The presenter of the ABC series Julia Zemiro’s Home Delivery on seeking solace inside and in the ocean.
The summer sun has always been my enemy. I just can’t take it. I can’t comprehend how a human can lie in the sun, the full summer sun, for hours just burning.
I burn a lot as a kid. It’s 1970, I’m three and skin protection doesn’t exist except for a stripe of zinc on the nose and shoulders. My mum’s Scottish skin brought up in Queensland somehow still tans. She freckles but she tans. My French dad, in the merchant navy at 15 on the Mediterranean, has skin that seems to swallow the sun. He glows with it.
I am freckles, freckles everywhere except for the skin my one-piece bathing costume covers. Otherwise I just burn, and I am actually quite comfortable with that, because I am at heart, an indoor child, always at the dining table with scissors, paper, pens before it was called Craft with a capital C. Like a Peanuts character, I stick my tongue out of my mouth as I concentrate.
It’s 1974. I’m seven. We live on Bondi Road so beach visits to Bondi and Tamarama are compulsory and still the other kids don’t seem to burn. But my skin just glows red. I can manage an hour but as families we are out there half the day and there’s no shade, no escape. I long for the call that we are ‘heading home’.
I’d rather be inside. I don’t have to cover myself with long-sleeved shirts and wide-brimmed hats. Inside, I can wear my bathers, sit at a table on a hot day, feel oh so cool and just draw. Or watch TV. Or make tapes of hosting my own radio show. Or listen to ABBA.
Dad and I get dumped one morning in the surf, a full on washing machine dump. We emerge from the water. ‘On a bu la tasse!’ he says. That’s French for dumped: to involuntarily swallow a mouthful of water. It seems pretty mild compared to what we just experienced frankly. It cheers me up though. I know there will be ice-cream later.
Sometimes, Dad lets me peel the skin off his back when he ‘pretend’ burns. He doesn’t mind and I love doing it, peeling long strips of skin off his back. It’s actually revolting if you think about it. In class, we paint glue on the back of our hands in school and peel it off.
As an adult, summer becomes the season I swell with fluid. I swell and puff. Summer for me can only be before 9am and after 6pm. Sunrise and sunset. When colour and shadow make the world seem layered and soft and beautiful. Not overexposed. It’s so harsh. But no one agrees with me.
The last time I laid on a towel to sunbake I was 19 and burned so hard. I thought ‘Never again!’. Peer pressure doesn’t sway me. I go to the movies alone instead.
2019. I’m 53. Today again, the Sydney sun is burning and the land is burning. The fires of summer return and this time with particular vengeance. I sit and watch Australia burn and burn and burn. I am sitting next to my father as we watch TV.
He’s in hospital and will die soon. I wonder what does he think as he watches? Is he relieved to be leaving this world? Does he understand what he’s watching? I hold his hand and his skin is so soft.
I watch the fires on TV on Christmas Day and think what kind of omen is this for 2020? That burning. That heat.
My father dies on New Year’s Eve. I need to get to the ocean. I need the going under. The cooling the cooling the cooling from the burning. And the crying, all the crying.
In the water, in the ocean, Dad feels close. Not ‘here’, but close. About somewhere… I don’t know. But it’s the right place to be. Dans la mer.
Visit our Reclaim Summer hub to read our collection of essays by notable Australians on what summer means to them and many more great reads.