Facing Summer Vacation, 2003

My son Noah is down the road at the horse farm unloading hay with his dad and two hired hands in their early twenties. At thirteen, Noah doesn’t have quite the heft or height of Caleb and Grant, but he tosses a hay bale smoothly and  hoists himself into the barn with the same loping confidence in his muscled body.  And yet, only a few minutes ago, he was the little boy in this essay about summer vacation . . . In some ways my summers are easier now than they were when I wrote this essay: I don’t have to entertain Noah, Jesse (in the dining room, layering his own backup vocals with a loop pedal) , or Lena (away on one of her many sleepovers). When they were little, with Adam farming, I had to parent full-time in the summer. No breaks, no options. Now I have more freedom, which means I am torn. I have work, I have my own writing, and I have a gnawing awareness that summers are brief and childhood is too. I should shut down my laptop for a while and go be with them. That’s why you’re getting an old essay today, and why I’ll be posting every two weeks during the summer instead of every week. I’m still trying to learn the lesson I meant to learn 11 years ago.

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Noah, age 2 1/2, ready for his first summer vacation.

Noah, age 2 1/2, dying for his first summer vacation.

This is my first summer on the dark side. The side that looks on the long days of July and August not as an endless stack of books next to a beach blanket, but as just plain endless. The words “summer vacation” used to make me shiver with anticipation; now they make me sweat with dread.

This is my first summer, in short, as the parent of a school-age child.

That child, faced with the first summer vacation of his life, is by contrast bouncy as a Beach Boy. I know I shouldn’t be surprised by this, but I am. Noah went to school a mere two mornings a week this year; Noah is only two and a half years old. He’s too young to open his own sandwich bag, but he’s stoked that school’s out. He’s so young, he has no idea what day it is—in fact, he has no idea what a day is. But he kept asking me, “Is this my last class, mommy, is this my last class?”

It’s true Noah went to school chiefly for his parents’ convenience, and also so that he might learn to share, to listen to his teachers, and to follow a schedule. But since the schedule in question went something like Free Play, Snack, Songs, Art, Playground, Lunch, Free Play with Bigger Toys, we assumed school would be as fun for him as it was useful for us.

We were wrong. “Is this my last class, mommy?”

“Is this my last class?”

Two weeks ago, I finally said “yes.” And I wondered, should a person feel so gloriously freed because he no longer has to finger paint and sing songs on Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 9:30 to 1? This is a person for whom “hitting the books” is a literal rather than figurative expression, a person for whom “cramming” refers to an effort to get his entire body into the cabinet in the plastic play kitchen. Why in the world is he so desperate for a vacation?

No matter how attractive school might be, the simple fact is he’d rather be home with us, rescuing trains from the predicaments into which he placed them, making me  play-dough cookies, climbing on his dad, burying his toes in his sandbox. Doing his thing. No matter how pleasant his class schedule, he didn’t choose it.

That’s my problem, too, I suppose. After all, should a person feel so terribly oppressed by two more mornings a week of hitching various toy vehicles to various other toy vehicles and searching in vain for a child whose legs are plainly sticking out from under a throw pillow? When it comes right down to it, that’s what I’m dreading: seven more hours a week of playing.

Noah is only two and a half. He doesn’t realize that one day his class schedule will be more like Geometry, U.S. History, PE, Lunch, English, Biology, French. (Or, if he goes to Worst-Case Scenario High: Complex Concepts While Half Asleep, Fascinating Topic Rendered Boring, Total Physical Humiliation, Unbearable Social Stress, and so on through 7th period: Legs and Butt Going Numb.)

He doesn’t know he should therefore savor an educational experience so focused on fun they call it “Rompers.” All he knows is he doesn’t want to get dressed and go to class.

But I’m older. I’m so old I dread summer vacation. So I know, and I should be able to keep in mind, that soon Noah will be busy with his own life and I will actually miss having to snatch his hat and run so he can chase me and put me in jail under the maple tree.

Sometimes at night when Noah—read to, watered, tucked in, rewatered—is still trying to deny bedtime, he throws a little pajama-clad arm around my neck and says, “Mommy, snuggle with me! All right? Just for a few minutes.” He’s got a baby’s high voice but an adult’s inflection; the way he says, “Just for a few minutes,” not whining, but with an air of reassurance, is hard to resist.

I resist. “No, honey,” I say, “it’s time for sleep. Here’s Teddy. I love you.” I kiss him and I leave, absolutely certain that one day, when Noah regards a goodnight kiss as an invasion of his personal space, I’m going to regret my hasty retreat. But I am desperate to read the newspaper. Or worse: Thumb through a catalog. Watch a Law and Order rerun.

I want what I want when I want it. What I need to learn is to want what I’ve got when I have it.

I’m pretty sure that class is on my summer schedule.

Adventure Saturdays & Other Traditions

nachosYears ago I instituted a family tradition called Adventure Saturdays. Every Saturday during the summer, the kids and I had to do something new: go to a new park or museum, try a new watersport or pool, and so on. When I was in a particularly orthodox mood, we couldn’t even stop along the way at their favorite diner—we had to find a new place and order something new.

Adventure Saturdays ran counter to the kids’ natural tendency to watch Finding Nemo for the zillionth time and eat chicken nuggets at every opportunity. They love to do exactly what they’ve done before; they resist what they haven’t. But I felt it was my job to make them try all sorts of things, if only to turn modern art and kayaking and Ethiopian food into things they’d done before.

