Summer 1980.

https://modernartnotespodcast.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/gowinbraidedstreamsofthetoutleriver500.jpg?w=400&h=518
Emmet Gowin, Mount St. Helens, 1981
What began with The Shining, released on Memorial Day weekend, ended, a week after Labor Day, with Ordinary People. In between were Caddyshack, The Blue Lagoon, Airplane!, Brubaker, Urban Cowboy and He Knows You’re Alone.

It was the summer of Luke and Laura, of Funkytown, Magic and Sailing. The United States led a 65-country boycott of the Moscow Olympics to protest the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. I vaguely remember – though perhaps it was later, in the fall – hearing a story on NPR about a photographer (who would later become my teacher, mentor and friend) flying in a helicopter, in the no-fly zone, to photograph the beautiful devastation of the Mount St. Helens eruption.

But what I remember most about the summer of 1980 was the oppressive heat, and with it the feeling that something was terribly wrong with the world.

In February 1980 my parents sold our house at 369 Chuckwood Road and most of the belongings with it. The money my grandfather had left to my father was long gone, squandered in a series of failed business investments. Even if our debt-to-equity ratio had been agreeable, buying another house wasn’t an option. Interest rates hovered around 21%. My ever-resilient mother owned a small retail shop that wasn’t yet breaking even; instead of a job, my otherwise cheerful father had a crippling alcohol addiction.

At the advising of her friend and lawyer, my mother rented a two-bedroom apartment in a relatively new apartment complex on Perkins Extended, only a couple of miles from our old house. It was the nicest apartment she could afford on her own. She told my father we were moving, my mother, my sister and I, into an apartment that did not have room for him. Dumbfounded, he told her he had no place else to go; so she gave him temporary refuge in what was supposed to be a dining nook until he could find a place of his own.

The entire set-up was intended to temporary, and we never fully unpacked or settled into that space. My mother arranged the living room, though, with candlesticks and knickknacks and the furniture properly placed, only in this one room, an attempt at staking solid ground.

We moved during the middle of the school year, my 9th grade year. With us came the mean orange cat, who never earned a name of her own, and our untrained, pregnant dog Samantha, a rescued mutt with a shiny black coat, sunny disposition and inclination to roam. Samantha reluctantly took up residence in the tiny apartment kitchen, which my mother closed off using baby gates. Not long after we got the pantry shelves organized, the dog birthed a full litter of puppies in a leftover cardboard box that we saved for her, adding sound and scent to the chaos of an already chaotic environment.

By the time summer arrived, my father was still camped out, intermittently, in the dining nook, living out of his suitcase partly because he traveled to Louisiana and Texas looking for work but mostly because he was, in truth, homeless. My mother had filed only for legal separation, not divorce; but the semantics and legal structure were simply technicalities. Our unit of four became a unit of three, with a spare wheel hanging on, a hologram of a man who wouldn’t reappear until my early 20s.

I was 14 in 1980, old enough to babysit but too young to drive. I mostly stayed home in my room, watching General Hospital, listening to Donna Summer, reading The Eye of the Needle, sewing and drawing.

That I had a room of my own in a two-bedroom apartment home to three (sometimes four) people, should tell you something important about my mother, and not just that she was self-sacrificing, although she was that, too. My mother understood that 14-year-old girls were more in need of private space than nine-year-old girls, my sister’s age. Nine-year-old girls could still tolerate a mother’s presence; 14-year-old girls could not; and my mother wanted me to invite friends to visit, wanted to ensure that I could maintain friendships during the landslide sweeping our family. So my mother shared a room with my sister, and I got a room to myself. I doubt I was sufficiently grateful at the time.

By 1980 I was a high-functioning nerd, which is as apt a description of me now as then, though certainly now more comfortable. I had plenty of friends who, in varying degrees, ignored, accepted or shared that nerdiness. While I spent the majority of days that summer by myself, I didn’t suffer entirely for lack of company. My friends and I went to movies when one of our parents would volunteer to drive us to the Malco Quartet. I even had a few friends, one or two, who came over to visit that strange, awkward place where we lived that strange, awkward summer.

