The first week of May, I e-mailed the following to my mother in Arkansas, my two sisters in Texas, and my ex-husband:
“Here is the schedule for Joy and Harry’s summer vacation. There are a couple of holes that need to be filled, but for the most part, I think this is the optimum plan to meet everyone’s varied needs. Call or e-mail me ASAP if there are any changes to be made.
May 21: Final day of school; pick up
report cards and dismissal
May 22-29th: Joy to beach with the Greens
May 22-23: Harry at Steve’s
May 24-27: Harry at Kay’s
May 27-June 1: Harry at Steve’s
May 29-June 1: Joy back from beach, at Steve's
June 2-4: Children at Kay’s
June 4: Kay takes children to Arkansas
June 4-11: Children in Arkansas with Joyce & Jay
June 11: Children at Kay’s
June 12-13: Children at Steve’s
June 14-July 2: Day Camp at pool,
Mon., Wed., & Fri. 9 a.m.-2 p.m. (Normal custody schedule)
June 24-June 29: Kay & children to Texas (Houston/Austin)
July 4: Whitland Avenue Picnic
July 6-9: Children at FRA Camp, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. daily
July 10-17: Children with Steve (possibly stay at your mother's a few days?)
July 19-30: Children at Y camp, 7:45 a.m.-5:15 p.m. daily, Mon-Fri.
July 31-Aug. 7: Kay & children to beach with Pat & children
Aug. 7-11: Children with Steve
Aug. 12: School resumes
Within a few hours, my sisters responded with a thumbs-up on the Texas dates. Steve, who is Joy and Harry’s father, called to thank me for making the arrangements. My mother’s return e-mail, however, was tagged “Frantic Summer.” She wrote: “Reading your summer schedule took my breath away. Your father and I were worn out just reading it. When you kids were little, I don’t remember planning a single thing for the summer. Would it help if we had the kids here for 2 or 3 weeks instead of just the one? They might get bored with just us old people around. There’s nothing much to do except swim and play, but we’d love to have them. Let us know. We’re flexible.”
My mother isn’t suffering from age-related memory loss, as she so often fears. She doesn’t remember planning anything for her five children’s summer vacation because she didn’t have to plan anything. When I was a child, she, like every other mother I knew (except for the D-I-V-O-R-C-E-D moms), was a 365-day-a-year, stay-at-home mom.
In the northeast, where I grew up, school let out for summer vacation much closer to summer, around the third week of June. It didn’t resume again until after Labor Day, the official end of summer. Summer seemed endless when it began. On the last day of school, my mother always took us to Gino’s hamburger drive-in for celebratory burgers and milk shakes. From that moment forward, we were pretty much on our own.
The neighborhood, which, according to your age and prowess on a bicycle, stretched anywhere from a three- to 10-block radius, was our kingdom. At one end of our street was a shallow creek, where we waded and built bridges and dams. At the other end of the street were the wooded outskirts of one of the DuPont family estates. We climbed their trees, built forts, and spied on their stables from afar. About six blocks away was the elementary school, which had a playground and a field where we could play kickball and where my brothers played Little League.
Eight blocks in the other direction was a little market run by Mr. and Mrs. Pantano, where we spent our allowances. One summer, a new subdivision was built a few blocks away, and we spent hours climbing through unfinished houses and playing King of the Hill on huge piles of dirt. Another summer was spent almost entirely on what became the section of Interstate 95 that looped around the outer border of our neighborhood.
After suppers, on the street in front of our house, the parents in the neighborhood would sit in lawn chairs while the children played hopscotch, Simon Says, and Red Light-Green Light. When the mosquito truck would come through spewing toxic fumes of bug spray, we would retreat momentarily to the front stoop, then file back out to the street to await the Mr. Softee ice cream truck as it made its evening rounds.
Some days, my mother would pack a picnic lunch, load us in the car, and drive to Bringhurst Woods recreation area or one of the lush parks on the banks of the Brandywine River. A couple of times a summer, she and another mother would organize an all-day trip to the Jersey shore.
Every August, we would drive eight hours to the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York for an idyllic two weeks at Echo Lake. But otherwise, the summers of my childhood were filled with one long, uneventful day after another. After breakfast, we were shooed out the door. At lunch, we were called back in, then shooed out once more, and finally called back again for dinner. The summons from every door rang through the neighborhood like a great maternal chorus: “Jiiiiiiiimmyyyy! Liiiiiindaaa! Maaaaaryyyy! Tereeeesaaa! Diiiiinner!” On that cue, scattered herds of children gathered up their balls, their dolls, and their bikes, and headed home.
Our neighborhood was as safe as a cocoon. Some mother was always keeping a watchful eye on us out of her kitchen window. No one ever had to drive us anywhere because everything we needed was right there in the neighborhood. At some point, one of us would wander hot and sweaty into the house and whine, “I’m boooored. There’s nothing to doooooo.” But mom would always answer back, “Find something to do.” And that was that.
“Nothing to do” isn’t a phrase that enters my, or my children’s, vocabulary very often, either during the school year or the three months of summer. I have been thinking about the summer of ’99 since roughly mid-January, not with the anticipation of a lazy afternoon spent swaying in a hammock with a book, or lounging about the pool chatting with my friends against the sounds of our children splashing in the water, or plucking the first ripe tomatoes and a fistful of basil leaves from my garden for dinner.
Instead, I have had my head buried in camp brochures, beach rental catalogues, and calendarsthe school calendar, camp calendars, my calendar, my ex’s calendar, my parents’ calendar, my sisters’ calendars, the Green’s calendar, and my friend Pat’s calendar. The trip that my children and I take every summer to Texas to meet with three of my four siblings and our combined 10 children has been changed several times to find the only five-day stretch in a summer that lasts 82 days that will work for all of us.
I am fortunate to be a freelance writer who works at home. During the school year, I am able to finish my workday by the time my children get home at 4 p.m. That way, I am both a working ’90s mother and a stay-at-home ’60s mom. Once the school year ends, however, so does that pretense.
Before my divorce, when there were two incomes supporting my house instead of one, I had the flexibility of taking long stretches of time off in the summer. But flexibility is not a part of my summer any more. I have to work. I also don’t live in a neighborhood where mothers stay at home and keep a watchful eye on their children. Nor is my neighborhood a place where my children are safe to roam about on their bicycles.
I have no doubt that Joy and Harry will have a wonderful time at their summer camp, at the beach in Florida, at their cousins’ home in Texas, and with their grandparents in Texas and nearby Manchester. But if I could wish for anything at all for their childhood summers, if I could give them anything in the world, it would be time on their hands, in a place as safe as a cocoon, with nowhere to go, and nothing to do. It may not have been a perfect world, but as I look back at the carefree summers of my childhood, it certainly seems that way to me now.
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