As a child in the late ’90s, I associated summer with a greater connection to community. In our suburban neighborhood, everyone emerged in May like groundhogs, very pale and slightly shell-shocked, after the interminable Pittsburgh winter.
The change in energy was palpable. Instead of running, head down, into their houses, neighbors stopped to chat on the sidewalks while walking dogs or pushing kids in strollers. “Flamingo Fridays” became a weekly staple: A ghastly plastic bird planted in a front yard on Monday signaled that the back patio would be open for cocktails and appetizers that Friday night. Preteens traveled in packs from one house to another, calling their parents (from a landline, of course) only to let them know they’d be eating lunch at a friend’s house. The same wandering pack would end up at another address for dinner with little-to-no notice. In the summertime, we had little sense of boundaries — and that’s how we liked it.
Now I live in the South where summer starts much earlier (and with much more force), and with it comes fond memories of my childhood summers. I know I am not alone: Lately, I’ve had conversations with friends whose most formative childhood memories are rooted in summertime.
But why? What is it about summer, specifically, that’s so indelibly stamped in our childhood memories?
In part, I think it could be the relaxed schedule and longer days. A lighter workload and a more forgiving family schedule give the gift of extra time for leisure and the benefit of each other’s greater availability.
But I think it goes to a level deeper. Summer offers us the space to collectively take a deep breath. To pause. To recognize and acknowledge that we were made for seasons of rest just as much as those of working, growing, stretching, pushing, and striving. The other three seasons of the year offer ample opportunities for growth, productivity, work, and structure.
We collectively view fall as a return to routine, winter as a chance to hunker down, and spring as a time to clean up, clear out, and start fresh. But summer doesn’t beg for our attention or efforts in the same ways. There’s no school carpool line. No one’s cleaning boxes out of the attic when it’s 115 degrees outside. And with the whole family home during the day, there’s a lot less time to ruminate or hand-wring over the issues and challenges that tend to preoccupy us during different times of the year. Summer gives us the space to be with each other, whether to celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks and pomp, or simply to pass the longer, more ordinary days together.
I think summer exists to remind us not only of our need for each other but of how much we can really enjoy each other. How much simply gathering can bring immense joy and great pleasure. I remember Flamingo Fridays, for instance, as a rare opportunity to see all of my friends gathered in one place, with nowhere to go and nothing to do except play, run, and eat sugar behind our parents’ backs. I remember the long days as a chance to jump on the trampoline until my knees ached, to run barefoot through the yard, to beg for just “five more minutes!” at the pool, over and over. And I remember a perennial, aching sadness when the sharp chill returned to the evening air and the music of crickets was replaced with the hum, puff, and squeal of school buses on our street. It felt something was being lost; like we were all being sucked into the outgoing tide and pulled out to the sea of calling and duty, avocation, and responsibility.
My hope for my two young children is that summer represents the same connection, the same grounding in community, that it did for me. I pray the memory of grass stains and grilled food, get-togethers, and game nights, will be a mooring that reminds them of what is truly good, what really matters when life’s responsibilities start to press on their hearts.
And my hope for all of us world-weary adults is that as we grow more and more isolated, polarized, and chronically lonely as a society, we remember that we were made for community — and lest we forget, there is a season of the year specifically made to remind us of that.