Giving my Kids Nothing this Summer, Again

Summer vacation officially kicks off in a few days, and I’m feeling the squeeze of my self-inflicted to-do list. In a moment of excitement or insanity, I agreed to host an end-of-the-year sleepover party, inviting the 15 girls in my daughter’s 5th grade class. In one week, our baby boy has a minor surgery to get tubes put into his ears to drain fluid.

My brain is full of camps, swimming lessons, 4-H projects and all sorts of things we “should” do this summer. And at the point where my head is swimming, I came across just what I needed to hear. As it turns out, it was my own words that I wrote four years ago at the beginning of summer. I’d forgotten that I wrote this, but it’s just what I need to remember all over again. I know I’m not the only one who needs to hear it, so I’m sharing this again with all of you.

Here’s to more of doing nothing this summer…

Kathy, May 2016

 

“Giving my Kids Nothing this Summer” (Originally printed May 2013.)

My original plan this week was to write about our summer list of things to do, you know, to feel like our family has a “successful” summer. Making plans and writing to-do lists does have value. It helps me get things done. But sometimes, a to-do list is a load of garbage.

I can’t speak for past generations of mothers, but in the circles I run in of moms with kids at home, we spend a lot of time trying to do it all right. We try to make meaningful memories, create precious moments, provide engaging learning opportunities, all that. But maybe, just maybe, we need to try less hard, too.

My oldest child is just finishing first grade. What do I remember about my summer after first grade? The only specific thing I remember was that I had short permed hair that my grandma said looked like Shirley Temple. In the summer time I would go days on end without combing it. Much of the time my hair looked more like a rumpled Afro than Shirley Temple’s ringlets.

Combing my hair? What a waste of time.

I had ant hills to smash on the edge of the driveway. I needed to make sure I was the one who raced down to the mailbox first when the mailman came around noon, a highlight of the day. I was busy riding my bike down the field lane and learning to ride down the gravel on the driveway without wiping out and scraping up my knee.

I don’t remember many other specifics, because the summers growing up all sort of blend together in a sort of sweaty, Kool Aid, dandelions, swimming in the freezing water at Whitewater kind of way.

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Isn’t doing nothing just the best?

On a visit to Whitewater a couple summers ago, I spotted a mom lugging a huge plastic tote down to the beach while trying to wrangle her kids. The tote was neatly labelled “Beach Toys.” I imagined her pulling it from it’s special shelf in the garage and loading it up in the van. As she emptied it, out came every sort of wonderful beach implement imaginable.

Part of me admires that sort of amazing, logical organization. And part of me just wants to puke. That level of perfection is just too much. Many of the toys didn’t get touched.

Seeing that tote made me think of my own days as a kid playing at Whitewater. When we made the trip there as a kid, if I wanted a sand toy, it was my job to get it. If I brought something, it was probably an empty Cool Whip container from the cupboard. Fairly often, we just went there with nothing. Sometimes we dug a pop can out of the beach garbage can to use as a digging toy and water carrier.

No tote full of toys, and we were happy at Whitewater. Very likely, my next older brother suggested we were superior in some way because we were kids that could make our own toys. He was good at always making us feel like we were part of some sort of secret elite force of little survivors.

Sand, water, kids. What else do you need at the beach?

I tell this to remind myself that when it comes to kids, less is often just as good as more. A big tote full of toys is fun, but so are hands, sticks, and rocks.

Sometimes I’m like that mom lugging the tote. I love my kids and I try to do my best. The trouble is, it’s easy to think “best” and “more” are one and the same. They are not. It is a fine line to balance between wanting the best for your kids and crippling them because they get everything they want. Innovation and ingenuity often comes from those moments of creating something out of nothing.

I want to give my kids more “nothing.”

A few nights ago I spent 15 minutes hauling boxes up to the attic. While I was up there, three of our kids played out on the porch. I came down to find discover three kids completely enmeshed in their own imaginary world of playing house. I said hi and then ignored them in that sort of way that doesn’t make them self-conscious of a viewer, putting on a show for mom. They did their thing.

My seven-year-old “Mom” decided it was bedtime, and put her two-year-old baby to bed. She tucked in her sister on the wicker couch using her favorite blanket. Then, while I got the mail and seemingly ignored them, I listened to my big girl sing a lullaby to her little sister, who pretended to sleep.

I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a sweeter lullaby than that one I heard that evening. There’s nothing on my summer list of fun activities that’s any better than that.

I give up.

And I think I probably should. We made a list of fun things to do this summer, but most remarkable is that what the kids want is pretty darn unremarkable. They want to go swimming. They want to have bonfires. They want cousins to come over and play. Simple things.

And that’s probably how it should be.

They’re little kids. Hot, sticky, endless summer days with messy hair, scraped up knees, dirty feet, popsicle drips and grass stains…that about covers it. Anything else is just details.

So, it’s settled. We’re doing nothing this summer.

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A Clothesline Romance

One of my favorite memories is crawling in bed on a summer night, hair still damp from a Saturday night bath, and diving in between cool, crisp cotton sheets that smell like grass and sunshine, fresh from the clothesline.

I remember giggling as I felt the breeze blowing in from the window, looking out at the gently swaying leaves of our gigantic trees that made a canopy of shade in the summertime, and hugging my favorite blankie while I inhaled its every well-worn inch. It smelled so incredibly good after hanging outside all afternoon.

