The children finally go to bed, the dogs to their crates. Blessed silence. I lumber downstairs to my study, pick up Paul Thomas Chamberlin’s new military history of the Cold War, read a few pages about Pol Pot’s Cambodia, then mark my place, think about the summers I spent in Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio, with my sisters and cousins in the late 1950s.
We knew that godless Russia was a threat; we’d taken part in the earnest duck-and-cover exercises, trusted we’d be safe enough, sitting, arms over heads, under our parochial school desks or with our backs to the tiled wall of an inside corridor. But we were too busy, those summer months, to concern ourselves with grown-up worries and faraway places. We played badminton, softball, volleyball in the grassy yard. Sunbathed, skipped stones, swam and fished in the clean fresh water of Lake Erie. Gathered religiously at five o’clock for the Mickey Mouse Club. Dined on hot dogs, toasted marshmallows on wire hangers over driftwood bonfires on the beach. Slept well, woke early, assembled in the kitchen for breakfast, the entire month of August still ahead of us.
I look at my wristwatch, trudge upstairs, stretch out, try to sleep: I have to be fresh in the morning. This is the week our daughter and her children spend at our house in central Virginia. I find “Gramp Camp” phonically and metrically superior, but the children call it “Grandma Camp,” and, in fairness, I’m the silent partner; my wife manages the shopping, cooking, field trips up Carter’s Mountain to pick peaches, into town to buy flip-flops. I may fold the sheets, wash the dishes, take out the trash bins, but everybody knows who’s in charge, and that’s all right. I’ll call it Gramp Camp anyway.
In the morning, what a mess! What an uproar. Clothes, toys, game pieces spill onto the floor from every surface, the living room couch, dining room table, kitchen counter. A Star Wars cartoon plays loud but unwatched on the sunroom television, devices charge at every outlet. Two children want breakfast, two dogs roughhouse in a merry skirmish over a remote control that someone neglected to put out of reach.
I set the table, mix chocolate milk for Fin (seven years old), pour apple juice for Annie (five), feed the dogs (Pepper, two, and Chérie, 10 months). Our daughter, Beth, takes the children to the country club for day camp; Grandma and I hustle the dogs into the van that takes them to their own daycare on a nearby farm. Then Beth and I meet at a coffee shop in town, set up our laptops. She works—she runs a social media consultancy for small businesses and publishes a regional lifestyle magazine—while I read the news, catch up on email, finally start writing. At noon we head back to the house for lunch with Grandma and the kids.
In the afternoon Beth takes the children to the club for swimming lessons, turns them over to the college student we hired for the week, goes back to work. The young woman, a teacher in training, watches the children swim, drives them down to see the horses, takes them for a walk along the river. Annie wants a riding lesson; Grandma sets it up. I retreat to my study on the terrace level.
My generation saw John F. Kennedy shot, and Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. We came of age, finished high school, went to college, read Marcuse, Adorno, Chomsky. I grew my hair long, marched in Boston and LA, chanted Hell, no, we won’t go and Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, Viet Cong is gonna win and Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today? But the draft lottery sorted us out, and the fortunate ones—those of us who weren’t packed off to Viet Nam—graduated, went to work, married, had children, divorced or stayed together, retired or just kept working. Old now, we walk slowly, take naps, count out pills. Read somber histories, watch the ominous news, wonder where we went wrong.
Between four and five o’clock the children and dogs come home, the pandemonium starts again. Fin and I play one of the games he taught me, Annie helps Grandma bake a peach pie, the dogs—why aren’t they tired?—prosecute their running battle, bark, scuffle, race upstairs, downstairs, around the kitchen island, through the first floor study, back to the living room. Our pet, Chérie, is a lanky golden doodle who came to us, at considerable expense, from a premier kennel called Pride & Prejudoodles. Beth’s pooch, Pepper, came, for a modest adoption fee, from K-9 Lifesavers, a nonprofit rescue outfit; she has the squat build, square head, wide mouth of a born fighter. An unlikely pair, Chérie and Pepper, yet, three days into Gramp Camp, they are inseparable. And evidently indefatigable.
I take Fin to a collegiate summer-league game at the high school baseball diamond while Grandma, Beth, and Annie have a girl’s night out, pizza for dinner. The evening is warm; Fin runs ahead, shouts “Come on, Gramp, it’s starting!” over his shoulder. I wave, keep him in sight. Fans wearing the Charlottesville colors fill the stands, families and young couples set up lawn chairs, spread picnic blankets on the grass, keep their dogs close. Fin and I stand in line, get hamburgers, popcorn, sunflower seeds from a teenager behind the counter. I ask what sports drink flavors they have, and she tells me, “Blue, yellow-green, and orange.” I ask for orange, an actual flavor, but Fin prefers blue, so that’s what we get. We sit in the stands behind home plate. Fin befriends a younger fellow, chats with his new pal’s mother, pets their dachshund, all the while following the action on the field; he knows the score, the inning, the count, says “Nice catch!” when the shortstop throws wide to the first baseman. I leave him in the lady’s care, go buy him a blue team t-shirt. He puts it on over his red Washington Nationals t-shirt. We leave after the seventh inning, Charlottesville trailing Staunton by three runs. He talks all the way home, gives a play-by-play account of the final game in the baseball camp he attended earlier this summer. “We lost,” he says. “But that’s okay. I got a hit.”
Back home, the clutter, confusion, cacophony of critters and kids continues until bedtime, around nine o’clock. A little later I crack open the children’s bedroom door, look at them. They sleep in their twin beds, Fin snoring softly, Annie clutching a plush white rabbit. They are children of privilege, yet their lives will be harder than ours, their search for meaningful work more dubious, their struggle for justice more desperate in a world where there’s no place to hide. But they’re on vacation. Let them slumber tonight, laugh and play tomorrow, learn to win, lose, try again. Let them be kids in the summertime.
by Philip Lawton
Philip Lawton’s creative nonfiction has been published or accepted by Silver Needle Press, Flying South, and JuxtaProse Literary Magazine. He is a member of WriterHouse in Charlottesville, Virginia.