The pool was a clear selling point, at least during the month of June. I remember stretching out to sun on the lounge chairs with my friend Tiffany, as kind a soul as I will ever know, the two of us long-limbed and goofy and tall.

Then the weather turned hot, even by Memphis standards. For 15 days straight, July 6-20, the high temperature was above 100 degrees, reaching an all-time record of 108 degrees on July 13. I remember stepping into the pool to seek relief and finding none. By the end of July 1980, a few weeks before my 15th birthday, there was nothing to do but wait for summer to end and school to start.

Over the nine months leading up to the summer of 1980, school had become my refuge. I had survived the 7th grade insanity of Mrs. Crenshaw, endured the 8th grade indignity of Mrs. Orr, and emerged into the world of discovery that accompanies 9th grade. In Mr. Mathis and Mrs. Newberry I met my own people, two alpha-geek shepherds to nurture my beta-geek growth. I found the curious mystery of world history and the therapy of writing, discovered Rilke and the defenestration of Prague.

During a Friday assembly led by the delightful Jay Gates, who held his first-ever museum directorship at the Brooks Museum before heading on to Seattle, Dallas and the Phillips Collection, I had learned that there were ways to pursue art as a career other than being an artist. This was a true revelation to me, that museum directors weren’t necessarily stuffy high-hats but could, quite possibly, be smart, funny, attractive, insightful story tellers.

The story Gates told that day in assembly was of The Death of Marat, perhaps the most iconic painting from the French Revolutionary era. The Death of Marat was a Jacobin propaganda piece, a religious-style depiction of a secular martyr, an express political statement more than a portrait, a careful reconstruction of real events. Details that were widely known at the time of Marat’s murder were amended in the painting in ways that amended the narrative. For example, Marat suffered from a visible skin condition that required him to take frequent baths; but in the painting Marat’s skin is clear as porcelain, more becoming for a martyr-hero. One painting held at least three stories – one of the painter, Jacques-Louis David, one of the real Marat, and yet another of Marat the legend.

So these were the things I took into that summer, the summer I turned 15: curiosity; chaos; fledgling confidence (bolstered by teachers); fascination with art, stories and political propaganda; a handful of good friends; a lost, alcoholic father; a fiercely protective mother; a disco soundtrack; the care and feeding of puppies; books; and a room of my own. In the background the U.S. economy was a disaster, there were hostages in Iran, and a mountain exploded with the force thousands of times greater than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

It was an election year in which, in my mother’s words, a smiling, firebrand actor took on a good man who had proven himself ineffective as president of the United States. Come November my mother, a Howard Baker Republican, would cast a throw-away vote for John Anderson and would use exactly those words to tell me what she had done. By the next presidential election I would be old enough to case my own vote, she told me, so it was time I started thinking about both responsibility and integrity.

We moved at the end of that summer into a house on Walnut Grove Road, adjacent to a golf course. We each had a room of our own, my mother, my sister and I. My father did not come with us, even temporarily, to this new house, which would also prove temporary as an address, though not as temporary as the apartment. This Walnut Grove house would become home to my 15-year-old self, to the me armed with a learner’s permit, beginning to explore the world with my own eyes from behind the wheel of my mother’s light green Peugeot diesel.

The summer of 1980, the summer in the apartment on Perkins, was the last year I was fully a child, fully dependent on the adults in my life. I think of that summer as a turning point in the stochastic process of growing up, the high heat providing exactly the environment for a dormant seed to sprout and then grow slowly, oddly, into me.

Now, 36 years later, my son is the age I was then. His life is different from mine in myriad ways, not the least of which is gender. In the year leading up to this summer he discovered a love of math, one he hides because he doesn’t want to be a geek. He is sheltered in ways that I was not, both for better and for worse. At the same time, partly because of the schools we chose but mostly because of media, he is also, at 14, aware of the world in ways that I was not – again, both for better and for worse.

The year leading up to this summer has been epic in ways I could never have predicted, and he has observed it keenly. It is a summer that began with X Men: Apocalypse and that will end, Labor Day weekend, with The Light Between Oceans. Is it the summer of Work, Champagne Problems and Can’t Stop the Feeling. The Zika virus will keep a number of Olympic athletes away from Rio, even if doping schemes allow them to go. Explosions this summer are of a different sort from a volcano, but their smoky clouds hover just the same.

