I need to come clean: Although I’ve written on this topic in a variety of ways before, I’ve always beat around the bush, obscured my true feelings, tried to be polite. But I think it’s time to be honest, to come right out and say it:
I don’t like summer.
Having made such a blunt statement of fact, I feel the need to walk it back immediately, to be more diplomatic: Summer’s not my favorite season, but it has many excellent features.
But I won’t do it; I’m going to let my opinion stand strong and clear. The truth is that even though I’ll have to start packing school lunches, rousting kids out of bed before it’s light, and spending all afternoon driving between sports practices and music lessons, I rejoice whenever we round the corner to Labor Day.
Just two weeks ago, I wrote a column about how my husband – always on the lookout for new ways our family can have fun together – had outfitted all seven people in our family with bicycles. I ended that column with the line: “And now my husband is starting to dream about inflatable kayaks, so perhaps we’ll see you on the water, too!”
This past week, my mother- and father-in-law flew in from California for a visit. After my husband picked them up from Burlington Airport, he swung by Costco for what has become the Traditional Post-Airport Shopping Binge. Usually they come home bearing a couple of rotisserie chickens, industrial-sized bags of baking soda, and trays of croissants large enough to feed the population of Rhode Island.
They came home with all of that, but this time they had an inflatable kayak, too.
The inflatable paddleboard arrived the next day, and another inflatable paddleboard is en route.
I would play music in the house and in the car. I listened to music as I walked or ran the streets of New York City, Berkeley, and our neighborhood in Vermont – first on a portable CD player, then on various incarnations of the iPod. My life had a soundtrack.
I used to go to concerts.
My relationship with my future husband began when we attended an Indigo Girls concert together. We went on to see Diana Krall perform twice, the Dave Matthews Band, Elvis Costello, the Black Crowes, U2, Bob Dylan, and numerous orchestral concerts and operas.
I used to follow singers and bands and get excited when their newest albums were released.
The last album that I was aware of – the album I downloaded and listened through as soon as it dropped — was Babel by the British folk rock band Mumford & Sons. It was released in 2012, nearly a decade ago.
It will probably not surprise you to learn that 2012-2013 – the year the music died — was the year our family got a puppy and the year I gave birth to our fourth child. These two events catapulted our house into a new level of happy chaos that drowned out the music.
I am writing this column on the afternoon of the day after Christmas, while the rest of my family are playing video games out in the yurt.
Every word of the previous sentence was made possible by my husband. For starters, he participated in the creation of “the rest of my family” – our children. And since their arrival, he has devoted a significant portion of his substantial brain power to dreaming up ways to keep them playing. (Our children have him to thank for the treehouse, trampoline, and ice rink. Plans for a zipline are in the works, I hear).
The yurt was my husband’s vision, anticipating the day when our adolescent children would long for a semi-private space to hang out with friends (and when we’d want that space to be as close to home as possible). It was built in December 2019, before we had adolescent children or a pandemic. Now that we have both, the yurt has become a key ingredient to our family’s sanity: a detached space with great ventilation where we’ve hosted numerous small gatherings in ways that felt safe. I like to think of it as my husband’s Field of Dreams(“If you build it, they will come.”).
Of course, an empty yurt isn’t much fun. Once the yurt was erected, my husband shifted his focus to filling it (or, more accurately, convincing generous grandparents to fill it). Christmas of 2019 brought us a foosball table. Last Christmas we were gifted a digital projector and large screen, so that we could watch movies out in the yurt.
And this Christmas, it was video games in the form of a Nintendo Switch.
Like most pivotal events, it started with a simple question: “Mommy, are they doing the gingerbread houses again?”
By “they,” my daughter was referring to the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury, which has hosted the annual Gingerbread House Competition for the past 23 years. Individuals and families create gingerbread houses reflecting the year’s theme, and community members vote for their favorite entries. Usually, the houses are displayed at the Folklife Center, but for the past two years the competition has been virtual, with photos of entries available for viewing online.
Viewing the year’s gingerbread houses has become a favorite holiday tradition for our family: Every year my children look forward to seeing the amazing and beautiful things that people create out of edible materials. Every year, they say, “We should enter next year!” And every year, I have successfully deferred our actual involvement in creating a gingerbread house – until now.
This was not an irrational desire: The first flakes of snow often begin falling sometime around Halloween. But this year, nature was not going to reward my girl with instant gratification.
She and her sister made a “snow potion,” which they poured on our lawn while chanting incantations. She wrote poems about snow, prayed for snow at the dinner table. She broke a chunk of ice off a frozen puddle in one of our driveway’s potholes and stored it in our freezer as a sort of talisman. She wrote a list of things for which she was grateful and inserted “snow” between each item.
