Summer came. Molly was going to cheerleader camp, of all things, and then spending the rest of the summer with a friend on a working ranch. Matu wanted to take me to the coast where she, Adela, Bobby, and Sara would spend a month and a half before Uncle Robber joined them for a few more weeks and a trip to some extravagant and hyperhappy theme park. If I didn’t want to do that, why, she told me more than once, I could go to a wonderful camp in the mountains where I would meet bright, charming children from all over the world now wouldn’t that be nice?
One day, Deena was visiting and overheard one of the conversations about all this that Matu was having with herself in my presence and said, “Darling, why don’t you just let Tella come spend the summer with me at Mama’s place? She won’t have to do anything except what she wants to do there. She won’t even have to see anyone, except Miss Monkey, and well, me.” Deena turned to ask me how I would like that, but Matu cut her off. Later, when they thought they were out of earshot of me, they had a heated discussion, almost an argument.
Like all—well, many– people who are incapable of imagining a null emotional state, Matu thought that depression was an imaginary affliction usually born of idleness, which she strongly disapproved of. Matu, God bless her, was one of those “you’d-feel- so-much-better-if you’d-just” people and was always ready to tell you what would make her feel better if she were you. She would not let go of her opinion that what she thought of as cheerful distractions would “get me out of myself,” and Deena, who was just as stubborn, would not let go of her opinion that what Matu considered cheerful distractions were in themselves depressing and that my “problem” wasn’t boredom or self-involvement but “naked grief” (those words conjured up quite a sight in my beleaguered brain) that I had every reason to feel.
I couldn’t understand much of what they said, and, in fact, I was eavesdropping only out of habit, for I didn’t really care what they said or did. Well, that’s not exactly true. I did have some whiffy kind of feelings that helping Matu take care of Adela, Bobby, and Sara for a few months might be impossibly burdensome, even if it was in the most beautiful place on earth. Moreover, I have always found theme parks perverse and grotesque and even frightening—particularly the people who dress up as animated characters and just won’t leave you alone.
Anyhow, Matu finally gave in, and I went to spend the summer with Deena out at Mamaw and Papaw Rennie’s farm, a place where I had not spent much time that I remembered and which hadn’t really been a working farm since long before I was even born. However, although the cows, horses, mules, pigs, and chickens were long gone, the place had many of the requisites of farm-ness and out-there-ness that I needed: a pond, a garden, fields and woods, at two-story tin-roofed farmhouse with verandahs and a sleeping porch upstairs on the back. The nearest neighbors were three miles away, and though a main road ran past its long, graveled driveway, you couldn’t really hear the sounds of any world except the country world—birds, wind in the huge old oaks and hickories and sweetgums, the lowing of cattle or cocks crowing on the neighboring farm, cicadas, the faint rustle of graveyard grasshoppers, walking sticks, my very first praying mantis, fireflies, snakes. Occasionally, we could hear a train from far away, and sometimes crop dusters flew over, though the poison they spread in great hanging clouds did not smell nearly as wonderful as that of the mosquito truck.
Summer was and is still my favorite season. I love wilting heat and violent thunderstorms, and we had plenty of both that year. Deena’s cantankerous cat, Miss Monkey, became my close friend and often slept at the foot of my bed. The only drawback to this sleeping arrangement was that Monkey became a fierce, pouncing tiger whenever anything in the bed—one’s feet, for example—moved.
Deena had told me that there wasn’t anything much to do, but there was plenty to do, and all of it by its very nature was particularly attractive to me at that moment of my life. I helped Deena mount new specimens for her personal collection of insects and moths, and helped her go through whatever was caught in the insect trap she had set in the garden (“just to see what’s passing through,” she said). I learned how to tap a hard-boiled egg all over with the back of a spoon and then roll it twice between my palms till the shell loosened and could be pulled off in one large mosaiced piece that we later crushed and scattered around the flower beds to kill snails in a rather gruesome way. I read whatever I wanted to read in Deena’s library—Dickens, Sterne, Austen, Poe, poetry anthologies, fascinating and incomprehensible entomological tracts with enticing drawings that sometimes gave me nightmares.
And the garden required daily attention—sometimes I just walked through it to smell its dirty greenness, but I also helped Deena tend the corn and tomatoes and peppers there. I learned how to hoe, how to let the hoe do its work and to work in a steady rhythm instead of hacking away with it in that bulldog way that I had. I learned to focus that summer, and what it meant, to wait, to watch, to be still, to do even small things right. And for the first time, I felt something better than happiness, something that we don’t even recognize until we are pained by its absence: peace. And for a while, it was a lasting peace, and my soul was a smooth, shining lake.