Everything felt so clean and fresh and good, and all was right with the world. They say that scent is one of the strongest triggers of memories, and every time I smell sheets fresh from the clothesline, it brings back that time.

One of my very favorite photos ever, my little girl in her “prairie girl” dress playing in the sheets, her brother in the background.

I love clotheslines. The sight of crisp sheets, sunning in the breeze, gives me a feeling of utter contentment.

So many of my memories growing up are linked directly to the clothesline on the side of our house. It was, of course, a magnificent clothesline. The horizontal metal pole on one end grew directly into a huge pine tree, hugged deeply by bark on top and bottom. A pine tree helping support the clothesline? Absolutely amazing to me as a child. That horizontal clothesline crossbar was strong enough that we used the bar for gymnastic feats of near-Olympic caliber while Mom pinned up towels on the lines.

Also amazing was the fact that my mom actually grew clothes pins. Whenever an old clothes pin broke, she chucked the broken one into the day lilies by the side of the house, always telling us that the long, thick leaves were new clothes pins growing. I never actually saw those leaves “flower” into clothes pins, but sometimes I even threw in extras, just to help Mom grow more. She was always running out of clothes pins, after all.

The best thing about the clothesline as a kid was running full speed through the rows of towels and sheets, shoving them up in the air as we ran underneath. Crispy, stiff towels brushed on my cheeks as I went past and sheets billowed up to catch the breeze just long enough to dash through. Sometimes we even drove the 4-wheeler under the clothesline to have the same effect.

clothes line diapers

I remember wishing I could be a sheet on the wash line, waving up and down and snapping in the breeze. It seemed like that had to be a sheet’s very favorite time, getting to hang out on the line to dance and play in sunshine. I also wished I could be the grapevines that spiraled and curled along the wires of my grandma’s clothesline, racing to grow to the other end.

.On the business side, I clearly remember Mom’s mad dashes to the line and her yelling, “My towels!” when the first big rain drops rapped against the windows. Out the porch door and around the corner she’d race to the clothesline, trying to save everything from needing a trip to the dryer.

And woe to the puppy that pulled clean towels off the line. A very good swatting with those towels, if done properly, only took one time to cure Buster (we had several Busters growing up) of pulling things off the line.

Today when I hear of housing developments with restrictive covenants not allowing a clothesline, it simply feels like an abomination and an assault to my sensibilities. I understand that in a row of perfect houses, hanging out towels is far too “redneck” to be acceptable. Maybe it’s not so much redneck, though, as far too human.

In eliminating clotheslines in the quest for perfectly tidy yards, we lose a part of our humanity. Towels, sheets, and jeans on the line at our neighbor’s house provide very concrete evidence that there is, quite literally, dirty laundry in that home. We are human. We all have it. It’s hard to maintain the pretense of perfection if slightly tattered towels are out there for the world to see. When did it become unacceptable to be human, a real human with laundry drying in the breeze?

At our new house here out in the country one of the things I loved right away is the long, ample clothesline that definitely means business. Laundry business. It’s a little crooked and needs to be shored up, but in the mean time, the line hangs low enough in some places that our kids can reach it and help hang up clothes. Lots of chores around the house hold no interest, but hanging up things on the line is pretty much always a fun job.

cloth diapers clothes line

Three kids helping hang diapers in the sunshine. (Helpfulness like this just has to be photographed.)

What endears me to clotheslines is the very visual evidence of a family’s life inside a home. Driving past a farm with clothes out on the line, it’s such a signal of life, industry, and a busily humming family inside that home. A line of clean clothes hanging up to dry says that someone’s working hard to keep life peacefully in order. There’s a Puritan practicality and work ethic appeal in a row of clothes out on the line.

What I feel like when I hang clothes on the line.   (artist unknown)

Not only does life feel industrious and in order, but a trip out to the clothesline for ten minutes really feels like adult recess. Ten minutes to soak up vitamin D out in the sunshine and wind all by myself is heaven. Sometimes in a busy day of completing my mental to-do list, I don’t even step outside the house until I haul out a load of laundry.

Then, when I step outside, it’s a wonderful paradigm shift. Away from the noise of busy kids, all is quiet, and breeze, warm sun, and birds suddenly fill my senses. All of the stress of things to do in the house disappear for a little while in the simple, quiet rhythm of grabbing items from a basket and hanging them on the line. I value that in my rinse-and-repeat world of being a mom.  

And when the load of laundry is all up on the line, it’s such a pleasing sight that I usually take a few steps back and just stare at the line for a little bit. A nicely pinned up row of sheets or towels gives me a momentary sense that life is all in order. Well, at least part of it, anyway.

Using a clothesline is so nice that sometimes I let the towels enjoy a full two days out there, or even three. Yes, let’s just call that intentional. I’m doing the towels a favor. Unlike my mom, I often don’t dart outside when the rain starts, so sometimes the towels even get an extra rinse with soft rainwater. Purely deliberate, of course.

When I was in high school, old enough to dream about my life as an adult, I sometimes imagined one day looking out of my kitchen window to see kids playing outside and sheets drying in the breeze on the wash line. And today, I have four little kids running full speed through my sheets, hiding between the towels, and accidentally tugging my clean things off of the lines.

And as I yell, “My towels!” to get my kids to slow down a bit, they have no idea how utterly happy the whole scene makes me.  

© 2012