Still, nothing happened. The leaves fell from the trees, ushering in our “stick season” of bare grey branches against a slate sky above dead brown fields. The days grew darker. Snowflakes appeared on the forecast, only to turn to rain. My daughter’s emotions ranged from abject despair to frustrated rage.
We assured her that snow would come, as it does every winter. We reminded her of the video my husband filmed on the Snowbowl chairlift last March, in which she says, “I’m ready for it to stop snowing now!”
“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it!” she howled heavenwards.
The holiday season for our family begins at Halloween and passes through Thanksgiving and Christmas before culminating on New Year’s Eve. During that same timespan we also celebrate three birthdays, so it feels like two-and-a-half months of continual celebration, which is both wonderful and exhausting.
We’ve accumulated a series of traditions that anchor these holiday celebrations: things we “always do,” things we “have to do,” lest the holidays not feel properly acknowledged. On the one hand, I love having family traditions that my children will recall with nostalgia: Halloween pumpkin carving and pizza at their grandparents’ house before trick-or-treating, the annual Thanksgiving football game and play, carrying our Christmas tree home from our neighbors’ farm, cookie decorating and beeswax candle-making, our enormous 25-candle Advent wreath (one candle for each day of December) and the gigantic smoke cloud it generates when extinguished for the final time.
But I’ll be honest: Sometimes I feel like I’m a hostage to our traditions. The things we “always have to do” dance around on my cluttered mental to-do list throughout the holidays, torturing me with whispers of parental guilt: If you can’t fit me in, you’ll be letting down your kids. This will always be remembered as the year we DIDN’T (bake cookies/see the train display/have a Thanksgiving play). After ALL they’ve missed out on during the pandemic, can you really disappoint them like this?
And that is why, a week before Halloween, I realized that we had to find a way to shoehorn a visit to the corn maze into a busy weekend.
If you were reading this column back in 2020, you may remember that my “word for the year” – which I chose instead of making a New Year’s resolution – was “THRIVE.”
When 2020 began, our baby boy had just been given the diagnosis of “failure to thrive.” This, combined with a mysterious respiratory virus, resulted in two hospital stays between December 2019 and January 2020, one of which involved the horrific experience of having our two-month-old intubated in the ICU. We needed to help him thrive; not only that, but our entire shaken family needed to figure out how to thrive together.
In retrospect, the word seems like an ironic choice: Two months later, COVID hit.
In many ways our family did thrive in 2020, just not in the ways I might have predicted. Our little boy was the most obvious success: The months of lockdown kept him from getting sick while he gained weight and strength. He is now a hefty, active toddler. The rest of us worked hard to thrive as a family through the disappointment of cancelled plans and the monotony of housebound days. We tried to adopt behaviors that would keep ourselves and others safe during an unknown and rapidly changing pandemic situation, while still attempting to prioritize things that aided our mental, emotional, social, physical, and spiritual health.
It was exhausting. And when the year ended, I looked around and realized that I had two adolescents in the house who were struggling to thrive.
Our family has now logged in eight straight weeks of summer vacation. We have spent countless sultry days at the lake, eaten gallons of ice cream, lit sparklers, chased fireflies. Our annual trip to the Maine coast has come and gone. I am tired of weeding the garden. My daughters have stayed up late binge watching “The Clone Wars” so often that it feels routine. “What are we doing today?” they ask each morning, and – although much of what I thought we’d do this summer has been left undone – I am running out of ideas. School remains weeks away.
The dog days: In our house, they aren’t so much about the weather as they are about a fuzzy, sultry, oppressive state of mind.
This year, however, my daughters have taken the concept of the dog days literally, by renewing their campaign for a puppy.
The weather never seems to be normal lately: too wet or too dry, too cold or too hot, record this, record that. It could be that there never really was a “normal” – that weather is just prone to dramatic fluctuations from year to year. Or it could be that climate change is ramping up in earnest, like they’ve always said it would. Whatever the reason, it’s probably a good idea to pay attention.
I’m not always good at paying attention to things that aren’t screaming for my attention. But this year, the weather has gotten pretty close to screaming at me through a series of violent storms.
Most dramatic was the tornado that ripped across our property in late March, toppling power lines and our neighbors’ buildings. Two months later, to the day, a severe thunderstorm blew down trees in downtown Middlebury and knocked out our power for about 15 hours – notable because it was the day of our daughters’ piano recital on Zoom, necessitating a scramble to find a location that still had power.
Those two storms made us twitchy enough that when we got the bulletin about another severe thunderstorm headed our way last week, we sprang into action. This storm had a buildup that lasted for hours. As scary-looking clouds mounted in the sky, my husband cooked dinner at 3 p.m. in case we lost power, and I walked the dog through powerful wind gusts.
Our efforts were puny compared with those of our neighbors, who were haying our field.