Opinion | Even the Worst Summer Can Be the Best Summer

Our order was ready. I headed to the counter and retrieved the fried seafood platter for two, a pornographic avalanche of crispy calamari, shrimp, scallops. There were whole belly clams. There were oysters and codfish, and a mountain of onion rings. There were French fries and homemade coleslaw, and ketchup. There was tartar sauce.

This was at a clam shack in Eastham, Massachusetts, three years ago. My wife, Deedie, dug right in.

“I love you,” she said, although it was hard to hear her with her mouth full. I was hoping she meant me, but I don’t know. She might have been talking about those clams.

I’ll never forget that lunch. Our date at Arnold’s Lobster & Clam Bar puts me in mind of the advice Tony Soprano once gave his children: “If you’re lucky you’ll remember the little moments like this, that were good.”

This weekend I heard a song by Christine Lavin on the radio, “The Best Summer,” about the summer of 1993. “Though I didn’t know it at the time,” she sings, “it was the best summer, the best summer. Hydrangeas and wind chimes, the best summer, the best summer. The days were hot, the nights were warm; now and then a gentle storm that cleared the air, cooled things down.”

The summer of 2021 — now receding, as kids head back to school — was supposed to be the best summer for all of us in the United States, the “Summer of Freedom.” On June 2, the President promised that this would be “a summer of joy. A summer of get-togethers and celebrations. An all-American summer that this country deserves after a long, long dark winter that we’ve all endured.”

How we gravitated toward that vision, hoping that, at long last, vaccines and a new administration would bring us quieter days.

But it was not to be. The delta variant — combined with anti-vax ignorance — cut many celebrations short. The west heated up and caught fire, and smoke clouded the air nationwide. Over the course of a few short days, the Taliban swept through Afghanistan. After two decades of war, trillions spent, so many lives lost, it all appeared to have been for nothing. Writing in the New Yorker, Benjamin Wallace-Wells describes the President’s June optimism, in retrospect, as seeming “almost lurid.”

As for me: I had imagined myself floating on a clear Maine lake this summer, inviting friends over for pizza. Instead the air, even here in northern New England, was milky with smoke. By August, with Covid infections rising, many of my friends were once again reluctant to leave the house. We were back in our bubble.It seems so cruel. After the dark years of the Trump era, surely we all deserved better than a world in flames — both figurative and literal.

People keep stubbornly trying to find their joy, their best summer, driven by optimism or just sheer cussedness.I still made pizza; we still got up early to cast out our fishing lines. Like the Sopranos, my family still sought those little moments that were good.

I emailed Christine Lavin in August to ask about her song, “The Best Summer.” She told me the story of that summer in 1993, when she was holed up on Martha’s Vineyard with a lover who — awkwardly — had not yet divorced his wife. Looking back, those days feel golden, she told me. But she did not know back then that this would be the best summer of her life.

I know what she means. I was 18 when I worked at Lenny’s Hot Dogs in Margate, New Jersey, the summer after my freshman year in college. I was 21 the July night I made out with a girl atop an abandoned lifeguard stand in Plymouth, Mass. The moon shone down upon the sea. I was 52 the July I ate vanilla ice cream cones with my mother, in the last year of her life. It was so hot that day that the ice cream melted through our fingers just about as fast as we could lick it.

Like Ms. Lavin, I did not really understand how golden those summers were at the time. But then, it isn’t a whole summer that becomes epic in retrospect; it’s just the small moments, each one as lovely, and humble, as a shell washed up on a beach and then placed, as a memento, on a windowsill.

In the autumn ahead and years to come, I hope that in some small way I can help to fight back against the gathering fires of this world. If I have any strength in me, some of it will surely come from the gift of all these summer moments, even the ones I did not recognize as precious while they were happening.

Deedie and I finished our fried seafood platter and our onion rings and we got up from our table and headed back to the car. The hot summer sun shone down. “I love you,” she said again.

She didn’t mean the clams.

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