The Summer Girls, Reading Group Guide
My darling granddaughters-Dora, Carson, and Harper,
Greetings, my precious girls! On May 26 I celebrate my eightieth birthday-can you believe I’m so ancient? Will you come home to Sea Breeze and your old mamaw and help me celebrate? We will do it proper with a Frogmore stew, Lucille’s biscuits, and most of all, each other.
My dears, like an overripe peach, I’m past my prime. My mind remains sharp and my health is good, considering. Yet, with an eye to the future, I’ve decided to move to a retirement community, and it’s time to sort through all that I’ve managed to clutter my house with all these years.
And I’ve realized that it has been far too long since we’ve been together. I realize your lives are busy and your summers filled with engagements and travels. Yet-please say you’ll come to my party! For the summer, if you possibly can! That is the only gift I want. I yearn so very much to share this final season at Sea Breeze with my Summer Girls.
P.S. This invitation does not include husbands, beaus, or mothers!
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA
Carson was sorting through the usual boring bills and circulars in the mail when her fingers paused at the thick ecru envelope with Miss Carson Muir written in a familiar blue script. She clutched the envelope tight and her heart pumped fast as she scurried up the hot cement steps back to her apartment. The air-conditioning was broken, so only scarce puffs of breeze that carried noise and dirt from the traffic wafted through the open windows. It was a tiny apartment in a two-story stucco building near L.A., but it was close to the ocean and the rent was affordable, so Carson had stayed for three years, longer than she’d ever lived in any other apartment.
Carson carelessly tossed the other mail onto the glass cocktail table, stretched her long limbs out on the nubby brown sofa, then slid her finger along the envelope’s seal. Waves of anticipation crested in her bloodstream as she slowly pulled out the navy-trimmed, creamy stationery card. Immediately she caught a whiff of perfume-soft sweet spices and orange flowers-and, closing her eyes, she saw the Atlantic Ocean, not the Pacific, and the white wooden house on pilings surrounded by palms and ancient oaks. A smile played on her lips. It was so like her grandmother to spray her letters with scent. So old world-so Southern.
Carson nestled deeper in the cushions and relished each word of the letter. When finished, she looked up and stared in a daze at the motes of dust floating in a shaft of sunlight. The letter was an invitation . . . was it possible?
In that moment, Carson could have leaped to her feet and twirled on her toes, sending her long braid flying like that of the little girl in her memories. Mamaw was inviting her to Sullivan’s Island. A summer at Sea Breeze. Three whole rent-free months by the sea!
Mamaw always had the best timing, she thought, picturing the tall, elegant woman with hair the color of sand and a smile as sultry as a lowcountry sunset. It had been a horrid winter of endings. The television series Carson had been working on had been canceled without warning after a three-year run. Her cash flow was almost gone and she was just trying to figure out how she could make next month’s rent. For months she’d been bobbing around town looking for work like a piece of driftwood in rough waters.
Carson looked again at the letter in her hand. “Thank you, Mamaw,” she said aloud, feeling it deeply. For the first time in months Carson felt a surge of hope. She paced a circle, her fingers flexing, then strode to the fridge and pulled out a bottle of wine and poured herself a mugful. Next she crossed the room to her small wood desk, pushed the pile of clothing off the chair, then sat down and opened her laptop.
To her mind, when you were drowning and a rope was thrown your way, you didn’t waste time thinking about what to do. You just grabbed it, then kicked and swam like the devil to safety. She had a lot to do and not much time if she was going to be out of the apartment by the month’s end.
Carson picked up the invitation again, kissed it, then put her hands on the keys and began typing. For the first time in a long time, she would accept Mamaw’s invitation. She was going back to the lowcountry-to Mamaw. Back to the only place in the world she’d ever thought of as home.
SUMMERVILLE, SOUTH CAROLINA
Dora stood at the kitchen stove stirring a red sauce. It was 5:35 P.M. and the rambling Victorian house felt empty and desolate. She used to be able to set a clock by her husband’s schedule. Even now, six months after Calhoun had left, Dora expected him to walk through the door carrying the mail. She’d lift her cheek toward the man who had been her husband for twelve years to receive his perfunctory kiss.
