Thursday, July 1, 2010

In the Good Old Summertime!

I remember summer well. It was a time with no structure and no commitments. I played alone in our orchard, building a tree house, making a trapeze on a big apple tree and pretending I was Patsy of the Circus (my current favorite heroine). I remember that I used to do some pretty amazing stunts on that trapeze. I never fell off either, because Patsy never fell off.

On other days I'd go with my friends into the woods and we'd play exciting cops and robbers type of games. Sometimes I'd go off on my bike, find a stream and catch tiddlers and minnows in a jar. Summer days seemed to stretch on with no end. Sitting on the bank of the stream, warm sun on my back, eating a cheese and pickle sandwich and fruit from out trees was just perfect.

It still sounds perfect now. Every summer I say to myself that I'm going to take time off to chill out, to sit in the shade with a book and a cool drink. And what happens--I look up one day and it is September and the summer has slipped away.

Of course I know the world has changed. My daughters can't let their children go off for the day on their bikes. You'd never let ten year olds play in the woods without adult supervision. But I deeply regret it. We've taken from our children the time of wonder and creativity and imagination. Instead we've filled their summers with structure. They go to tennis camp and swim camp and computer camp, and play dates are arranged. But they rarely have the luxury of planning their own time, going where they please, stopping when they feel like it and coming home when they are tired.

I think my summers helped make me the writer I am today. I lived a lot of that time in the world of my imagination. I became observant of tiny details as i watched nature around me. I became resiliant as I fell from a tree, trying to hammer a plank for my tree house, scratched my knees, cleaned myself up and climbed back up. Now that I'm a grown up I'm hardly ever bored. I can always think of something I'd like to do. I can take myself off and wanter a strange city without feeling scared that I'll get lost.

I'm off to UK and France on Sunday. At least some of that time I plan to wander through the woods, sit by a river bank and maybe even catch tiddlers in a jar. I wonder if you can go home again?

JAN: For the most part, my kids tried, but resisted camps because they needed that time of no-structure. One camp-less summer my son learned to play guitar from a CD-set I bought him, and now he's an awesome guitarist (lessons later, of course) with a band that actually makes good money at his college. So all that downtime definitely helped make him who he is today.

There's some movement out of Manhattan that's working hard to convince parents that kids don't need all the 24-hour security and supervision that we think they do. That our perceptions of the risks is distorted by the news and that perception is actually hurting kids. But I do sympathize -- and its not like I was brave enough to let my kids wander as much as they should have.

HALLIE: The problem for most parents is that free time for kids means the parents need to be free, too - when I was working summers there was no choice but camp, But I believe in teaching kids to fend for themselves. We taught them to take the T in and out of Boston, to read a street and subway map, to figure out how to get home from wherever they were. I'd never send them off alone, but with a small group of friends, I always felt Harvard Square in the evening, watching the buskers, was far safer than dropping them at the mall.

ROBERTA: We lived in a neighborhood full of kids and we all bombed around together on our bikes, playing games and making forts. No lessons, no camps, nothing structured at all. But Hallie's right--the parents have to be around to make this work. My mother was a teacher so she could be a home base when (and if!) we needed one. I think it's partly that the times have changed and are a little more scary, but it's also a sense that kids will miss out if their schedules are not crammed with planned activities. I'm like Rhys--never, ever bored and I credit those days of summer for that!

RO: Oh, I thought this post was going to be about that great old Judy Garland movie..

Growing up in Brooklyn, it was all about the beach. Brighton Beach, Manhattan Beach, Riis Park, Rockaway and Coney Island. Baby oil and iodine and sun reflectors. God, how we abused our skin! And our bodies...eating knishes and thick cut fries cooked in oil that was probably the same oil they used to cook the fries my parents ate when they went to Coney.
When we got older it was going to the mountains or the country. If you lived in Brooklyn, Manhattan was "the city" and the Catskills were "the mountains" or "the country." There were no other mountains. I didn't catch tiddlers. My mother had me vaccinated.;-)

HANK: Summer--didn't it use to last forever? We'd go to the library, and get ten books, the limit, and I'd bring them home and curl up in the special place in the big tree in the back yard and devour them. Or sometimes I'd read in the hayloft in the barn.
We had shows on the back porch, my sisters and me. I remember, "Dancing to 88 Keys" was one title I somehow came up with. We'd wear costumes, like big crinolines over our shorts, and pretend to be performers.
We'd take picnics down to the creek, riding our ponies, and read by the water.
And oh, yes, when we were older: Iodine and baby oil. Yikes.
Popsicles! That you could break in two. And MAD magazine.
Every year we'd take a big family vacation: to Jackson Hole, or Scottsdale, or, locally, Lake Maxinkuckee, where there was a very cool military school with incredibly cute cadets. We loved that..

RHYS: This post is evoking more and more summer memories. The summer my kids joined kids from the block and put on a circus. They practised for days and actually were pretty good although the dogs wouldn't perform as ordered with frilly skirts on. My daughter Jane goes with her family and friends to a cabin by a lake for a week each year. Although it's really simple my granddaughters Lizzie and Meghan look forward to it for months. It has become their private world with rituals repeated each summer. Now that's my kind of summer...
So what are your favorite summer memories?


  1. Yes, reading in the back yard with a chocolate milkshake or a root=beer float in some kind of metal mugs we had around. Our annual two-week camping trip to Sequoia National Park, where we swam in icy water and made treasure hunts with maps and little pieces of tin foil money. And laid on our backs in a big open area at night while my mother explained the constellations. And sang military songs around the campfire led by my dad (who of course served in WWII but wasn't the Army type, at all - he ran the ship newspaper and then manned a radio outpost in outer India!).

    My sons used to suit up in garb from the "dress-up" box, which for boys was stocked with old vests and hats and sashes, and they'd take their homemade wooden rifles (because I wouldn't buy them guns) and march out into the woods.

    So this topic is reminding me to can some of my to-do list for today and just sit outside with a good book all afternoon! Thank you.


  2. And Hank, Mad Magazine reminds me that we'd go to the New Jersey shore with my mother's two sisters and their families and put on skits using Mad Mag as the plots. I think the parents had enough to drink that anything we produced was funny!

  3. When my cousin would come to visit we made marionettes and performed shows for the neighborhood kids. My mother even made us long satin formals to perform in: teal for Tish, rose for me. That memory remained so dear that during the Viet Nam War campus unrest, another art student and I formed a marionette company, made our own 36-inch marionettes, constructed a completely collapsable stage and toured five Midwestern states in a U-Haul truck. The summer our son was 8 he made an entire suit of armor out of cardboard, painting it silver. But, not satisfied, he marched to the downtown library, checked out some books on Mediaeval weaponry, and made a second set, astoundingly accurate. Our summers definitely made us more creative, a quality I see less and less in recent generations. Thank you, Rhys

  4. Sequoia national park..I'm aching to go there, but I always punk out and go to Yosemite instead. Is it really just as wonderful but without the crowds? Actually once you get out of the valley, Yosemite is not crowded - it's the "scenic overlook" people you have to avoid.

  5. I worry that kids today don't know what to do with unstructured time. We used to amuse ourselves by re-enacting our favorite television shows, building forts in the woods, or just rambling (my mother had no clue about how far we went or what we were doing).

    One year I set up a stand to sell sea shells--on the beach. Funny thing--people actually bought them.

    Once a friend and I created and solved a mystery, based upon a bloody band-aid.

    And summer always meant Nancy Drew books, which I would read in one sitting. Did they really cost 50 cents in those days? Or was it a dollar?