Today, as I sat outside reading on this beautifully warm July day, my memory wandered to my childhood and the extended backyard, now shared between me and my daughter. Having never left the place where I was born and raised, I was inches away from where, summer after summer, I embarked on my vacation reading adventures. When I was young, summers were boring and hot and many of my friends went away, leaving me to provide my own entertainment. Since I was an only child, my vacation destination ended steps from my parents’ screen door. An enormous pine tree, so large that it could be seen from the bridge a quarter of a mile down the street, graced the cool, shady backyard of my parents’ house. While not Cape Cod, it was the scene of my vacation, and to me, it was idyllic. Under this tree, I read for hours on end, with books supplied by frequent trips to the Medford library. Daily, I set up shop with my stack and my mother’s pumpkin-orange chaise lounge, the kind that pinched the tender skin behind the knee if it was not fully extended and locked in place. Purchased with S&H Green Stamps, it was the only lawn furniture that my parents owned and a safety hazard. An entry strategy was necessary to avoid a blood-curdling scream and a certain blood blister.
In the early days of my backyard residency, I depended on my father to take me to the library for my fix. My frequent requests for more reading material resulted in my mother’s demand that I read more slowly. Those books provided minimal challenge since they were in larger type and designed for early readers. As I got older and more independent, I was able to walk to the bus stop and board the ‘95’ bus to Sullivan Square that stopped across from the library on its route through Medford. By then, my tastes had expanded to Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and the entire catalog of Trixie Belden mysteries to date. Once I could drive myself and had access to a car, my trips to the library occurred more frequently. With more unpressured time spent grazing through the stacks, I unearthed well-known and obscure titles that appealed to my quasi adult tastes. Once ensconced on the chaise, I read and dozed with commitment until the days turned colder and school began again, always too soon and before I had read my fill.
As I think back to some of the books and authors of my fancy, I chuckle at the racy and worldly topics to which I gravitated. I voraciously read Philip Roth, John Updike, and Jacqueline Susann. Under that tree, I learned about life from the literature of the day. I peeked into the real world, so different than that of a Catholic schoolgirl’s experience. Through the tutelage of the likes of Goodbye Columbus, Portnoy’s Complaint, Marry Me, ‘Rabbit, Run’, Valley of the Dolls, and Once is Not Enough, I matured. Through the lives and internal struggles of these characters, I experienced religious questioning, internal sexual conflict, social issues, infidelity, and other themes about which I had no clue. While one might question the status of these novels as “classics” in the strictest sense, they represented a time and place in history and culture, and most importantly, a catalyst to my development. The orange chaise and my book companions provided the setting for my own coming of age, a place of fantasy bordering on the obscene.
Today the grown-up me settles into my cushioned chair on my patio, book in hand, breathing in the air and atmosphere of my youth. The pine tree, now long gone, became a casualty of the construction of my own home thirty-eight years ago, yet I still can sense its strength and legacy in the land. A huge oak tree, on my side of the fence that divides my past from my present, now provides the shade for me and my passion. The 2019 me resists the urge to nosedive into my cell phone or grab my Kindle. I eschew my penchant for the trashy novel, having learned all I needed to know about life years ago from my mentors: Updike, Roth, Susann, and their contemporaries. Rather, I revel in the feeling of a light fiction novel in hand and the enduring comfort found in this familiar setting: this backyard, the memories of a solitary childhood under my beloved pine tree, and the calm beauty of this forever sanctuary.