Popsicles and bee stings: The summer memories that linger
We often joke that the teenagers in our household recollect childhood summers as a series of culinary highlights rated by the most memorable treat of the holiday.
A week in the sun at Little Bay on the Coromandel Peninsula is remembered as the place where we toasted marshmallows, and Takaka is the home of the Wholemeal cafe’s curly fries.
And it’s not just the kids. Years ago, I was excited to receive my grandmother’s 1965 travel diary, purchased to record the details of a trip to join my grandfather for a European holiday. He was living in the Netherlands working on a luxury motor yacht, preparing to sail home to New Zealand.
The boat, MY Sirdar, would take on a new life as a luxury charter vessel in the Waitemata Harbour, and later a fancy prop in a scandalous fraud case, but that’s a whole other story.
My nan’s pocket-sized red notebook held promise. I’d seen the slides of her beaming in a smart new suit in front of Rome’s Trevi fountain and clutching her handbag in Trafalgar Square. But inside the diary, my dear nan had faithfully recorded the date and the location of the food she ate.
“Naples 19 September 1965: Visited a German beer garden for a late lunch, more coffee and a beautiful chocolate cake, a piece so large and sweet I just couldn’t finish it. Then back to Sirdar for dinner.”
I began to wonder if we remember with our stomachs.
When I trawled through my own standout summer holidays searching for the moments that remained, there were generous helpings of tastes – the first mouthful of candy floss at the A & P Show or delicate custard squares in the tearooms after Saturday morning ballet – but along with food, I found crystal-clear recollections of sights, smells, sounds and textures.
My lone memory of a summer spent in a cottage in Kaikoura at age seven happened on a wooden bench outside a dairy.
I was swinging my legs and eating a lemonade popsicle and I felt something fuzzy tickle the underside of my little toe. Without leaning over to look, I curled all five toes and squeezed. Hard. That was the first time I experienced the shocking stab of a bee sting.
Naturally a painful incident would make a summer memorable, but many things my mind has clung onto are more subtle. As North Islanders who moved to Christchurch when I was a toddler, my family of four regularly returned to Auckland to visit relatives.
Now when I travel the motorway between Auckland airport and the city, I’m struck by the same sensations that captured me then. The quality of the light, somehow brighter and more colourful than home. The coarse texture of the red stone-chip footpaths that primed the soles for a barefoot summer. Chasing my brother across the spongy lawn at nan and pop’s, and the inevitable encounter with the spines of a hidden patch of Onehunga weed. Best of all was the electric smell that rose from the fat splotches of summer rain as it hit the scorched asphalt.
When we didn’t travel north, we spent Christmas at home in the garden city. It was the 80s. Christchurch was pre-earthquake and pre-flat white. All visitors endured the winding claustrophobia of the Cathedral spire. You could drive your Mark III Cortina into a paddock full of hungry lions at Orana Park. And the Square was still the workplace of the Wizard, the Bird Man and squads of bible bashers and punk rockers in equal measure.
In those years it was just mum, dad, my big brother and me on Christmas Day. Our only family responsibilities were two gold-plated toll calls to our grandparents. We had nowhere to be, no one to please, and every year when the Christmas craziness begins, I yearn for that warm exclusivity.
A major highlight of those summers was access to the school pool.
If you could score one of those big keys on a rope, you were set. My brother and I were up at St Martin’s School as often as we could nag our parents into it, pulling handstands in the heavily chlorinated blue goodness. And on Christmas day, it was guaranteed we’d have “our” pool all to ourselves.
We hung our beach towels around our shoulders and walked to the school as soon as Christmas dinner was done.
I can still feel the chill of the water creeping in step-sized increments up my legs. The rough concrete and the slick of painted lines under my feet. I would lay on my back with my ears under the water, drowning out the howl of the nor’wester that rushed over my face, thick with pollen and hot as the earth.
The summer I turned 13, the wash of that pool muffled the clipped conversations that signalled the end of a marriage and the last days of our family of four.
That delicious smell we detect when there’s rain on the way is petrichor; a combination of bacteria and organisms in the earth activated by rising moisture levels. The theory goes that we’re sensitive to it because we rely so heavily on rainfall for our livelihood.
Learning that stinging insects can hurt you also seems sensible, along with the ability to identify prickly plants. And, as per nan and my kids, knowing where to find chocolate cake in Naples, or deep-fried spiral cut potatoes in the upper South Island can only be good.
But the reasons I can call to mind the exact colour of the sky the day Dad drove us to Buckland’s Beach in Auckland to visit his parents, or the sensation of gliding through the chilled water in our borrowed concrete pool are much less clear to me. Perhaps those sensory snapshots filed tenderly away to be plucked out and savoured, are simply about family.
*Anna Scaife is a Christchurch-based writer
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