As the stay-at-home parent of school-age children, I get to revisit this trove of summertime emotions every year with an intensity that almost matches how I felt about summer as a child. When my children were younger, my summers were not particularly fun—school provided essential structure for them and much-needed free time for me; without those two things, summer was a dangerous void, like a family weekend with no plans that stretched on for three long months. I’d guess we city dwellers, lacking even the built-in release valve of sending our children out to play in the yard, feel this especially keenly.
But now that I have older kids, who don’t need my constant attention, are happy to attend camp, and can play in a pool for hours, summers have regained the gorgeous glow I remember. Unlike other seasons, summer is poignant to its very core; even as it begins, we are all too aware that it will end. Summer romances, summer tans, summer camp—everything we accomplish or enjoy in summer is by definition impermanent, has a tearful ending built in as a precondition of its existence. And summer’s ephemerality makes it so much lovelier while it lasts.
© Courtesy Zanthe Taylor
Summer memories and experiences are somehow more individual, more definitive than what we do at other times of the year. Released from the lockstep of sports schedules and academic deadlines, sometimes liberated even from our usual homes and pathways, summers allow us to explore and broaden, to imagine ourselves in chrysalis form, to remake our identities. New Year’s resolutions were nothing compared to the resolutions I once made in July and August about how to be different and better come the new school year. Snipped from all the usual strings and expectations, I spent summers floating blissfully between all the potential selves I could imagine or become. I was free in every sense, even from myself.
Summers were identity-defining for people my age: Were you a camp kid? A pool lifeguard? Did you hang out with your friends at the lake, the drive-in, the beach? Did you do summer stock, or hike the Grand Teton? Even summer jobs had a kind of glamour that regular ones lacked: You could try on a semblance of adult life without worrying about it as a career path. I wonder whether or not the pressure to accomplish something tangible—or at least look like you did—will eventually ruin summers for our children. Will summer still evoke nostalgia if you spent it interning at an investment bank or hunched over a Bunsen burner?
Many parents my age bemoan the competitive culture we’ve created, and it seems cruelest in summers if kids craft resumes instead of lanyards, attend summer school instead of daydreaming, work in air-conditioned offices instead of being a camp counselor. I devoutly hope we parents, in this faster-paced, overachieving age, can let summers remain a space for exploration, freedom, laziness and, most of all, for creating the precious, fragile memories that will float with our kids for the rest of their lives.