Watching 14-going-on-15 from the outside, through a mother’s eyes, I cannot help revisiting the past, seeing my child in the context of my own life.

My son, who is old enough to babysit but not yet old enough to drive, spent the early part of summer mostly in his room, sometimes venturing out into world with his handful of friends to swim. There are only a few friends, the ones he can count on, whom he’ll invite into our house, our unfinished, messy house that is run by dogs, that is managed by a manic mother, that is personified in an iconoclastic, bedraggled-looking father.

He has developed a passion for tennis that is all his own, my firstborn child. He works math puzzles in secret, not wanting anyone to know that he is, at heart, more geek than he would ever let on.

Due to changes in birth date cut-offs, he has just finished 8th grade and will be entering 9th. He has not yet met his Mr. Mathis or Mrs. Newberry, not yet discovered his Jay Gates or Death of Marat.

He is away at camp now, for a month, a luxury and privilege I doubt he fully appreciates. But he will, later. I see it in him. I see so many things in him, places both dark and light, curious and smart and lonely and laughing. I wonder what seed in him will open in the heat of this summer, both literal and metaphoric.

When my son was small, maybe three or four, we drove by a neighborhood church where protestors stood on the steps holding signs opposing the death penalty. We were alone in the car, just the two of us, and he asked me what was going on. I explained that the people disagreed with something that was happening, that they held signs in hopes that other people would be persuaded to disagree along with them.

He thought about this for a minute, gazing out the window from his car seat. He said: the world is breaking into pieces, so it can begin again. As long as I live, which I hope will be a good, long time, I will never forget that moment.

That was how the world felt to me, in the summer of 1980, as if the world were breaking into pieces. It is how the world feels now, in the summer of 2016, both to me and to him, and to others, too, at least from what I observe. It is quite possibly the way the world always feels, even if we rarely see it for what it is, either the breaking or the newness that begins.


Food | Week of July 25, 2016
(Yes, this homage to Yottam Ottolenghi is a repeat – except for the charred corn salad recipe, which is new. As for the rest, I didn’t have time to make any of these when I first posted them, so I’m going to try again.)

Roasted Onion Salad with Arugula and Walnut Salsa

Za’atar Roast Chicken with Green Tahini Sauce

Malaysian Fish and Pineapple Curry
(the fish is third recipe in the link)

Pork Souvlaki with Cucumber Salad and Tzatziki

Charred Corn Salad with Mint, Parsley & Cilantro

11 Comments Add yours

  1. Oddly, I know a lot about the whirly over Mount. St. Helen. It was rented by two staffers from the San Jose Mercury – News. David Yarnold and George Wedding. I don’t know what became of Wedding, but Yarnold — my college classmate — is now president of the Audubon Society. He made a career of taking chances…

  2. Amy Huber says:

    Jennifer, being your age and having a son your son’s age made this blog really hit home. Thank you for your words.

  3. Michelle says:

    So sweet! Oh, my, you’ve packed so much in here I hardly know where to start. (And here I thought we’d hear about camp this week.) Let’s hope our current day doesn’t require a huge cataclysm in the form of a talking yam to get back on the right track. I expect I had my head in the sand (or something) during the Summer of 1980. The only thing I remember about it is being at a party in Nashville and having somebody talk to me about how I should apply for a job with the CIA. Strange times indeed, especially for a young Art History major who was totally into The Death of Marat!

  4. wyllowpatty says:

    Jennifer, your post reminds of my parents divorce
    when I was 16, in 1960. Same general neighborhood. My life was saved by mother
    putting me in St. Mary’s Episcopal School.
    Seriously. Such a tough time when our parents finally end troubled marriages. In 1960 it was
    still scandalous. I didn’t know any other kid who was going through it. I did feel relieved and very sad at the same time. I left Memphis in 1966
    forever, as it has turned out. But it is still in my bones. I have been a West Coaster now for 50 years. It has been a good fit, but I do miss many things about the South, Memphis in particular.

    As an aside, I just posted 2 Instagram photos of my grandchildren on Mt. St. Helens last week. Wyllowpatty is my IG name.

    Thank you for taking me back once again…

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