Summer 1963

by George Ella Lyon

George Ella Lyon

was the summer we flew
Uncle Jim’s Renault
by flapping its black doors
like wings before it caught
fire on Needmore Road

was the first summer
of our grandmother’s
widowhood which is why
I was visiting these cousins
having come up to Dayton
from the mountains
with Granny B. on the bus

was the summer we stood
in front of Uncle Jim
as he sat in his recliner
in the family room
and sang, “We gather
together to ask thee a favor”
in three-part harmony
begging movie money
and the Renault

the first summer Granny B.
had been alone and grown
since she had eloped with Papa Dave
by train from Memphis in 1915
‘Yes,’ her son Uncle Jim said,
‘but first you have to wash the boat’
which we did, braiding
our voices around “Got along
without you before I met you.
Gotta get along without you now”

was the July after the April
Martin Luther King landed
in the Birmingham jail
after the May police turned dogs
and firehoses on marching students
the July after the June
Medgar Evers was murdered

1963 was the summer
of all I did not know
of my cousins’ stories:
the oldest who had just returned
from giving birth and giving up
the baby, the middle who was
hiding gin in her Get Set bottle,

the youngest with her arms
sliced and burned, as if
the rage in the streets
had come for her

it was the summer we four
on a slow afternoon
rearranged the furniture
in a Harrod Heights model home
then went for cheeseburgers
at the Hasty Tasty
where the red and silver and white
jukebox spun out “Fools Rush In”
and “Blowin’ in the Wind”
and “Easier Said than Done”

all of which we sang
on the way home
to Hemingway Road
named, my youngest cousin
liked to say, for Ernest
who did himself in

was the summer of all
they didn’t know about me—
wrist-slashing, poison-drinking
the past October just after
the Cuban Missile Crisis

and the summer of all
I didn’t know about myself
that five-year-old trapped
in a bunkhouse by a neighbor
bigger than her brother, bigger
than any boy she’d ever seen
pushing shaming splitting
what happened
from what would be believed.

Last updated October 15, 2022