“The Summer of My Content,” Ensign, June 1975, 17
The summer I painted the oleander was the beginning of a lifelong attitude about appropriateness. One doesn’t gild the lily. One doesn’t tamper with natural beauty!
An oleander in Utah was somewhat of a novelty in those days. Ours was a family treasure. Daddy had invested something of himself in that plant. Some years before he had packed it in soggy cotton and brought it on the long trip from California to his mother in Salt Lake City. When Grandmother died it was ours, and the more valuable because it had been hers. It was nurtured, protected. Each winter it was ceremoniously swathed in burlap and hauled into the garage. Every time we climbed into the Studebaker it was at the command, “Don’t crush the oleander!” Each summer it was brought forth to be hosed down, pot-painted, and put in place by the porch. The profuse blooms rewarded everyone and we could get cool sliding our tongues along the slick, slender shoots.
There had been some painting going on at our house and when the supplies were left unguarded. I sought to beautify the oleander.
What sport for a three-year-old!
What a sense of power I felt changing the look of that shrub with each flamboyant slap of the brush—until the shrieks of my parents awakened me to my mischief. It was not beautiful at all. It was ruined, its pitiful petals sticking together in extravagant blueness.
“One cannot improve on God.” Daddy declared emphatically, shaking me soundly.
The oleander died, of course, but Daddy’s counsel lives in me yet. A chair can be repainted to cover past damage but a living, growing thing can be spoiled forever through witless tampering. And that goes for people as well as plants.
That was one summer lesson—summer, the only time one can learn all the things formal schooling can’t teach.
I learned a secret about work one summer in the dark depression years; my friend Enid had lost ten precious dollars that had been entrusted to her to pay on an overdue account. She was trying to earn it back by ironing napkins and handkerchiefs for a neighbor lady.
The fierce loyalty of friendship that summer breeds demanded that I go through this ordeal with her. The job was hers, however, so she ironed. I sat there and figured out the swiftest, safest, and most successful way to smooth, stretch, and fold a delicate linen square. Whatever I said, she tried to do. We wasted a lot of precious hours away from the playhouse in back of the bridal wreath bush until we finally learned that if a job is worth doing it is worth doing well. You don’t have to re-iron so many napkins so many times that way.
That was the summer of the tramps. The whole country seemed on the move because jobs were scarce and people were testing the “grass is greener” myth. Men down on their luck slept in nearby Pioneer Park and hung around the railroad tracks waiting for the next boxcar to move them along.
We lived on Capitol Hill above the tracks and men would often knock at our door for handouts. Mother never refused them a meal, and she usually got them talking about their mothers and encouraged them to go home. Once in a while a young man would cry and I felt running away from home was most dreadful.
I remember one fellow’s asking if he could wash with the garden hose first. I watched him pull off his dusty shirt, gulp in the clean water, splash it about his neck and face and scrub it into his armpits. Mother was so impressed she served his food on a dinner plate instead of the customary pie pan. I suddenly sensed that cleanliness has its own rewards and that it isn’t so much what happens to you as what you do about it.
The summer we first played one game on the Capitol plaza was the summer we became conscious of some of life’s ugliness. Old Mr. Wright came to visit his sister and each night staggered past our game. Each day we would secretly stare at the different state of him. It was a frightening novelty in our sheltered Mormon neighborhood. I’m not sure now whether we played that game because it was fun or so we could get another look at a drunk man. “Inebriated,” was how Mother put it, and said we were not to stare.
One night Mr. Wright’s stumble flattened him. We stopped the game to laugh—until he didn’t get up. Then two of the boys, suddenly men, ran to help. The rest of us strained to see, at once curious and repelled. His nose was bleeding all over him and his legs buckled repeatedly as the boys half-dragged, half-carried him to his door. A wonderful awareness came over me. The Word of Wisdom was true! Youth and cleanness, uprightness and self-control were to be desired. Drink wasn’t very funny after all. It turned a man into something less and I vowed then and there never to taste a drop.
Structured summers were the strength behind character development, according to one neighbor. By April her children knew exactly what they’d be doing each hour of the day through the “vacation” period. The schedule was mounted on the cupboard door where the drinking glasses were kept. An indelible pencil on a string was touched to the tongue to write purple as they checked off their practicing, their chores, their various kinds of lessons. Including elocution. Ugh! By the time 4:30 P.M. dragged around and the schedule said “relax with friends,” the friends weren’t around! As summer progressed, my friend’s pencil licks became juicier and each “x” bolder. She hated summer.
For me the weeks flew by.