In other words, I was determined make my kids’ future comfort zone as large as possible by pushing them out of their current one as often as possible. Not an easy job. Adventure Saturdays helped, because by requiring me to do it one day a week, they also allowed me not to do it on all the other days.

And, although the point was to break us out of routine, Adventure Saturdays paradoxically were themselves a routine, and therefore an easier sell to kids. “No, sorry, remember—it’s Adventure Saturday. We’ll go to the pool tomorrow. Today we’re going to Thomson’s Lake. Don’t make that face.” And then we went.

Kind of like going to church or lighting the Sabbath candles. If it’s just what you do as a family then your kids go along. Of course religions are particularly good at those routines (daily prayer, weekly service, annual holidays); it’s one of the reasons they’ve persisted beyond the need to explain thunder. But establishing your own family traditions is surprisingly easy, since the child’s natural craving for comfort and familiarity works in your favor.

Working against you is the fact that without co-religionists, without the culture-wide consensus that, say, church is just what you do on Sundays, it’s on you to keep your tradition going.

We don’t do Adventure Saturdays anymore. It’s on me. The kids got better at entertaining themselves, I got busier with work, and the weeks started going by so fast that I stopped wanting to do anything on a Saturday morning but drink my coffee and read backed-up issues of . . . everything. First the New Yorker and now even my bimonthly cooking magazines seem to come every day.

I haven’t dropped all family traditions. In fact, I recently emailed the mom of one of Lena’s friends to apologize for what I was about to feed her child:

fair warning: per tradition we are having a School’s Out dinner of french fries and nachos.        

Note the use of capital letters to reinforce the official nature of the meal and the word “tradition” to elevate fried potatoes and melted cheese into matters of great import. (Melted cheese definitely helps a tradition stick. It’s no coincidence that our one incontrovertible family holiday is International Pizza Day.)

I’m pretty sure I can keep School’s Out going; annual, I can handle. But I do kind of miss weekly. And I think the kids might too. Not long ago, Noah, organizing a Saturday morning meet-up at the park with some friends, turned to me brightly and said, “This is a good tradition.” He had done it before precisely once.

He yearns for routine, I guess. He also knows a good rhetorical tool when he hears one. To get to the park, he needs a ride; to get a ride, he needs to convince his mom to drive across town on a Saturday morning when, as we’ve established, she would rather be reading Fine Cooking. He’s using the word “tradition” to turn what he wants into a matter of great import.

Clever boy. Now he just needs to give it a name with capitals. And add cheese.

Cooking à l’américaine

MaudEven before I met Maud I was trying to impress her.  If you don’t know Maud (rhymes with ode), you’ll just have to trust me when I say that she inspires that kind of behavior. I noticed her the first time all the parents were summoned to the kindergarten class attended by her son and my daughter. She’s French, and I tend to be drawn to foreign-born parents at my kids’ school; expatriotism inspires a kind of alert thoughtfulness that I enjoy in a friend. Plus the food tends to be better at their houses.

Yes, that’s an assumption I share with Europeans: that Americans don’t care about food.

As someone who does care about food, I was determined that this charming French woman recognize me as un-American, culinarily speaking. I had my first chance when we were both chaperones on a class field trip to the grocery store. As we ambled through Produce, I made some disparaging remark to my daughter about out-of-season peaches, in the tone of voice people use when they’re pretending to talk to their children, but really are talking to the grown-ups within earshot. (You’re right, dear; it is bad to cut in line.)

It totally worked. (Or possibly she didn’t hear me.) Eventually we began to cook for each other and then with each other, and over the couple of years we got to spend together before she moved back to France, I felt I put at least a faint question mark after America’s decidedly bad food reputation.

But I never managed to seem un-American to Maud, because of this one characteristic that is, like the grin that Americans wear on the streets of Paris, a dead giveaway: my cheerful embrace of the culinary shortcut.

Americans love shortcuts. This is a country where you can buy premade, crust-less peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the freezer section. Where you can buy frozen pastry dough or pre-baked pie crusts or graham crackers pre-crushed to make it easier to make a graham cracker crust. Or—screw it—just a pre-made graham cracker crust. And that’s if you don’t just go ahead and buy the pie.

In France, it’s true, if you arrive at someone’s house for dinner toting a beautiful tart, chances are you didn’t make it. They have experts to whom they cede special tasks like macarons and financiers and pain de campagne. 

But they don’t buy pie at the supermarket and sandwiches at the convenience store. (Convenience store! We even put it in the name!)

Since I personally don’t buy pie at the supermarket, I felt I had a right to honorary European citizenship. I make my own mayonnaise, for goodness sake! But I still love a shortcut. Anything that helps me cook, but doesn’t do the cooking for me. Pre-peeled garlic to make salsa. Egg whites in a carton to make buttercream frosting. Bags of chocolate chips and pre-toasted almonds for piles of double chocolate biscotti.

Oh, you don’t think of chocolate chips as a shortcut? Just ask Maud. Apparently, due to the small but perceptible drop in quality that occurs when chocolate is pre-chipped, almonds are pre-toasted, and spinach is pre-washed, you’re not going to find that kind of American-style shortcut in France.  They have standards to uphold.

On the other hand, American-style working-all-the-time is on the uptick. This leaves passionate French cooks (such as Maud) in a quandary: They have to do all the prep-work and the chef-work after getting home from work-work at 7. What are they supposed to do, eat at 10? Mon dieu, this isn’t Spain.

Obviously, French people need to live in America in order to cook like proper French people.

Right, Maud?

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