Cool Summer Nights & Dorothy Van Doren’s “The Country Wife”

This lovely summer matches our parents’ descriptions of mid-twentieth century summers.  Although it is hot by day, it actually cools off at night.   We’d heard that could happen.

Tonight we even wore sweaters. Oh joy!  How wonderful not to need the air conditioner. 

Summer is more relaxed than spring, fall, or winter.  It is a time for fun dinners.  I recommend pancakes with berries and whipped cream.  The pancake mix is one thing I have mastered.  

There are many summer tasks I never get around to, like making jam and canning vegetables.  If I did these things,  I’d have to write bright posts about runny jam and over-cooked veggies.  Kitty in Anna Karenina makes excellent jam. Tolstoy doesn’t give us the recipe. 

And so I am rereading  Dorothy Van Doren’s The Country Wife (1950), a charming collection of light essays about summers in a Connecticut farmhouse. Dorothy does all the tasks I never do.   Summer is the highlight of the year for Dorothy,  her husband Mark Van Doren (the critic and poet), and their two sons.  She gardens, endures her husband’s carpentry projects, gets scratched-up picking blackberries, learns to eat puffballs, cans vegetables, and entertains guests (some welcome, some not).  I love the idea of being “a country wife.”

And yet Dorothy never mentions that she was also an editor of The Nation.  In the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, domestic columnists didn’t say they  had jobs.   Think of Shirley Jackson and Alice Thomas Ellis.  Like Dorothy Van Doren, they were high-powered women. You wouln’t guess it from their columns.

But the point of domestic columns is domesticity. Here is an excerpt from The Country Wife.

Time, as it has a way of doing, passes.  The corn is silking, the tomatoes are large and green, the roses and delphiniums are over, and the annuals are beginning to bloom.  It is pretty hot in the daytime and we are thankful for our cool nights.  And on one of those nights, when it is not so cool and I am wakeful, the calendar comes home to me with rude force:  next Wednesday will be the first of August!

The times may be bad, but at least there’s summer!

Can You Slow Down Time?

Summer goes too fast.

 Time seemed slower in, say, my twenties and thirties. After a day at work, I’d change into gym shorts, take a run, come home, make a cup of tea, and retire to the air-conditioned bedroom.  I read intensely in the evenings:  Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita,  Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, Bobbie Ann Mason’s short stories, the latest Updike…  The hours sometimes dragged, but there were a lot of them.

Now I feel I’ve lost control of time.  There should be more time, and yet there’s less.  We live for summer here. So why is it speeding by?  I loved the long days in an unusually cool June. But during this hot July, where DOES the time go?

Well, I know one magic trick.  If you sit very still outdoors in the shade and read your book, you can achieve what I call the Queen of the Desert effect (not actually going to the desert, just watching the movie with Nicole Kidman looking cool as Gertrude Bell.) It’s just so damned hot that you transcend the heat and disappear into the world of your book.  Of course sometimes you’re miserably hot and have to go indoors.

Here’s another way to extend time: read short books.  If you read more books, you feel you’re using your time better.  (It’s an illusion.) I’ve raced through a couple of novels by Booker Prize winner Penelope Lively, one of Josephine Tey’s mysteries, and am thinking of hunkering down with Gene Wolfe’s The Claw of the Conciliator, the second volume of The Book of the New Sun

This weekend it’s supposed to get up to 100 degrees.