Today I watched as 100 kids splashed through a field that was turned into a giant puddle by a fire truck spraying a constant stream of water overhead. A hillbilly splash pad, if you will. Our local library and our city fire department sponsor the annual ‘Splash Day,’ and it is always a big hit. The truck’s water made a giant cascading arch under which the children ran, slid, jumped, splashed, chased, and laughed for a full hour. It was one heck of a sprinkler. Everywhere I looked, there were barefooted children covered in grass, soaked from head to toe and grinning from ear to ear. Groups of friends who hadn’t seen each other since school let out in early June were reunited for an afternoon. Younger brothers and sisters who tentatively followed their older siblings around at the beginning of the hour soon grew brave and ventured out to jump in their own puddles. Little girls held hands and screamed as they ran to the middle. Little boys competed to see who could slide the farthest on their bellies in the mud.
The closest thing to a planned activity or a structured event occurred when the guys who work for the city (Dads and Uncles themselves) pulled up to the field in an ATV loaded down with water balloons to pass out to the kids. There weren’t any instructions to go along with the handout. The kids weren’t required to line up and play catch with them or even wait in line to get their balloon. It was a free for all both during and after the handout – and it was awesome. Five minutes of an all-out, take no prisoners water balloon war, reminiscent of the epic dodge ball games played in gym class back in the good old days—before safety concerns and overbearing adults got in the way of all the fun.
My greatest summer memories growing up contain those same ingredients. Many hot days were spent at the beach with my mom and dad, uncles and aunts, siblings and cousins. We would pack a cooler and stay for hours, digging moats and swimming to the sandbar. I remember building giant sandcastles and adding embellishments with items we found on the beach: driftwood for drawbridges, rocks for walkways, and old cigarette butts for staircases (boy, times have changed, haven’t they?). There was no structure to the day besides the obligatory hike up the sand dune. And we only brought one toy – a football to play catch in the lake.
As we got older, we rolled out our towels farther down the beach from our parents, basking in the sun and a tiny bit of freedom. One particular memory involves my best friend and I when we were 13 years old, sitting on our towels about 20 yards away from my dad who had volunteered to be our chauffer and chaperone for the day (a thankless job when you are dealing with teenage girls). My little sister soon joined us and was receiving a first-hand lesson in gossip when we saw two cute boys headed in our direction. My friend leaned over and whispered, “Let’s tell them we’re 16.” And in the same low voice and with all sincerity, my nine year old sister added, “Tell ‘em I’m 10.”
That’s what you do when you have all the right ingredients—you grow. You dig your toes into the earth and you plant your feet on solid ground. You gain strength and energy from the rays of the sun and you lift your face toward its warmth. You find renewal in the cleansing power of the rain, and learn to dance in it too. The warm breeze that carries the smell of lilacs and lavender can chase away even the biggest worries. Ah, to have many summers is a privilege denied to many and its simple pleasures are enjoyed by too few.
There is an organic beauty in a minimalistic summer composed of those four life-sustaining ingredients. Mother Nature knew what she was doing when she sent the soft summer rain to cool off the dog days of July and the sun’s afternoon encore to dry the blades of grass for the evening picnic. Should you doubt the power of those four simple elements on the demeanor of your children, simply hook a cheap sprinkler up to an old garden hose and place it out in your yard. Then sit back in your lawn chair and watch the magic happen. No need to coordinate or orchestrate. They will leap and race and slide and giggle all on their own. The less intervention the better. Kids and plants grow best when they have the space to stretch out their branches.
A few years back, we were spending a late summer evening with family at a relative’s house while my grandfather was spending his last days surrounded by those who loved him the most. My grandpa was a man who lived his life outdoors and instilled a love of nature in many of his descendants. From him I learned how to make maple syrup, boil sassafras tea, identify a Dogwood tree (by it’s bark), and call back to a katydid. We spent thousands of hours walking through trails in the woods or fishing in a canoe or just sitting on the grass talking. He didn’t need much more than water, soil, air, and sun to make life worth living and to make memories with his grandkids.
While we kept a round-the-clock watch by his bedside, a few of the adults ventured outside in the cool air to watch the kids stretch their legs in a fierce game of freeze tag. In the midst of the match, some of the kids trampled right through my Aunt Marcia’s beautiful flowerbed. The parents quickly made a move to reprimand their children but before they could get out a full sentence, my Aunt (and my grandpa’s sister) turned to the parents and said, “Let those babies be, they aren’t hurting anything. We grow kids here, not flowers.”
You bet we do. We grow kids. We grow right along with them too. And, if we’re lucky, we will get to enjoy many summers growing together. We don’t need all the trappings of the modern world to enjoy it either. All we need is already outside our front door. A sunburned nose and dirty toes, windblown hair and water everywhere, proof of a summer well lived.