Dora’s attention was caught by the sound of pounding footfalls on the stairs. A moment later, her son burst into the room.
“I made it to the next level,” he announced. He wasn’t smiling, but his eyes sparkled with triumph.
Dora smiled into his face. Her nine-year-old son made up her world. A big task for such a small boy. Nate was slight and pale, with furtive eyes that always made her wonder why her little boy was afraid. Of what? she’d asked his child psychiatrist, who had smiled kindly.
“Nate isn’t so much afraid as he is guarded,” he’d answered reassuringly. “You shouldn’t take it personally, Mrs. Tupper.”
Nate had never been a cuddly baby, but she worried when his smiling stopped after a year. By two, he didn’t establish eye contact or turn his head when called. By three, he no longer came to her for comfort when he was hurt, nor did he notice or care if she cried or got angry. Except if she yelled. Then Nate covered his ears and commenced rocking in a panic.
Her every instinct had screamed that something was wrong with her baby and she began furtively reading books on child development. How many times had she turned to Cal with her worries that Nate’s speech development was behind the norm and that his movements were clumsy? And how many times had Cal turned on her, adamant that the boy was fine and she was making it all up in her head? She’d been like a turtle tucking her head in, afraid to go against him. Already the subject of Nate’s development was driving a wedge between them. When Nate turned four, however, and began flapping his hands and making odd noises, she made her first, long-overdue appointment with a child psychiatrist. It was then that the doctor revealed what Dora had long feared: her son had high-functioning autism.
Cal received the diagnosis as a psychological death sentence. But Dora was surprised to feel relieved. Having an official diagnosis was better than making up excuses and coping with her suspicions. At least now she could actively help her son. And she did. Dora threw herself into the world of autism spectrum disorders. There was no point in gnashing her teeth wishing that she’d followed up on her own instincts sooner, knowing now that early diagnosis and treatment could have meant important strides in Nate’s development. Instead, she focused her energy on a support group and worked tirelessly to develop an intensive in-home therapy program. It wasn’t long before her entire life revolved around Nate and his needs. All her plans for restoring her house fell by the wayside, as did hair appointments, lunches with friends, her size-eight clothes.
And her marriage.
Dora had been devastated when Cal announced seemingly out of the blue one Saturday afternoon in October that he couldn’t handle living with her and Nate any longer. He assured her she would be taken care of, packed a bag, and walked out of the house. And that was that.
Dora quickly turned off the stove and wiped her hands on her apron. She put on a bright smile to greet her son, fighting her instinct to lean over and kiss him as he entered the room. Nate didn’t like being touched. She reached over to the counter to retrieve the navy-trimmed invitation that had arrived in the morning’s mail.
“I’ve got a surprise for you,” she told him with a lilt in her voice, feeling that the time was right to share Mamaw’s summer plans.
Nate tilted his head, mildly curious but uncertain. “What?”
She opened the envelope and pulled out the card, catching the scent of her grandmother’s perfume. Smiling with anticipation, Dora quickly read the letter aloud. When Nate didn’t respond, she said, “It’s an invitation. Mamaw is having a party for her eightieth birthday.”
He immediately shrank inward. “Do I have to go?” he asked, his brow furrowed with worry.
Dora understood that Nate didn’t like to attend social gatherings, not even for people he loved, like his great-grandmother. Dora bent closer and smiled. “It’s just to Mamaw’s house. You love going to Sea Breeze.”
Nate turned his head to look out the window, avoiding her eyes as he spoke. “I don’t like parties.”
Nor was he ever invited to any, she thought sadly. “It’s not really a party,” Dora hastened to explain, careful to keep her voice upbeat but calm. She didn’t want Nate to set his mind against it. “It’s only family coming-you and me and your two aunts. We’re invited to go Sea Breeze for the weekend.” A short laugh of incredulousness burst from her throat. “For the summer, actually.”
