I remember summers. Waking up to bright sunshine and birds chirping, the lazy roll of a breeze coming through my bedroom window. The fresh smell in the air and the distinct promise of a beautiful and endless day.
I grew up in the countryside of a rural town in a rural county. There was nothing upon nothing, just gently rolling hills, leafy trees, dirt roads that gave way to fields, woods and streams. My brother and I had free range to go exploring, like most kids we knew. We’d go for walks to pick up cans on the side of the road, which we recycled later for change. Our cousins would ride their bikes to meet us at a bridge halfway between our houses, several miles over rough fields, but our only mode of long-distance travel at that age. We would strip off our socks and shoes and wade in the creek below to cool off.
Sometimes my parents worked the second or third shift, and my brother and I would stay with my grandparents for three or four days at a time throughout the summer. Grandma and Grandpa lived in the same village, in a different parcel of countryside. Life revolved around the farm and its work, with early pancake breakfasts and picnics carted out to the cornfield at noon. We sat at the edge of the field under the trees, eating ham sandwiches and cantaloupe, drinking sweet tea out of a canteen.
Every summer I either attended or helped with Vacation Bible School in the village’s only church, an organization to which my family was tightly bound. Each morning that week was filled with songs and nature walks and free ice cream cups from Prairie Farms. It was a bustling time for the children of the community, because most of them didn’t actually attend our church. Events for children, especially ones that provided free childcare, didn’t happen often. This was a special time for kids and parents alike.
The first Saturday in August heralded the town’s Fish Fry, a day of fanfare in our tiny hamlet. The volunteer firemen spent the day frying up fish, while people from surrounding towns flocked in to eat potato salad, coleslaw, and homemade pies and cakes. There was always a band, and a beer tent, and kids’ games. Sometimes a group would set up a dunk tank as a fundraiser. The day was spent in comings and goings, riding my bike into town and back home again, reveling in the unusual amount of people and activity.
My husband experienced this same kind of freedom growing up in a town that houses the state university. His mom gave him the boundary of streets he needed to stay within and told him to come home when the old-fashioned lampposts lit up. He and his friends would roam the cobblestone streets, playing pranks and making snack runs to the nearest convenience store. When it was hot, they found plenty of shade under the century-old trees lining the streets. It was not unlike the childhood recounted by Bill Bryson in The LIfe and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, even though it took place nearly forty years later.
As an adult, I still find summertime glorious, especially the dawn the each day. Sometimes I actually break out into a rendition of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” Indeed, there is a nostalgic quality to summer that makes me want to watch lovely summertime musicals like Oklahoma, The Music Man, and especially State Fair. The days may be glorious, but are most often spent inside, battling cruel amounts of air-conditioning. I have resigned myself to summers spent working, because that is the kind of career I have. What I have not resigned myself to is the kind of summers my son might have.
Much talk has been generated over the loss of childhood freedoms: they don’t walk or bike anywhere alone, they don’t play freely or utilize their imagination, and playgrounds are childproofed to the point of no fun. I’m not going to talk about that, except to say that I think a boomerang effect has begun, and I don’t think that this tendency toward overprotection, by parents or society in general, will continue.
Here in the suburbs, it seems that most children attend a day camp of some sort during the summer. This kind of organized activity runs opposite of our free-wheeling childhoods, and I think it will likely be where my son spends his summer days. Day camp certainly isn’t a bad option, and yet it sort of seems like school in disguise. Where will he learn to make choices about what to do with his day, when the decision is already made for him? Every. Single. Day.
My true hope is that he will be able to spend significant amounts of time downstate with his grandparents, where free time for children is still a large part of life. There he can experience the fullness of summer days and the endlessness of nature. He can fish in the pond, build a fort in the woods, wade in the creek. He can decide what exciting thing will happen that day.
Then he’ll have a taste of what it was like. He will know.