Great Summer Nights

KidsCampfireCropped

KidsCampfireCroppedOriginally published in Chatelaine, June 1998

This is what I remember: August air cooled by the salty breeze of the Bay of Fundy. The toes of my canvas sneakers getting wet as we followed my dad’s flashlight beam across the dew-dampened grass toward Fundy National Park’s outdoor amphitheatre. Racing my brother and sister to the best spot on the bleachers, then snuggling up to my mom as the movie started. The actual movie has faded from my memory–a documentary about wolves, I think. But what I remember most clearly is the feeling of that summer night: the thrill of being outside long past bedtime, when everything that looked so ordinary during the day–a screen, some bleachers, a hillside–seemed transformed and magical under the stars.

For me, each season has its defining images: autumn is about evening creeping backward until it swallows the tail end of your afternoons; winter is as bright and shiny cold as lunchtime snowball fights; and spring is soft morning sun on rain-slicked sidewalks. But summer, well, summer is about nighttime, about evenings spent on the backyard deck as the sun goes down, about strolling along the shore as bobbing boat lights float along the horizon, about patio restaurants and cottage bonfires. It’s about the way we try to make that seems like Canada’s shortest season longer by stretching our days long pas their natural end, folding each day into a soft tissue of nighttime’s darkness.

And for me, at least, those night-wrapped memories are my most vivid: I can trace my life from that summer night in Fundy Park across a calendar of summer nights plotted like stars across a darkened sky. There were teenage summer nights in Moncton, N.B., spend roaming with a crowd of friends from the darkened woods beside Forest Glen School (where we spotted each other by following the scent of forbidden tobacco and the glowing embered ends of cigarettes bobbing through the trees) to the flourescent-lit windowledge of the local ice cream hangout to someone’s backyard picnic table, the buzz of our adolescent chatter and laughter as persistent as summer’s mosquitoes. Our goals? To stay just out of sight of our parents, to dance just into sight of the object of that evening’s latest crush.

Then came driver’s licenses, and summer night took us farther afield, to the beaches of Shediac, N.B. We lit illegal bonfires, swam where we shouldn’t have, and took off running at the first sign of adult authority. We dreamed of being anywhere but the place we’d grown up, plotted our escapes and swore we’d never look back.

And escape I did, to downtown Toronto. Here, while the starry skies I’d marked my eastern summers with are almost extinguished by the city’s own reflected light, summer nights have their own charm: dinner on the tree-sheltered balcony patio of Harbord Street’s Kensington Kitchen restaurant, a Middle Eastern oasis in the city’s downtown core; sangria and conversation on a patio at the edge of Lake Ontario; beer icy cold from the bottle shared with friends as we sit on the front steps in the early morning hours of the hottest night of the year. While the locales have changed, though, the conversations have much in common: plans we have, dreams we nurture, loves we’ve lost (or sometimes, are trying to lose).

Somehow, summer nights seem to bring out the truth–and a kind of healing too. I’m not sure why: perhaps because the face of the person across from you is softened by the night, perhaps because it is easier to be gentle with someone when your own fear is masked by the dark.

I remember one such healing night: despite my adolescent vows, I did–still do–return home almost every summer. I was 20-something: my brother, sister and I all managed to make it home at the same time, and in some moment of lunacy, we thought we’d undertake some family bonding with my parents in a rented Prince Edward Island cottage. The beds were lumpy, the quarters were a little close for five adults, and it wasn’t long before we were starting to look like candidates for a daytime talk show. It was August, and a night of meteor showers had been predicted, so near midnight we traipsed across the damp grass to the river’s edge, spread out on blankets and started searching the sky for streaking lights. We looked for constellations we could recognize–and got stuck somewhere around the Little Dipper–cracked jokes, and talked about other summer nights in trailers, tents, backyards and beyond. The week’s tensions eased away, and as we counted yet another shooting star, I felt rich enough to leave the wish for someone else.

I’ve spent summer nights in Whitehorse at a midnight sun storytelling festival; in the hot springs at Banff, Alta., as the sulfury steam billowed into the chilly August air; and in an Ottawa friend’s backyard watching Canada Day fireworks in the distance. I’ve swum from the dock of a friend’s St. Margarets Bay home in Nova Scotia, phosphorus sparking in the water like a trail of stars behind me; watched Shakespeare performed in Toronto’s High Park; and sat on the deck of a rented Shediac cottage listening as the breeze carried the sound of the ocean’s waves mingled with the voices and laughter of the local teens.

I think it will take me a lifetime of summer nights to figure out the alchemy that makes one night magical while another is just, well, ordinary. But this is what I’ve unraveled so far: the magic happens outdoors, in the company of the ones you love, long after sensible people are in bed. Morning seems a million miles away. And summer feels like it will last forever.