Swimming in a sea of summer
For most of my life, I’ve preferred autumn to the hot, wide-open days of summer.
We didn’t take many vacations growing up nor did we escape to a family “cottage” “Up North” on the weekends in Northern Wisconsin as was customary among so many of our friends and neighbors. Until I was a teenager, we spent most of our summers in the exact same places we spent our springs, falls and winters.
Summer was a time for long bike rides to the park with friends, to the community pool, to the video store. My generation in America may be among the last that was even allowed, by the age of nine or ten, to ride a bike two miles to a swimming pool, swim for two hours and ride home–without adult supervision or a cellphone.
Summer was the time when I’d lie on the couch for hours consuming as many books as I liked without a school schedule to interfere, when our friends and I would hold sleepover marathons for days, rotating houses whenever one parent got too fed up with the sleeping bags taking over the living room floor, when we would play in the ditch water creek behind our house, floating on rafts of fiberglass leftover from nearby construction sites coming home red and and itchy and badly in need of a shower.
It was all these idyllic things and yet, I feel a little weary just remembering the way those long summer afternoons felt so vast and endless. Time moves so slowly in childhood and sometimes I felt trapped by summer, dog-paddling in a hot sea of yellow, as though I might never escape the staidness of those hot, aimless days to reach the cozy shores of autumn on the other side of August.
As I’ve grown, summer has grown on me. Summer no longer feels endless nor does the break from school-year routines feel unwelcome. We may not spend a month on the beach or in the mountains like our Italian neighbors, but there’s a sweet sort of childish magic to our own summer visit to the grandparents’ homesteads.
In Wisconsin we help Papa mow the lawn, play “golf” in the driveway and poach my sister and my collection of Beanie Babies and Bernstein bear books for new favorites. We sleep with the windows open, waking at dawn to run through the cool dewy grass in the backyard, picking tomatoes and teeny-tiny carrots from Mimi’s garden.
In Charlottesville we visit the community pool, we walk along the river, the kids play with the same sturdy toys and read the same imaginative books which their Daddy played and read when he was a little boy. We visit the City Market and Whole Foods to stock up on a few of the “only in America” ingredients for our kitchen that we either can’t buy or can’t afford on the internet.
Whether in Wisconsin or Virginia, we eat well, we enjoy the freshest air we’ll get all year, we stock up on the kinds of extended familial togetherness we don’t get to experience first-hand for most of the year.
For the past five years, these summers have held a sort of rhythm for us the way the beach or the mountains or the “lake house” may keep a beat for other people. Our son always begins talking about what he will do at his grandparent’s house “next summer” within a few minutes of the plane touching down in whichever city we’re currently calling home.
This summer though, in spite of the beautiful weather, the faithful reappearance of treasured playthings from my husband’s and my childhoods, the wonderful meals and the dozens of ice cream sandwiches eaten, we all felt a bit more antsy in the States this summer than we have in summers past.
For the past five years, these two kids have been my rhythm, so close to me all day long that there’s rarely a moment in which one or both of them are not in my arms, in my sight or at least one room away from me in our apartment. I feel their presence around me in every breathe I take.
But in the past six months or so, I’ve begun to feel them slowly spinning away from me into new orbits, a bit larger, a bit more oblong. For the first time in over five years, I’m running regularly again–my kids no longer fly into an inconsolable panic if they wake up and I’m still five or ten or 30 minutes from home. This past March, for the first time ever, we had a babysitter come over before we’d put the kids to bed for the night. We told her to call us if they got upset without us. Instead, she put them to bed. It was the first time in their lives I wasn’t there in bed next to them when they fell asleep.
Will turned five a few weeks ago, Shiloh is two and a half. By any account, they are still babies in the world, Shiloh still nurses, I still snuggle both kids to sleep every night. But I can feel the shifting winds as we leave behind the years of dream feeds and diapers and set course for the deeper waters of Legos and chapter books and playground dramas for which I will not always be there to bear witness.
This year, for the first time, both kids will be in school. Shiloh starts preschool in September while Will will begin Grade 1 (kindergarten in the American system) at an international school. For the first in five years, I will spend nearly four hours each day separated for the warm, demanding company of our kids.
I’ll be going back to work very soon, part-time and at a job I’m taking for the paycheck rather than any career aspirations. But that’s life and I’m mostly just grateful for the opportunity.
The backpacks have been ordered, the school supplies purchased, I’m working my way through digital paperwork and trying to imagine how our lives will change now that I won’t be home all day, now that no one will be home all day. For years I’ve lived to clean up yogurt off the floor, help stabilize couch cushion forts and balance bundles on long walks home while carrying children, groceries and the surplus of sticks, leaves and conkers collected as treasures along the way. Shiloh will still be home in the afternoon, Will will still need me to read him to sleep (I hope!) but life is changing for us, as swiftly as everyone always told us it would–but still at a rate that feels unbelievable.
Trying to see through the humid sweaty mist of late August to the school year beyond, I feel a little like a first-time mother again. Except, this time, I know that the real hiccups and learning curves will only come in all the ways I haven’t prepared us for, the ways I can’t really prepare us for. It will be a roller-coaster for all of us for awhile as we three venture out of the nest–not together–for the first time.
For now, we are muddling through the end of summer, watching way too much Daniel Tiger and Dinosaur Train but also climbing ancient rock towers in the parks and visiting some of the museums I’ve been doggedly trying to get our kids to for the past two years. It seems they are finally ready to venture out into the world in a way we haven’t seen before.
We’ve one year left here in Milan and, as much as I despised this city for our first year here, I enjoy it now in almost equal measure. We move through our days here now as, if not insiders, than as people who have been jostled and knocked off balance enough and reformed enough to have gained rueful respect and maybe even passing glances of affection from the baristas and bakers and neighbors who fill our everyday lives.
When it is finally time to leave, we will miss the mountains the most I think. Even as I write this, I’m dreaming of our hike tomorrow up somewhere in the glacial borderland between Italy and Switzerland.
But there will be other things. As much as I complain about the extremes of the “bella figura” Italian mentality, I will miss the beautiful mosaics on the ceilings of entryways in stately old apartment buildings, the way women and men alike dress with such care for shapes and elegance and the ways different fabrics drape and move in the breeze. For as much as our oldest disliked Milan when we arrived, even he breathed a sigh of relief when we landed back in Milan a few weeks ago, back to the foccacia he and Shiloh request whenever we’re out of the house, back to the parks he knows, the relative freedoms of this place. America or wherever we end up next will certainly be adjustment in ways both wonderful and challenging.
And even if we had never found the mountains, the cafes where people gently correct our Italian and kindly overlook our more embarrassing faux pas, I would still owe this cold, aristocratic city a great debt because Milan is where I finally learned to live as an expat–as someone for whom home is a family of people and a frame of mind rather than a real place on the other side of the ocean. It’s taken me six years to get to this point but now that I’ve made it here, clawed my way up to this scenic overlook, I’m not entirely sure how or when I’ll be able to go back.
I don’t know what comes next. Life is full of unexpected surprises and, even when it’s not, this fall will be a whirlwind of school, work, bidding on my husband’s next assignment, and waiting with bated breath to guess at the aftermath of November 8th. Before I know it, it will be Christmas and then time to begin Organizing and Getting Ready for Packout. It takes my breath away to even type those words.
For now, I’m trying to enjoy this place we’ve arrived at, in this city, at this time, with our kids at ages which, I understand better than ever now, they will never be again. Whatever comes, we are lucky to be here and to be here together.