Mother used to give us a hug and remark, “The teachers have you all winter. Come summer, you’re mine.” And what a time we had together. We’d take the open train to the Great Salt Lake to “refresh safety factors for our environment.” That meant being reminded not to gulp any salt water that got into our mouths and remembering to lick a finger to rub the salt from our eyes so they wouldn’t burn. We’d walk to the public library past Temple Square and each time she’d point out the “hand” carved by one of our ancestors on the Temple. We felt a personal interest in that building very early. There were pancakes cooked over an open fire in City Creek Canyon because everyone should know how to build a proper fire and how to put it out, too. There were picnics on the Capitol lawn before we toured the current art show hanging in the marble halls. The favorite was early morning visits to farmers’ market for fresh produce. Mother said it was imperative to know a good watermelon when you thumped one. That’s what summer is all about!
It was almost June when one of the men decided the youth of the neighborhood needed a park. In a great flurry of pipes, chains, and sand, the vacant lot next to his house took on the look of a playground. We watched the progress with great delight, until the day we were allowed to play at last. Not only had the man engineered this project, but now we discovered he was self-appointed king, guard, and referee. We were not to use the equipment unless he was there. We were not to race to see who got up the stairs of the slide first. We were not blithely to catch a swing. We were assigned and policed. Soon the chute only shaded sleeping dogs, the swings hung still, the monkey bars were a hollow marking against the summer sky.
That summer we worked hard at proving we didn’t need the playground. Agency had become valuable, so everyone made a production of deciding things like whether we’d paint Mrs. Hunter’s fence while she told us about the Three Nephites, or take cookies to the depot for departing missionaries.
At 17 I felt very grown up. I was about to have my patriarchal blessing. There had been fasting and prayer and deep discussions about the meaning of it all with my parents and with a first love. It was summer’s time of roses, mock orange, and honeysuckle sweetening the air. Everything was at its best and I wanted to be.
The night before my appointment with Patriarch Jones I felt a strong need to be in touch with Heavenly Father. I went quietly out the screened door and stood feeling the summers of my youth sift by on the night song of the crickets. Once again I felt the pull of the stars. Shyly at first I lay down on my back on prickly grass as I had done so often as a child. Once again I studied the heavens, finding the familiar constellations, getting placement with the North Star. The mind-stretching, soul-searing experience of being lifted into the universe—almost into the presence of God—set my heart to pounding.
My prayers that night got through. The witness of the Spirit that God lives and cares and was mindful of little me warmed me to tears. That summer was the beginning of my trying to make decisions according to God’s will for me and committing myself to a way of life that would insure fulfillment of his sacred promises. What better gift from a summer?
The summers came and went, each with its own reward, each requiring something of me, with marriage, yet another baby to nurse, another batch of fruit to preserve, another church assignment to fill, another marriage of a beloved daughter. Until at last, there came at one summer’s end a gathering of our clan one last time before the youngest would leave for his mission.
We were at the cabin—a little place we had built ourselves in sacrifice and joy, sharing efforts and sore thumbs with the wonderful larger family of grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins as close now as siblings. We loved this primitive place where so many summers had been spent so close to stars and wild creatures of the earth and away from the stores and shocks of civilization.
I looked at these I loved and would give my life for—grown-ups themselves now—circling the fire and quietly considering the question their father had put to us: “Well, what have you learned this summer?”
The one preparing for a mission spoke first. “My work at the restaurant put me in company with some people with a lifestyle far different from ours. It’s been quite an eye-opener. But then I began noticing how they behaved when rude customers would be so free with complaints and insults. I learned that ‘the soft answer turneth away wrath.’”
The young wife spoke almost with reverence. “I have learned about love. Bryant loves me anyway! And such love makes me want to please him. I’m beginning to understand something about Heavenly Father’s ability to love us even when we aren’t doing our best.”
There had been a recent funeral for a friend of one of our girls and she had been deeply touched by the fine things said about him at the service. “I thought at the time,” she said quietly, “what would they be able to say at my funeral—that I was a good dresser? Bob’s death is a dramatic reminder for me to live with more purpose. That’s what I’ve learned this summer.”
And so it went, each reporting on books read, discoveries made, of skills sharpened and friendships strengthened, of scriptures memorized and principles reaffirmed, and of the wonder of bearing a child.
“How could the mother of Jesus stand to lose him?” asked the new mother cradling her firstborn.
It was the summer of my content. In spite of financial reverses, threatening changes, critical illness, and pressures of responsibilities, I’d learned that coping is contagious and I felt the brimming of my cup in the circle of my family. This is what living is all about.
From oleander to grandmotherhood, with my life now matching the season, I am akin to Albert Camus. I, too, have learned that “in the midst of winter I find that I have within me an invincible summer.”