It happens every year. Summer brings our longest sustained stretch of sunny warmth, along with a recurring fantasy: that our urbanized suburb, located just outside a major metropolis, has been magically transformed into a summer resort town.
Granted, while viewing Shakespeare under the stars in Austin Gardens, with aircraft ripping through the atmosphere overhead or ambulance sirens broadcasting emergencies at the local elder facility, and the steady screech of cicadas doing their best to burst the bubble, it’s not always the easiest fantasy to entertain.
Yet sipping coffee and nibbling an apple tartelette outside Lea’s French Street Food is a fine way to start a morning — as is sitting on a bench in Mills Park or Austin Gardens, watching dogs frolic while owners schmooze, or attending bird-song recitals and basking in a breezeway before the temps climb and drive us back indoors. Imbibing or abiding, the day starts earlier in summer and is worth leaving our confines behind. It’s summertime and the goin’ out is easy.
The rest of the year feels like a race with the present, trying to keep a step ahead. In summer, it’s wiser to surrender to the here and now and, like a beachcomber, collect moments cast up on summer’s shore:
Sitting on a friend’s porch, eating rhubarb pie, served warm; spooning a Black Cow at a table outside Petersen’s on a hot Sunday afternoon; the subtle scent of Catalpa blossoms and the heavy perfume of Linden blossoms, blended and suspended in the thick night air; mulberries crushed on the sidewalk, staining the concrete purple; the chilly blast passing open shop doors; Queen Anne’s Lace, sunflowers, and chicory taking over the highway roadsides; swimmers flip-flopping home from the Ridgeland Common or Rehm Park pools, sarong-ed by towels; morning or afternoon klatches outside myriad coffee shops; actors spraying spittle into the stage-light glow of a Shakespearean evening; crickets trilling and dogs sounding alerts as pedestrians pass on a walk down streets densely overhung by trees, accompanied by the scattershot brilliance of fireflies in the darkening dusk; standing on a rooftop deck, dwarfed by an ocean of air, the departed sun reflecting off coral reefs and shining sandbars of clouds, as swallows dart to and fro skimming mosquitos. This is living.
Living is a skill we master too late — a moment-by-moment proposition that seems diametrically at odds with “making a living.”
In summer, weekends stretch before the resort residents like a limitless chain of possibility. October seems a long way off as Saturday morning shoppers load up on stalks of brilliant gladiolas, ripe tomatoes and sweetcorn at Farmers Market. Front-yard gardens are fully arrayed with hydrangeas and adored by passersby. Cycling is back in vogue, thanks to the pandemic. Pilgrims from all over the world parade past Frank Lloyd Wright homes and a bounty of other Prairie-style masterpieces. Deer are the main attraction for watchers in the woods near Trailside Museum by the River Des Plaines. Sidewalk sales lure curious customers to Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street. T-ball games are contested, in a fashion, on fields of parental dreams each June. The Lake Theatre offers sanctuary from the sultriness of July and August — and the promise of two hours of armchair travel.
Work and other forms of busyness inveigh against the resort illusion, but vacation is ultimately a state of mind. Dining in the quaint cobblestone gangway next to Il Vicolo Ristorante makes it easy to mistake familiar surroundings for a European getaway. Nursing a glass of wine with friends on the corner in front of Anfora Wine Merchants adds to the air of cosmopolitan civility. Some evenings it seems as if the entire resort is dining al fresco.
The local pyrotechnics on July 4th at the high school stadium were canceled this year after the shootings in Highland Park, but the rumor is they may be rescheduled. Sunday night concerts in Scoville Park, meanwhile, are almost as entertaining to listen to as the frolicking kids are to watch.
As resorts go, Oak Park and River Forest are fine places to spend the summer months. You can hear live music most nights outside FitzGerald’s on the Berwyn side of Roosevelt Road. Thursday Night Out offers a progressive dinner on Marion Street, sampling cuisine from local restaurants, while musicians entertain. On weekends, art galleries beckon on Harrison Street, down by the expressway.
Summer is the time to be outside, when a park feels as familiar as a living room, and offers much more room for living. Curling up with a good book in one of our three branch libraries is an excellent way to while the time, but the reading is just as good on a park bench, a chair in the shade — or even a hammock strung between two trees as some seem inclined to recline.
Martha’s Vineyard may have more celebrities, Aspen has more mountains, and Chicago boasts beaches along a Great Lake, but we have far more trees per square foot, and shade is a lovely consequence of our decidedly deciduous leafery.
For a few golden weeks each summer, this community holds its own as a resort.
At any rate, as famous native son Hemingway famously said in The Sun Also Rises, isn’t it lovely to think so?