At age 19 I left a home in New Orleans in which I had lived only one year. It was my family’s first year in a house with central air conditioning, a first year of hearing a fan begin whirring at unpredictable hours of the day and night, signaling the arrival of magically cool air. My mother in particular was happy to have cotton blankets to draw up to her chin on nights in July when the fan and cold air seemed never to stop.
My father, practical as ever, installed two large window units in strategic places in the new house. A housing inspector for the federal government, he knew that central air conditioning could suddenly give out. If my mother had to, she could turn on the window unit in her bedroom and live in there for a day or two until the central air was repaired.
Come what may, she would not become like her mother, living with a handkerchief always in her hand to mop the perspiration around her forehead and neck as she sat quietly in a rocker next to open windows in rural Louisiana.
And that was precisely the life that I was choosing when I chose seminary. It was an older Louisiana toward which I was heading. It was not so much that air conditioners were unreasonably expensive at the time. The bedrooms for guests to the seminary each had a window unit that rumbled out cold air for a visitor’s comfort. All of the seminary staff had the same window units in their own living quarters.
Tradition simply suggested that the large exhaust fans that for years had moved air through the high-ceilinged hallways off which the seminarians’ rooms opened might suit us as we started this new life. Why say we could not live in the 1970s as generations of priests entering before us had lived?
Public areas like the chapel and the library and the community room and the dining room did benefit from central air conditioning. The main adapting before us seminarians came at night when we retired to our rooms. Adapting to those nights and waking in the morning to savor any coolness that lingered around open windows is a vivid memory.
Sitting in a rocker next to the window and cradling a morning prayer book in our laps, we unwittingly recalled our grandmothers.
That memory makes the start of New England summer this particular weekend not just something to endure. It makes my open windows an opening onto a history I get to keep remembering.