There are certain summer sounds which bring my childhood back to me in a full rush: the rhythmic spraying of sprinklers, crickets creaking, the noise of night games, songs by the Beach Boys on the AM dial, the crack of a baseball and Vin Scully's voice calling a game all the way from L.A., and the thin cry of a distant siren.
I hear these things and suddenly I am 10 years old again with a face flushed from running and brown, skinny legs peppered with mosquito bites. There was so much to do the summer I was 10 - biking, climbing in the foothills, swimming - that I was beginning to think I didn't have time for my grandmother's stories anymore.Not that they weren't good ones. In fact, I loved her stories when I was little. She'd lie in bed with me at night after fixing me a mug of warm milk laced with honey and tell me stories about her own girlhood. The youngest daughter of a Cache Valley polygamist who died when she was 2 years old, my grandmother lived with her siblings and their English mother in a tiny Victorian home near the shores of blue Bear Lake. She had no memory of her father at all, she told me, except that his whiskers scratched her face when he hugged her.
She was a tomboy, my grandmother said. She could swim farther, run faster and jump higher than all the boys, and when it came time to choose up sides for a game of baseball, those same boys would always pick her first to be on their teams. Ha! Take that, you boys.
This same tomboy, though, yearned for a doll each Christmas. Maybe you've seen pictures of the kind she wanted - an old-fashioned lady doll with a cloth body and a finely-painted china head. Such a gift was not to be hers, however, because by the time my grandmother was a young girl, her family's situation was desperate.
There had been money once. Her father had been prominent and prosperous, and my grandmother's oldest sister (whom I also knew and loved well) remembered a girlhood filled with music and elocution lessons, as well as shopping excursions to Salt Lake City. But then came legal troubles for men like their father - disenfranchisement and federal marshals who hauled women like their mother into court in the hopes they would testify against their husbands - which my grandmother's mother would not. Later, when word reached her that the marshals were coming for her again, she hid in the hills with her children and soothed them through the nights.
The death of her father devastated my grandfather's family financially. The last polygamist wife, as well as the only wife who was not a blood sister to the others, my grandmother's mother was left in a singularly vulnerable position, and when the remaining estate was settled, very little of it went to her and her 11 children. I was older when my grandmother first told me the bitter little story about the Easter Sunday her half-siblings from another family drove past her on the way to church and didn't (as she remembered it) even offer her a ride.
My grandmother left Utah at the age of 19 and headed for the wilds of Wyoming, where she married a man not of her faith although she kept her own faith whole and strong until the end. Her new husband was a sweet-souled mechanic whose gun-toting, rough-talking mother was the county's game warden. I'm not sure, but I can imagine my grandmother's mother must have been deeply suspicious of her "gentile" in-laws.
We used to decorate the graves of the Wyoming relations on Memorial Day when I was little. My dad would make mixed bouquets of blue and purple irises and snowballs which he placed in coffee cans lined filled with water and dressed up in tin foil by my mom. Then we'd load up the car and head north. These trips, of course, were for the remembering. My parents and grandparents stood in the cemetery together telling tales, while my brothers and I chased each other like breezes through the pine trees. "The stories I could tell you, Ann!" my grandmother would say to me then and later. "The things I have seen in my life! I can't tell you now, but someday when you're old enough to understand, I'll tell you the rest."
But already I was too busy to listen.
I'm old enough myself now that Memorial Day has become a time when I crave stories - sad and funny and outrageous - about the passionate, imperfect people who came before me. I've especially grown to treasure the tales I do remember, because the others are gone now.
And of all the sounds I wish I could hear at the beginning of another summer's season, it would be the words of those stories, the ones that were never told.