As a mother of two now settled in New England, Storey’s Editorial Production Manager has found a way to experience the love of summer she never had growing up.
I want a kid-summer do-over.
When I was growing up, the hot summers in suburban Tennessee meant long days indoors. It didn’t have to be that way — I don’t think I would have suffered heat exhaustion from playing outside — but my parents both had full-time office jobs, so my brother and I were left in the care of my grandmother. The best-case scenario was that she’d come to our house, where there was central air conditioning, and we’d get to watch cartoons and reruns until her favorite soap operas came on. Then we’d play or read in our rooms, and in the late afternoon she’d encourage us to pop outside and play a quick game of badminton just so we could truthfully say “yes” when our mother asked if we’d been outdoors. (This is the same woman who gave me a chocolate Zinger when I was on a diet and told me to hide it in my room and eat it after dinner. Honesty was flexible with her.)
The worst-case scenario was when we had to go to her house — a swelteringly hot little box sitting by a busy road that rumbled all day with trucks. If we complained because we wanted to go to the local swimming pool (she couldn’t drive), she’d drag an old washtub outside, pour it full of water, and say, “There.” Properly chastened, we’d balance on the edge of the tub and soak our feet in the water, fighting for space with our toes. When her soaps came on and there was nothing else to do, we might spend a few minutes playing on the rusty old oil tank in her backyard, pretending it was a horse. The only nearby kids I remember were the ones at the daycare next door who would stare at us through the chain-link fence when they were let out twice a day, and a little girl we dubbed Terrible Tina who would swing her rear-end at us and say rhythmically, “Betcha—can’t—hit a—movin’—target!” Worst of all were the days when my grandmother would cook collard greens. As it is with most Southerners, her recipe for greens was something like, “Cook greens in a pot of boiling water with a slab of fatback until the very plaster of your walls reeks to a depth of 1 inch.” We couldn’t even escape the smell by going outside. It was excruciating.
No wonder I usually had perfect attendance at school; I was just so happy to be back.
After I moved to New England almost 15 years ago, my concept of summer changed. This is the time when everybody goes outside, because we know it won’t last. Days with light winds, bright sun, and a brilliant blue sky practically make people giddy around here. Even on the hottest days, I can’t imagine sitting inside and watching cartoons in an air-conditioned house. I’m more likely to find a shady spot in the yard and fold laundry.
One of the great things about being around young children is watching them discover new things. I have two of my own now, and I love to watch them playing outside when they don’t think I’m looking. It’s so different from what I remember of my own childhood. Admittedly, my husband and I are keeping them sheltered from as much media as possible, in part because we relegate our own media to e-mail and the occasional movie, and in part because we live in a secluded area that doesn’t have high-speed Internet access or cell phone reception. Without the so-called luxury of air conditioning and the constant glow of a screen, they run around outside just looking at stuff. They arrange rocks into interesting sculptures, stand in the creek and search for frog eggs, follow colorful bugs in the garden, encourage Daddy to catch garter snakes for them, take food scraps to our chickens, and generally do everything I wish I could have done at their age.
There’s no script or planned activity, and we don’t do a lot of driving around. They go to bed with dirt-covered knees and crash with blissful exhaustion. I turn out the lights knowing they’ve had a wonderful day, and somehow it feels like I’m making up for the summers I didn’t have. I’m getting a do-over after all.