Generations of Summer

This article was first published in the Island Word in September, 2010. 

Summer is almost over, and the glorious, profligate colors of September–as though all the year’s paint supply had to be flung about with abandon, quickly—cannot quite erase the fact that November will be here soon. Everything has its season, and blackberry season means that the days of sleeping in without an alarm clock, of reading in the hammock, of tubing on the river, and of having the kids to ourselves are gone until next year.

At least we know that it comes back again. The seasons of fruits and blossoms are reassuringly perennial. And so, in some ways, are the seasons of going though human lives. But while we spiral around the calendar years, we also get older. By our fifties, we find that odd paradox of time, where events of thirty years ago can seem as close as yesterday morning, and yet they are also far removed and irretrievable. Summers for us bring visits “home” to Serena’s Midwestern states, where she pours over photographs with her mother, nuzzles the clan’s latest baby, and wonders over the changes that time brings. When her own grandparents seem, in her memory, to be always in their early sixties, it takes her by surprise that she is now part of the grandparent generation in her family. Two generations have passed since she and her cousins were photographed on the front porch of Harold and Phyllis Patterson’s home in Jacksonville, Illinois. The babies that she greeted with such joy as a new auntie are now starting careers and families of their own. The children that she went to school with are plump and middle-aged; the college rebels are established business people looking toward retirement.

When we were young, we thought that the world was made up of two kinds of people: the old, and the young. Lucky us—we were on the right side of that one! Getting old ourselves was highly theoretical. Our music would never be the subject of nostalgia—how could The Stones ever be played in the lobby of the Old Folk’s Home? “I can’t get no…Satisfaction” would always refer to sex, drugs and rock and roll; never to prune juice, bowel movements and rocking chairs. And this is true—our generation has the satisfaction (no pun intended) of hearing our music still being played, and loved, by the restless young. It was created out of glorious rebellion and it still feels naughty and brave like a 20-year-old. Maybe that’s what is so confusing. The soundtrack is still here, so where did the moving picture go?

Our children turned 10, 13 and 24 this summer. G. has lost her baby face, but is still in the magical time of a Tom Sawyer childhood. Just getting some freedom, she is off on her bicycle or wading in the creek, with her best dog at her side. T., crossing the threshold into adolescence, has new, sharp angles where round cheeks used to be. He looks down on us from his proud height of over five foot six, and he has the upper body strength to make us glad that we have a big boy to help with the yard work. We tell him that stacking wood is good body development for football. And L., who once flew from the nest driven by rebellion and the desire to get as far from home as possible, now calls twice a week for long talks, whether she needs us to send money or not.

Summers are not an endless resource. We only have a few in which to create these memories of time-out-of-time. Yes, it will be nice to have some child-free hours again, but somehow school seems to pull them away from us, gradually washing out the strength of connection gained in these two long months together. Peers and sports and kid-culture beckon. We become the setters of limits, and the adjunct support system for goals set by other people; the coach, the French teacher, the best friend with a birthday party. We don’t set the rhythm, and we struggle to keep time to that outside beat. Summers are to be savored, and, if we could, we would can them like peaches to line our pantry shelves.

Seeing photographs of our parents, we are both struck that they were most beautiful in their thirties, when we were small. Now their beauty and dignity are very different, and, on some days, hard to see. Serena’s mother wants to delete every photograph of herself, declaring “that is not me,” at the thin hair, the under-the-chin “wattle”, and the facial expression that is somewhere between what she intended and what her Parkinson’s disease will allow. Monika’s mother is a fit and energetic woman in her 70’s, and therefore the changes are less dramatic. But there is a loss in realizing that we can’t rewind the tape and bring them back as we remember them, when they were the heart of the family, the place where we could bring our needs and receive sustenance in return. As we acknowledge that the summers we spend with them are now numbered, our mothers are very beautiful indeed to us; the soft translucence of their skin, the stories that they carry, the knowledge that such a source of love for us is still here, a touch or a phone call away.

Yes, summers give us the long days and twilights when time plays funny, non-linear tricks on us. We finally really “get it” that everyone starts out a fat little baby, then has a childhood when their innocence makes them worthy of every hope and every good wish. Then comes youth, when they are at height of their physical strength and the power of their sexuality runs strong and wild. Most of us continue along to become middle aged and, ultimately, elderly. Our rebellions become quaint in the eyes of the young, and they can’t quite believe that we were, still are, in tune with the longing and rage of Rock and Roll. It’s the way of families, the way of generations. It’s the way it’s supposed to be.

As fall and winter approach, we will be putting limits on the activities that structure our children’s schooling and free time to include only age-peers. We will seek out events and places that welcome us across the generations, bringing together old and young. We will continue to swim against the tide of age-segregation and try to allow our children to be woven in, securely, to the full tapestry of a community.

Are you listening, school and recreation workers? Churches and businesses and city planners? Let us have supper hours and Sunday mornings free from sports practices. Offer more multi-generational activities. We love the outdoor exercise park, the river walkway, the outdoor amphitheatre of Simms Park, and all the safe places that have been created or set aside for people to gather naturally for games or without a set program—keep these happening. And moms, dads, grandparents, aunties and uncles? Remember that what you offer is at least as valuable as Cadets or a sports team. Don’t let these activities, as valuable as they are, replace you as your children grow into being pre-teens and adolescents. Keep age-segregated activities in their place, as secondary adjuncts to family life.