Summertime memories: sprinklers to water parks


The older I get, the more vividly I remember my childhood and the more likely I am to compare my childhood with my kids’. When I was a child, summer meant enjoying a long break from school by doing as little as possible, enduring extreme heat (I grew up in Florida before air conditioning was prevalent), and getting a real thrill from running through sprinklers or playing in my backyard kiddie pool.

Most of the pleasures of my childhood summers consisted of small, messy activities like eating watermelon at a backyard picnic. I would slurp the ripe fruit from the rind, letting the juice run down my arms, spitting the seeds, then getting hosed down before being allowed in the house. For my kids, the pleasure in watermelon comes only from its taste. They prefer it cut in small squares or balls, and even then they consider what few seeds they encounter a nuisance.

Instead of running through the sprinklers or chasing each other with the garden hose, my kids get their thrills at water parks. But when going to a water park is out of the question, they still have the option of swimming in our neighborhood pool, a vast improvement over the plastic kiddie pool I once used. Just to find a clear spot to step into my plastic pool, I’d have to skim off layers of oak leaves, pine straw and drowning beetles. My kids are disgusted if they encounter one small bug floating anywhere near them in the huge, chlorinated pool.

When I was a kid, summer activity meant riding bikes, Monopoly marathons and playing pick-up ball in a vacant field. In contrast, my kids spend most mornings sleeping late or lounging in air-conditioned comfort until it’s time to be chauffeured to golf lessons, baseball practice, karate, gymnastics. At each activity, if they work up a thirst, a sports drink, soda or spring water are readily available. My husband recalls how when he was a kid, he and his teammates, after Little League games, would grapple with one another to be the first to guzzle a few mouthfuls of lukewarm hose water. For our boys’ team, after each ball game, parents take turns bringing coolers packed with drinks and candy bars.

Then there are beach outings. I remember my childhood visits to the beach with my parents and siblings. All eight of us would pile into a station wagon, and we’d drive an hour each way to spend the day playing in the surf and sand or sunbathing on beach towels, eating gritty peanut butter sandwiches and drinking watery Kool-aid. Bright pink with sunburn and sticky from salt water, we’d drive home with the car windows down, sweat and sand cementing us to the upholstery and to one another crammed in the back seat. Nowadays, families erect huge tents on the beach, under which they place a half dozen lounge chairs, add a volleyball net nearby, an assortment of beach toys, rented bikes and individually wrapped snacks and juice boxes. My kids live less than 10 miles from the beach, yet they usually prefer to go to the pool because the beach is “so much trouble.”

And, in my youth, when outdoor activities were exhausted, one of the greatest pleasures was to visit the library where just the cold, sweet smell of so many books under one roof was enough to inspire me to want to check out a dozen. These days, kids are enticed to the library by summer reading programs that consist of free refreshments, prizes, magic shows, arts and crafts, and other special events, not to mention awards for the top readers.

I don’t begrudge my children these summer luxuries and activities. Compared to our parents’ generation, we baby boomers were pampered, too. In my children’s case, however, I worry that all the activities of their summer are not the stuff of which fond memories are made. Such busyness can create its own version of stress; such pampering, an unhealthy brand of laziness. Somewhere in the midst of their organized fun, I wish for my children the leisure and opportunity to find pleasures in the details of summer.

For the sake of sweet memories, I hope they discover the possibilities contained in simple things, like watermelon seeds, sand, the pages of a good book.

Mary Hood Hart lives in Calabash, N.C., with her husband, Jim, and their four children, ages 7 to 15.