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Summer seems irrevocably associated with childhood, so perhaps it's inevitable, as the dog days descend upon us and I struggle to find ways to entertain my hot, bored children, that my mind turns often to my own carefree childhood summers.  My thirty-fourth birthday is approaching fast and my childhood memories are taking on the yellow tone of a faded photograph.  Those long summers, in which I wandered widely and with impunity, seem distant and obsolete, now that I'm the one in charge, and I'm afraid to let my kids out of the backyard without an escort.  

No doubt about it, the world was different then.  It wasn't necessarily safer, but we felt more secure, especially in the small East Texas towns my grandparents lived in, where everything seemed to run about a decade behind the bigger cities.  When I was staying with my grandparents, I was theoretically supposed to stay within shouting distance, but so long as I turned up for meals, no one seemed to notice how far afield I wandered. 

The best times were when my cousins were visiting as well, and together we concocted crazy plans and ill-advised schemes.  None of us thought of wearing a watch; the passage of time was marked by the botanical clock of my grandmother's garden and the rigidly scheduled mealtimes.  After breakfast, we rushed out the door past brilliant blue morning glories and flaming orange day lilies.  We put pennies on the train tracks and waited breathlessly on the hillside, our hands over our ears to dull the roar of the train passing in a rush of hot air, and ran to the tracks to claim the pennies, scalding to the touch and twisted into odd shapes.  When the flowers began to droop in the heat, it was time for dinner (elsewhere known as lunch), followed by a walk across the highway to the gas station, where we bought coke icees and sugary juicy-fruit gum.  In the stifling heat of the afternoon, we jury-rigged fishing poles out of sticks and twine, and tied bacon to the ends to catch crawdads in the creek, cooling off in the shaded water.  Purple four o'clocks indicated that supper time was coming, and we'd better head for the bathroom to wash up.  After supper (consumed by the men at the dining room table and by the women and children in the living room, plates balanced on our laps), we sat outside watching the fragrant moonflowers opening up.  The grown-ups rocked in the metal gliders, drinking their after-dinner coffee and repeating decades-old gossip, and the mosquitoes devoured our bare arms and legs, in spite of the lethal amounts of Off our parents had doused us with.  When evening, moving as sluggishly as everything else in the damp heat, had slowly given way to night, my grandfather scared and thrilled us with his ghost stories, then we slept two and three to a bed and more on the floor in pallets, whispering and giggling until the adults threatened to separate us.  

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When it was just me and my baby brother visiting my grandparents, I hid under the juniper tree, in the blue-green cave created by the branches arching down to the ground, and ate pilfered Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies and reread my favorite books, sprinkling crumbs in the bindings and dotting the pages with greasy stains.  Or I sprawled on my narrow bed, let the cool air from the droning air conditioner wash over me, and  wrote in the diary my grandmother had bought for me at the Five and Dime, faithfully recording the events of each day on the appropriate gilt edged page, and then locking up my paltry secrets with the tiny key.

Desperate for company, I sometimes tried to lure the neighborhood children over to play with me, unaware of the racial anxieties I was stirring up.  Despite the civil rights movement of the sixties, virtual segregation was still in effect in rural East Texas.  My grandparent's house was, literally, on the wrong side of the tracks, situated on the edge of the "quarter" where all the African-Americans in town lived.  My grandparent's ideas about race were the perplexing muddle typical of many Southerners from their generation: an acceptance of institutionalized racism, a kind of friendship with and paternalistic concern for some African Americans (although, of course, that was not my grandparent's term -- they said the "n word" freely and with little awareness of its offensiveness, despite my mother correcting them, in a particularly long-suffering tone, after every usage), and suspicion and fear of the recent changes in race relations.  Coming from a more integrated environment, I was unaware of such concerns, and couldn't understand why the neighboring children were so wary of me.  Occasionally, I was able to sweet-talk them into my grandmother's house with promises of cookies and milk, only to have my horrified grandmother banish my playmates when she discovered us piled up in her guestroom bed, leaving crumbs and mud all over the frilly pink bedspread.   

During the school year, adults were everywhere, directing our progress and governing our movements.  But in memories of my childhood summers, adults are peripheral at best.  Left to our own devices, we made our own fun, sometimes taking risks that earned us spankings if we got caught, sometimes picking fights or engaging in petty cruelty out of boredom.  We whispered secrets to one another, shared information the adults might not have been ready for us to have, and inadvertently spread misinformation.  We discovered who we were, apart from our parents.  It seemed to be another world, like something from one of my favorite books -- a secret place that only children knew how to find.  The adults were an intrusion in our world, and one that generally heralded the end of the fun.  

Maybe it's just a difference in perspective, but I feel like I'm much more present in my children's lives.  They expect me to be more involved in their games, and to engineer their activities for them; this is natural, given the limits that I've placed on them.  The impromptu get-togethers of my childhood have been replaced by organized play-dates.  The packs of children that roamed the streets in the summertime are safely ensconced in daycare programs and summer activities.  We're more aware of all the ways unsupervised children can be harmed, and even if my children had older cousins to play with, I'd be leery of letting them wander for hours (not to mention crossing train tracks and a busy highway) without checking in with an adult.   

In some ways, I'm glad to be more involved in my children's lives, and I enjoy the time I spend playing with them.  Still, I can't help but feel that something has been lost to them. Stuck with me, they're forced to live by the speedier pace of the adult world and to pursue the activities that are palatable to me, rather than flying off wherever their fancy takes them.  I don't want to indulge in rose-colored nostalgia -- I realize that in many ways the world is a better, more equal place than it was in my childhood -- but I wish I could provide my children with some measure of that summer independence and freedom from adult interference.
About the Author:

Melissa Lipscomb lives in Austin with her children Drew, Franny, Alec and husband Adam. Some days she feels like she's figuring out, and others she's just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Send feedback for Melissa to disturbance@austinmama.com and visit her blog


I I I I I I I  

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