Last Days of Summer

I never got around to describing the tiger mom at the small farm I ran into in June. Since I've lost the story value in waiting so long - lost the emotion that would have fueled it - I'll just summarize what happened. We were in Massachusetts at this adorable little farm nearby where there is a tomato maze. As we approached the owner to ask about it, a family jumped in front of us saying they hoped we didn't plan to pick blueberries as they'd pretty much taken all the good ones. They then scurried over to the tomato maze ahead of Wally who was taking a long time admiring the children's scissors, which were really for picking herbs. The mom and dad were tripping over themselves racing through the maze, starting on the outside, while their toddler waddled along behind them, more intent on admiring the plants than harvesting their fruit. 

The tiger mom (and dad) were as pushy and aggressive as the Friday afternoon shoppers at Whole Foods in Manhattan, even when a major Jewish holiday begins that night. So I just could not understand why that couple chose to pick-your-own only to treat it in such a competitive, frantic way. If all you want is a big basket of tomatoes, stop by the farm a quarter of a mile up the street and buy it. You can't throw a hot dog in this town without it landing on a farm stand. Anyway, they zipped through everything in no time, and zoomed off. After they left the small farm felt like exactly what it was, and we stayed for an hour or so, picking herbs after the tomato maze, then chatting with the farmers a bit.

Cut to his past week. We were with the two young boys of one of my lifelong closest friends up in New Hampshire. They are fantastically sweet kids, home-schooled and adept at great old-fashioned, outdoor boy type stuff like fort-building and capturing caterpillars. But they strike me, in many ways, as considerably more sophisticated than Wally. They've seen all six Star Wars movies, and the older kid can recite Darth Vadar stats like nobody's business. Wally is still into those gentle little shows on Sprout and Nick Jr like Little Bill and Fireman Sam. While his friends were engaged in play sword fights on the dock, he was happy to watch a duck bobbing in the water. In their room he gravitated to the stuffed animals, but was clueless about how to begin with the boxes full of tiny figurines, model boats, action figures, lengthy books of instructions. When it was time for bed Wally took out the little picture books he'd packed while the older boy had his Star Wars Encyclopedia and the younger (Wally's age) a Marvel comic book. Still, as Alex read Richard Rabbit out loud, a simple little book from when I was a kid, the other two boys huddled around eager to see the pictures. 

These examples of people that run counter to expectations set by place-- the tiger mom on the farm, the cosmopolitan kids in the country -- make things seem less fated, in terms of where or even how you raise your kids. Perhaps our children's lives are not as circumscribed by landscape as we might think. Sometimes I feel sorry for less-sophisticated kids. They can seem not only innocent but babyish, out of the pop culture loop, unaware, while meandering through a tomato maze, that they're in a race or that there's even any rush. There's a sweetness there that you know can't last, a sensitive nature that is easily bruised. It's hard not to see the innocent kid as naive, behind the times, left behind. And yet I know -- I remind myself -- racing along doesn't necessarily make you happy. I know "left behind" is the wrong way to look at it. 

It is August 29th ...most of these days even now that are so essential to Alex and I...watching Wally run in the crystal clear water of Maine, hearing him laugh in the tent with the boys in New Hampshire, seeing him run in the fields of Vermont with a friend from New York (whom we hadn't been able to meet up with for months in NY, even though we live across the street)...these imprinted days of his early childhood that conjure our own, that allow us to sink back into that vast expanse of childhood memory, most all of this he won't remember. He is just now starting to live the days that will return to him in fragments, chimerical pieces, faded-out snapshots..."I think I remember swimming in that lake"..."Did we once take a trolley to an ice cream place?"

It occurred to me that repetition is an essential part of my own summer memories, that it's necessary for that "dilation of time" as my friend Eli put it. Chasing experience, racing from activity to activity, through mazes, onto more grown-up books and toys, the "What's next?" mode of living, the agendas, timetables, benchmarks, forward-looking plans, the vacation days chock full of novelty--para-sailing, amusement parks--the afternoon hours cut short by the gesture my dad makes all the time, even on vacation that drives me crazy, where he points with two fingers to where his watch to say, "If you want to do x, we should start thinking about leaving"..all these run counter to time dilating into that dreamy, expansive cadence, the lemonade-stained afternoons on the porch, the one we long for, and think we remember.

There is a lake near my parents’, not the greatest lake, but it has a sandy beach, a wooded picnic area, a dock and a raft you can swim out to. We’ve never been before this summer, even though they lived for 26 years in a neighboring town. And we can’t figure out why. Is it the same phenomenon as city dwellers who take their museums for granted and never go? Is it because we compare it to much nicer lakes in New Hampshire and Vermont?

Anyway on this trip we started going. On the second day in a row I started to think about the joy that only comes with doing the same thing over again, that sense of wholeness that's carved by ritual and repetition. After nap time, taking your suits off the line, packing a snack and heading to the lake. Setting up the towels and chairs in the same spot as the day before, seeing the same girl Abigail, and watching her with Wally make a giant bucket of soup with pine needles and acorns, waiting on the beach until you’re really good and hot then finally wading in, practicing handstands, swimming under the rope to the deeper part, then when you're waterlogged coming out for a snack of goldfish, wrapped in a towel, drinking a sip of water that has is now ridiculously hot. Another dip then lying back and watching the top of the evergreen trees against the blue sky. In a few hours it will be time to go home for dinner. You’ll wait to hear the sound of the garage going up, signaling that Pops is home from work. You’ll watch for fireflies on the porch after you eat, your bathing suit and towel hanging out on the line. You’ll take note of the moon, slightly bigger tonight than the night before, your tan lines, you notice as you slip into the shower, are a little more precise tonight. The changes, from the previous day, are incremental; things are happening not in a rush, not with the gale force wind of change, not with the stupor-inducing speed of "What just happened?" but slowly, slowly, by degrees. The days feel like they’re passing at the right rhythm. You can feel them passing. August 29th seems right. You’re one day closer to the end of summer, but that doesn’t matter really because you’re still subsumed under the vast honeysuckle waterlogged daydreamy weight of summertime. You’ve read your picture books--the same three from the night before, the only three you brought--and the house is quiet. As you rest in that liminal state before sleep, you can remember jumping off the dock, digging fairy castles with the girl Abigail, but it’s hard to separate the memory of one day from the other. Tonight the air is a bit cooler than it felt at some other point on this trip, maybe not last night, or the night before that, but definitely cooler than it felt in the beginning, when you first arrived. It brings with it the hint of another season, one which gives no other outward sign--everything is still green, cicadas are humming, fields of wildflowers growing ever so slightly now silently outside your window.


  1. You have captivated me with your description of the lakeside experience, and you even make the principle of Childhood Repetitiveness sweet and dreamy.

    I was fully adult when I realized that my memories of "every year" going on the train to my grandma's and eating carrots out of Grandpa's garden etc etc were actually very very few years. I'm sure some of my strongest memories of youth, and maybe especially Summer, were built from only a few repetitions - but I know you are right, there had to be repetitions.

    Sometimes I think it doesn't matter so much what the activities are, that children build these memories out of, as long as they are not hurried, and the grownups are loving.

    Thank you for a wonderful post.

  2. Thank you for your wonderful comment! You're so right, that those memories often are, when you stop and really catalogue them, created from only a few repetitions...maybe it's not only year to year ritual, but day to day rhythm that's essential. More to come...and looking forward to checking out your blog tomorrow


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