Coffee with Mimi: Memories of southern summers without AC

Published 6:31 am Saturday, May 12, 2018

Spring has finally arrived.  There is a period of time when we can fling the windows open and enjoy fresh air and perfect sleeping temperatures.

Birds are chirping wildly outside my bedroom window at very early hours.  The puppy barks at everything that moves outside at very early hours. Traffic on the street is very loud at very early hours.

It is a price I am willing to pay.  Soon we will need to seal ourselves in to combat the heat and humidity of Kentucky summer.  Air conditioning is as necessary to my existence as water. I don’t object to very warm temperatures as long as there is cool, fresh air waiting for me inside my home.  I don’t mind working up a sweat while mowing the yard or running. The reward is the cool down.

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As a child, our family vacations consisted of packing up and heading south to visit relatives.  This two week period occurred most often the first two weeks of August.

We accepted this as normal.  It wasn’t until I was grown that I discovered other people went to Michigan in August.  We went to Memphis and Southern Mississippi.

My dad’s family lived in a city and mom’s on a farm.  In August both are hot. It was a given. Never did residents of either location experience a cool snap in August.  Classic movies and great Southern novels are based on that truth.

It’s funny what you remember from certain childhood experiences.  The drive south was long and hot, no air conditioning in the car until the glorious summer we bought a Country Squire station wagon and that was the year I was seventeen.  

The first leg of the trip was to Memphis.  A pack of kids who had been cooped up for hours were set loose and swarmed over the little cottage. And little it was.  It was charming, but little. Originally it had been a one floor, one bedroom, one bath house. Over the years it had grown with the addition of two more rooms on the first floor and the conversion of the second floor, under the eaves space, into two bedrooms.

The expansion was a good thing as my dad’s family eventually grew to include eight children.  By the time we began visiting, the upstairs rooms were sort of like guest rooms, but, when the family all lived there, one room was the boy’s room and the other was the girl’s domain.  

My dad’s family was very active.  They were busy at school, often had jobs and were very social.  I am still amazed that all ten residents of that little house got up, got dressed and to the days’ assignment with one little bathroom and no closets.  The lack of closets to hold what, by all accounts and simple logic, must have been a fairly large amount of clothing, sticks in my memory. How did they do it and where did they keep it?

The stairs to the upper rooms were unbelievably narrow and steep and not carpeted.  I imagine the multitude of pounding feet running up and down in the morning hours must have been quite deafening.

However, my most enduring childhood memory of those upstairs rooms was the heat.  Through all those summer vacation years, the house was not air conditioned. Eventually, the downstairs bedroom had a window unit.  But, all that Memphis August heat and humidity rose up those stairs to the bedrooms under the eaves.

The rooms had a couple dormer style windows which we opened as wide as possible.  We left the doors open to catch any cross breeze there might be. I vaguely remember the use of box fans.  But, it was hot. There was no escaping it.

My mom’s parents lived on a farm in Southern Mississippi.  Our first years visiting were to the old family home which was nestled in amongst big trees which even in the worst of August provided some cooling shade. The slightest breeze added a welcome fanning benefit. We often sat on the big front porch or played in the front yard under those big trees.  It was cooler.

But, Mississippi in August is plain hot.  Eventually, in a newer house on the front of the farm, there were some window air conditioners.  But, that was in the later years of our visits.

Our childhood homes did not have central air conditioning until well after I was gone.  My own bedroom never was air conditioned. (However, it did have a closet.) Clearly, I survived without much of a thought at the time.  As an adult, the first improvement we made to our own homes was central air conditioning

I love opening up the house in the spring.  But, as soon as the temperature rises to a certain degree and the humidity gives the slightest hint of moisture in the air, I’m all about the central air conditioning.  I can’t work when paper sticks to my arms and is damp to the touch.

It took Thomas Jefferson seventeen days to write the Declaration of Independence in the hot Philadelphia summer.  The man had more stamina and tolerance than I do. (He didn’t need a closet, they appear to wear every item of clothing they owned all the time.)