rediscover Ann Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea, a slim collection of stories on life and motherhood that resonated with me, and seems to resonate with me more and more each time I pick it up. Of all my summer reads, this one remains a favorite. I wrote about it here.
I’ve been to many beaches in my life on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. I think perhaps some of my favorite beaches are on a tiny island off the Massachusetts coast. Nantucket, to me is an oasis of perfection – Heaven on earth. And so, when I heard about an author who penned books from and about the Island I knew I had to pick one up. I did and I became instantly hooked. I don’t remember which of her stories I read first, but I’m quite certain I have worked my way through most of them… While works of fiction, I always found something about her characters to be completely relatable and the island of Nantucket, I know it well enough to be able to visualize most of the locations. These stories won’t be awarded any literary awards but they don’t need to be. The works of Elin Hilderbrand are many – The Beach Club, Nantucket Nights, Summer People, Barefoot, A Summer Affair, Summerland and Beautiful Day are just a few of her titles.
Now that I’m in my 40s I feel I have come full circle. I now have some time on my hands again. My hands are freer, my arms are lighter. I bring to the beach a chair, a towel and a tote bag filled with a book, my car keys, a bottle of water, heavy duty sunscreen – I now do worry about skin cancer and wrinkles – and money for my teenagers who are off being independent, except for when they want something from the concession stand. I have my beach back. Peace and quiet has been restored and once again I can lose myself in a book. Elin Hilderbrand’s most recent, The Matchmaker, is my current beach read.
Jessica’s Favorite Books Over the Years
Click on any of the book images for more information