Remember those “How I Spent My Summer” essays you had to write for your first English class of the fall term? In Guyana, where I was born, the title of the essay was “How I Spent My August Holiday.” We have no special summer season. Guyana lies five degrees north of the Equator, so it’s summer all year round there. What we do have are rainy seasons and dry seasons.
In my day, the school year ended late July and began again in September. August was the month “the jail doors opened,” which is how we referred to the act of opening the doors of the school to set us free for the holidays. For city people like me, August was a time to go “into the country” to spend a few weeks with an aunt and uncle, a grandmother and/or grandfather, or with great aunts and great uncles.
“The country” meant adventure: climbing trees; hiking along footpaths you did not know; making a fishing rod with a tree branch, string, a piece of cork and a bent pin or nail, attaching a worm you dug out of the ground, casting off in a creek and having your own catch cooked in a kitchen lit by a kerosene lamp; throwing rocks at the ramshackle cottage the village recluse called home. It was a diet—organic, though we did not know the word then—of fruit you picked yourself; milk you watched being drawn from a cow; chickens, or a pig, slaughtered before your eyes; provisions dug out of the earth that very day.
And it was huddling on the steps at dusk with your siblings, cousins and friends, shivering with fear as Bethune-the-workman’s tales invoked the dwellers of the dark: jumbees, moongazers, rolling calves, dutchmen, baccoos, ol’ higues. The existence of these nonhumans was an integral part of the lore you absorbed during those August holidays in the country.
In September you returned to the city, an inch or two taller, leaner but hardier, your skin smooth and clean, your stomach purged of parasites by a bitter concoction made with the bush you had to bring back from the country. Most of the time, your essay succeeded in capturing the essence of your August in the country, though you made no mention of the creatures of the dark lest they showed up to torment you at night.
We did not realize it then, but those purges and how-I-spent-my-holiday assignments were pure therapy, an orderly transition, if you will, to a period of the year deemed the most important for our future. Not only did the assignments affirm the experiences we had, they also made us reflect, albeit fleetingly, on the most memorable of those experiences just before we tucked them away to get on with our formal education. As we wrote, our teachers took advantage of the quiet to re-acclimate themselves to their task of educating the nation’s children.
Now, here we are, all grown up and responsible, once more on the brink of a new season, new challenges. Only now there is no one to force us to cleanse our digestive system, no one to oblige us to reflect on our experiences of the past. Indeed, there is no one to force any transition ritual upon us.
It makes you wonder if putting away childhood things is always a good thing.
By Rosalind McLymont