School’s out! Let the fun begin! That’s how I always viewed summer vacation when I was a kid.
Growing up, my family didn’t always have extra money, so traveling to exciting destinations during summer break was a rare thing. Instead, most summers were spent at home, playing in the backyard, riding our bikes, watching cartoons, swimming, and going to girl scout camp or my brother’s softball games. The days were long and lazy, spent barefoot exploring outdoors from early morning until dark. We danced in the rain, chased fireflies at night, built forts, climbed trees, faithfully participated in the library’s summer reading program, and enjoyed picnics at the public park.
Each summer, a special treat was to spend a week staying with each set of grandparents. When visiting my maternal grandparents, who lived nearby, my brothers and I were given a week to be their sole guests. And when visiting my paternal grandparents, who lived a few hours away in Iowa, all three of us kids went for the same week’s visit. I would say that most summer “vacation trips” for my brothers and me were spent in this way.
At our grandparent’s houses, we didn’t exactly do anything super extraordinary like go to movies or waterparks (which didn’t exist at the time.) We just lived alongside them and participated in their daily rituals, which were slightly different from our routines at home. The excitement for us was imagining living in another town, among other people, in different ways. Also, being our grandparents’ shadows for those weeks meant we heard about their childhood stories and how life had changed.
We were exposed to some of their older ways of living too. Like mowing the grass with an old-fashioned, motorless push mower, picking and canning fruits and vegetables from the garden, grandpa stuffing a smoking pipe with cherry tobacco, and grandma always wearing an apron when preparing food. Today’s children might find these things boring. Still, when I was young, it was magical and mysterious, and I looked forward to time with them every year. I think it’s important to give children opportunities to stay with family or even friends to be exposed to how others live, see new places, and imagine themselves in life beyond childhood as their parent’s pets.
My grandparents have been gone for decades now, and I’d give anything to step back to those simpler days and their sweet lives. Recently, my husband and I took a trip to South Dakota, and on the way, we passed through the town where my Grandfather and Grandmother Johnson had lived – my Dad’s boyhood home.
I made a quick detour from the highway bypassing the town and turned down a hazy but familiar old road – “Wildwood Drive.” Some things had changed on this street, but much of it was still recognizable. As I drew nearer and nearer to my grandparent’s old house, my heart raced, and tears began to form. I half expected to see my family waiting for me as if I was returning from a long trip.
At last, there it was. And I nearly missed it because things didn’t look quite right. The row of privet hedges that once surrounded the borders of their property had been removed. The grand old lilac bush at the corner of the house was gone—the flower beds filled with pink and purple petunias no longer bloomed along the foundation. Grandpa’s old Suburban wasn’t sitting in the driveway. The old awnings had disappeared from all the windows. And Grandma’s little concrete donkey pulling a cart no longer sat in the side yard.
Even more shocking was that the house had shrunk. It was only a fraction of the size of the old home that had once loomed larger than life in my mind – a home that could hold up to 13 people for a Thanksgiving dinner. Instead, the home that I was looking at was an imposter house that had sneakily taken the place of something special and sacred — a magic place that seemed to have evaporated. I was in total disbelief. The feeling that the past had been better and things should never have changed washed over me. Sometimes, it is hard to reconcile a beautiful beloved past with the reality of the present and to realize the power that LOVE has in shaping our memories and defining our truths.
As I turned the car back toward the highway, I took a long last look at 423 Wildwood Drive. The house that was there was simply a placeholder – an artifact of another time. The place I’d hoped to see no longer existed. But it’s safely being cared for in my mind, along with beautiful memories of my precious childhood summers.
And so it goes — we grow up and grow older. People and things we love change and eventually go away. But the happy news is that summer keeps returning, and new grandchildren are born for grandparents waiting with open arms every day.
For this month’s Recommended Reads, check out: The Frank Show, written and illustrated by David Mackintosh (Harper Collins/2012.) I recently discovered this book about a boy that has to take his grandfather to school for show and tell with the class, and he feels his grandfather is very dull, but boy does he get a surprise. It’s laugh-out-loud funny. And for some simple summer fun with the kids, use my Summer Fun Checklist found on the Activities page.