Valley Parents: Making Memories for Our Children and Letting Them Decide

  • Eva Furman, 8, surfaces through a wall of bubbles after jumping from a small cliff into Lake Wood at Acadia National Park, Monday, July 30, 2018, near Bar Harbor, Maine. Furman, of Boca Raton, Fla., was spending the warm summer day cooling off at a popular swimming hole while on a family vacation. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

For Valley Parents
Friday, August 03, 2018

“What did you do on your summer vacation?”
It is a question we all hear, from earliest school to today. We spend a lot of time answering that question with broad, sweeping statements: “I went to Maine” or “We did a lot of camping.” But underneath those generalities, there is a more important question that we almost never ask: “What do you think you will remember about this summer vacation?”

The questions are very different, the first reserved for polite cocktail party conversation and back-to-school writing assignments. The second, however, is a totally different beast. I’ve been giving the latter question a fair amount of thought recently because, I hope, it will make me a better and more understanding parent.

Like many of you, I have spent a lot of evenings with my wife planning and plotting summer activities and adventures for our two sons, ages 5 and 7. We’ve got a few more years of this ahead of us before they start to come to us with their own ideas of what they want to do. We try to be pretty low-key about it, but it can be easy to get sucked down a path where one is trying to accomplish something on behalf of one’s children by choosing the “correct” experience for them to have. What parent among us hasn’t said, at one point or another, “He would have a great time at the circus” or “I’m sure they will love going for a hike”? We project an outcome on our children, hoping that, somehow, our mere prognostications will be powerful enough to stave off the chaos that is childhood.

It is really very foolish when you stop to think about it. As a child growing up in the Upper Valley, my summer vacations were spent playing, swimming, hiking, visiting family, going to Cape Cod, attending sports camps, and licking popsicles. I remember them as times of great peace and relaxation, but also times that were busy and fun. I would wager that my parents recall my summers as being largely the same. In this third summer that my family has been living back here after time in Boston and France, my children are having very similar summer vacation experiences to what I had, a trend I imagine will continue for the next five years or so.

But when we turn our attention to the second question, everything changes. For me, when I think about specific instances from my summers, all that gauzy, utopian scenery disappears in a flash, replaced by the individual, snapshot-in-time memories that are indelibly seared into my memory. They are a mix of fond and embarrassing, funny and scary at the same time. None of them have left any permanent damage, but, for whatever reason, I have never been able to shake them.

At hockey camp in Exeter, N.H., a coach used a stern tone to tell us players that we were not to leave the ice during practice. I took him so seriously that, over the course of an hour, I let what I thought were discrete amounts of urine out of my bladder, only to realize later that I had, officially, wet myself during practice. The heavenly taste of Snickers ice cream at Just Desserts is as fresh in my memory as yesterday. Playing my mom in pingpong in the basement of a rented house in Wellfleet, each victory entitling me to a book from the local bookstore. A terrifying dream of the Iron Sheik putting me into the Camel Clutch. In the wake of this year’s Norwich Fair, I am startled at how fresh my sensation of nausea is from a turn on the Yo-Yo more than 30 years ago. And the overriding memory of three years of sleep-away tennis camp is the Dutch pornographic magazine with an unprintable title that one of my cabin-mates brought to Roxbury, Vt. Needless to say, that is one memory that never made it into the camp’s promotional materials.

During our summer vacation this year, I told my sons that my birth father had died when I was 3. I had been meaning to tell them for a year or so, but could never quite build up the courage to do it. In July, on the 40th anniversary of his death, however, the time seemed ripe. I took the boys down a rocky path and just started talking. I tried to be careful with my words, expecting that my boys would have an immediate reaction, and that maybe the moment would live on in their memories for decades to come.

I should have known better. It was all over in a matter of a few minutes. My oldest walked ahead, humming, on the scent of the peanut butter covered pretzels we had left in the car. After a sniffle or two, my youngest began throwing rocks into a lazy river, each splash quickly followed by an, “Oh, yeah!” They have had no follow-up questions since. When I try to imagine what they will really remember from this summer, I confess it probably isn’t our discussion about the death of a man they share blood with but will never meet. It may be the sensation of jumping off the diving board into the deep end for the first time without floaties at Storrs Pond or the candy that I snuck into the movie theater that we shared, like a band of innocuous criminals. Perhaps it will be that circus, though not for the reasons we parents had planned. Instead, my youngest will probably remember that big top event for the $6 light-up toy he didn’t get.  

Oh, well. All we parents can do is try, right? 

The truth of parenting is that you never really know what is going on inside your child’s mind, try as you might to influence it. The more I work to embrace that reality, the more comforted I am when I watch them sleep, arms and legs intertwined, on top of the covers in the dank humidity of New England summer, exhausted, happy, and resting up for another day of discovery and adventure that none of us could ever predict.