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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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.