I woke up at dawn this morning to assemble the lawn furniture; after a long winter, I was desperate to let summer begin. But as I learned, 6:00 a.m. is not the ideal time for much of anything, certainly not turning bolts and screws into place. That lawn furniture resisted my advances, played dumb as I tried to fit washer M into socket C. (Don’t even get me started with wing nut L.) The point is, it wasn’t easy, but it was necessary. It was time to make winter leave.
And in my effort to welcome the new season, I knew I had to have that lawn furniture in place. Knew I had to sit upon it, too, when cracking the cover of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, the book I’ve faithfully returned to at the start of every summer since the end of my seventh grade year.
What can I tell you, Friend, but that the reading experience was wondrous—as it always is—and over much too fast. No matter how hard I tried to savor every page, I found myself gulping the words, exhibiting less-than a little restraint as I closed the book, breathless, three hours later.
It was that quick, just like summer—there a moment and then gone. The book had started so promising, and then, like always, vanished. I sat on the lawn furniture—dumbfounded by the book’s speed—and realized that the furniture I’d assembled just that morning probably wouldn’t last long, either.
All that hard work for nothing, I thought, for something that won’t last more than a season or two.
It is this exact sense of ephemeralness that Dandelion Wine explores. When Leo Auffmann tries to invent his happiness machine, he learns, much to his horror, that the problem with inventing a happiness machine is that at some point, the user must re-enter the world, return to—as his wife puts it—“the dirty dishes and the beds not made.”
She continues: “While you’re in that thing, sure, a sunset lasts forever,” but “[w]ho wants a sunset to last?”
I like to think of life as an accumulation of sunsets, which of course, it is. But I also like to think that running parallel to these individual days is the longer narrative, one consisting of a single morning, a single noon, and a single sunset before the final night.
Perhaps the reason I re-read this book year after year is because it reminds me of my own place along this journey. When I first read it, I was Douglas Spaulding. Then, as the years progressed, I grew into his father. One day—God willing—I will be Douglas’s grandfather, too.
Interspersed throughout the book are the efforts by the Spaulding brothers—Douglas and Tom—to document their summer in full. With the help of a nickel tablet and a Ticonderoga pencil, they record every dandelion, every firecracker, every cicada and ice cream cone. But despite all their data collecting, summer still comes to its close, leaving them with nothing but their memories and a pencil-filled book.
They could not keep their sunset, despite their best attempt.
Which is not to say it was their only attempt.
In the early pages of the book (in the early days of summer 1928), the Spaulding boys are commissioned by their grandfather to gather every dandelion in the yard, each of which will be used to press dandelion wine. The vintage is then left to ferment in the cellar, until a cold January day when at last it's released to melt the cold from their bones.
In this way, dandelion wine serves as the book’s central metaphor, one that directly links with the lesson derived from Leo Auffmann’s happiness machine: that the things we cherish most are the things we know we’ll lose.
Though I know better, each summer I, too, partake in an annual bottling of dandelion wine. Every August, I gather dandelions from the backyard, add a bit of rainwater, then screw tight the lid on a Mason jar and place it on the shelf. Today, I’ve got 20 years of summers on my bookshelf, though every last one has turned to sludge. It’s a visual reminder that I, too, cannot capture something meant to be fleeting. But it’s a reminder also that if we recognize that which we love early enough, we can love it twice as hard.
This is not to say I love my lawn furniture. It's only to say I will love the time my family will spend on it. And when the day finally arrives when I have no choice but to walk those mildewed, bird-turded cushions to the curb, I’ll smile while doing it and remember today: when I got up at dawn to give us a little more time.
P.S. As I completed this letter to you, I dropped my beloved copy of Dandelion Wine on the kitchen floor. It cracked in half, dipped beneath its own horizon line. But it sure was beautiful while it lasted.