Nate screwed up his face. “For the summer?”
“Nate, we always go to Sea Breeze to see Mamaw in July, remember? We’re just going a little earlier this year because it is Mamaw’s birthday. She will be eighty years old. It’s a very special birthday for her.” She hoped she’d explained it clearly enough for him to work it out. Nate was extremely uncomfortable with change. He liked everything in his life to be in order. Especially now that his daddy had left.
The past six months had been rocky for both of them. Though there had never been much interaction between Nate and his father, Nate had been extremely agitated for weeks after Cal moved out. He wanted to know if his father was ill and had gone to the hospital. Or was he traveling on business like some of his classmates’ fathers? When Dora made it clear that his father was not ever returning to the house to live with them, Nate had narrowed his eyes and asked her if Cal was, in fact, dead. Dora had looked at Nate’s taciturn face, and it was unsettling to realize that he wasn’t upset at the possibility his father might be dead. He merely needed to know for certain whether Calhoun Tupper was alive or dead so that all was in order in his life. She had to admit that it made the prospect of a divorce less painful.
“If I go to Mamaw’s house I will need to take my tetra,” Nate told her at length. “The fish will die if I leave it alone in the house.”
Dora slowly released her breath at the concession. “Yes, that’s a very good idea,” she told him cheerfully. Then, because she didn’t want him to dwell and because it had been a good day for Nate so far, she moved on to a topic that he wouldn’t find threatening. “Now, suppose you tell me about the new level of your game. What is your next challenge?”
Nate considered this question, then tilted his head and began to explain in tedious detail the challenges he faced in the game and how he planned to meet them.
Dora returned to the stove, careful to mutter, “Uh-huh,” from time to time as Nate prattled on. Her white sauce had gone cold and gluey and all the giddiness that she’d experienced when reading the invitation fizzled in her chest, leaving her feeling flat. Mamaw had been clear that this was to be a girls-only weekend. Oh, Dora would have loved a weekend away from the countless monotonous chores for a few days of wine and laughter, of catching up with her sisters, of being a Summer Girl again. Only a few days . . . Was that too much to ask?
Apparently, it was. She’d called Cal soon after the invitation had arrived.
“What?” Cal’s voice rang in the receiver. “You want me to babysit? All weekend?”
Dora could feel her muscles tighten. “It will be fun. You never see Nate anymore.”
“No, it won’t be fun. You know how Nate gets when you leave. He won’t accept me as your substitute. He never does.”
She could hear in his voice that he was closing doors. “For pity’s sake, Cal. You’re his father. You have to figure it out!”
“Be reasonable, Dora. We both know Nate will never tolerate me or a babysitter. He gets very upset when you leave.”
Tears began to well in her eyes. “But I can’t bring him. It’s a girls-only weekend.” Dora lifted the invitation. “It says, ‘This invitation does not include husbands, beaus, or mothers.'”
Cal snorted. “Typical of your grandmother.”
“Cal, please . . .”
“I don’t see what the problem is,” he argued, exasperation creeping into his voice. “You always bring Nate along with you when you go to Sea Breeze. He knows the house, Mamaw . . .”
“But she said-”
“Frankly, I don’t care what she said,” Cal said, cutting her off. There was a pause, then he said with a coolness of tone she recognized as finality, “If you want to go to Mamaw’s, you’ll have to bring Nate. That’s all there is to it. Now good- bye.”
It had always been this way with Cal. He never sought to see all of Nate’s positive qualities-his humor, intelligence, diligence. Rather, Cal had resented the time she spent with their son and complained that their lives revolved around Nate and Nate alone. So, like an intractable child himself, Cal had left them both.
Dora’s shoulders slumped as she affixed Mamaw’s invitation to the refrigerator door with a magnet beside the grocery list and a school photo of her son. In it, Nate was scowling and his large eyes stared at the camera warily. Dora sighed, kissed the photo, and returned to cooking their dinner.
While she chopped onions, tears filled her eyes.