How Summer Memories Brought a Family Closer

In this RD Classic from July 1971, a father reflects on the generation gap between himself and his children through the way they experience summer

My son and daughter were competing to see who could play which louder: he, a baseball game on TV; she, a Led Zeppelin record. I sat there in the living room with them, my eyes closed, a peaceful smile on my face. Nancy yelled, “Too loud for you, Dad?”

“Nope,” I said, without opening my eyes.

The enigmatic smile got to her.

“Dad, would you mind telling me what you’re doing?” she shouted.

“I’m listening!” I hollered, still smiling.

This interested Robbie. “To the record or to the ball game?” he screamed.

“Neither!” I shrieked, smiling.

Both of them were fascinated. They turned off their noisemakers. “I was hearing it again,” I explained. “I can close my eyes and hear it again any time I want.”

“Hear what?” Nancy persisted.

“The old Summer Music. The sweet song of Summer As It Was.” And I began to tell them about it.

Summer memories

Remember? The lazy chimes of ice cream trucks; the yells of boys playing ball in the streets; the drumbeat of moth wings flirting with porch lights. I can still hear the crooner moaning “Say It Isn’t So” on a scratched 78-r.p.m. record, repeated endlessly by the neighbors’ lovesick teenage daughter. I can still hear the baroque toccata of hand-operated lawn mowers, the crackle of backyard wood barbecue fires, the yelps of tiny kids allowed to toast marshmallows for the first time.

In summertime, the Midnight Special sang the blues as it fled through town on its moonlit journey: first, a long, lonesome howl on its steam whistle, then a short one, then another long one as it pierced the distance, the last plaintive howl modulating down to a minor key, kind of sad, like Gershwin. Airplanes were few, but the ones that came over roared and spluttered for attention, and you ran out on the lawn to see the miracle in the sky.

Summer played a patter song of rain on windowpanes, a xylophone solo on tin-roofed garages, and now and then a cymbal crash of lightning that started you counting the seconds to see how far away the timpani roll of thunder was. Summer was also the time of stillness, precisely measured by a meticulous cricket. It was the click-clacking of a stick rattling along a picket fence. It was the excited words, “Got ‘im!” from a boy who had caught a firefly in a Mason jar. It was the click of croquet balls colliding, the slap-slap of jump rope against sidewalk.

Summer was the soft rustling of leaves as you walked home on a dark street punctuated by yellow lights, after taking the keenest girl in town to a Fred Astaire movie. It was listening to her hum “A Foggy Day in London Town”—and then hearing beautiful lyrics forming and bouncing around inside you, but knowing you would never have the courage or the Fred Astaire suave to utter them to her.

In summertime, at twilight, your mother somehow found a moment in the middle of doing everything for everyone, and sat down alone at the piano and played “Clair de Lune”—the one piece she still remembered. Summer was the sound of your father snoring on the couch, each snore fluttering the edge of the sports section he had been reading.

In summertime you could hear the boy who was “It,” his eyes tightly shut as he leaned against a tree, counting to 500 by fives. The good ones did it so fast that the syllables all jumbled together. But they gave an honest count and yelled, “Here I come, ready or not!” Then the scuffling and scampering behind bushes as It ran after his quarry. Then a hush and another boy yelling, “Olee, olee! In free!” And a chorus of galumphing sneakers as boys ran in, safe.

There were kerplunks in the lake in the park as fathers lobbed stones so that sons and daughters could count the ripples. There was the magic flute some talented kids could make with a blade of grass stretched between their thumbs. There was the swoosh-slap, swoosh-slap of the new lawn-sprinkling gadget. The whirr and hum of electric fans. The jangling of marbles in a boy’s pocket—and, from his other pocket, the untimely croak of the faithless frog who was supposed to keep quiet so that Mother wouldn’t know he was in the house. And remember the crackle of cards being shuffled on the screen porch, the tinkling of ice in glasses of pink lemonade?

You thought, as you listened: This is summer; this is the season for which all other seasons exist. And you took a moment to memorize all its melodies and harmonies forever.

The smile must have left my face. Nancy asked, “What’s wrong, Dad?”

Past and present

“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess it made me sad to think that you kids missed all that.”

“But we have Summer Music of our own,” Nancy said. Robbie agreed. I looked at them for a long moment, and then suddenly realized that of course they do. And of course it’s different from ours.

Ours was the sound of a neighborhood; theirs is the music of a planet. Before their first day of kindergarten, they had Telstar—tasted all the tunes and languages of the world, the dissonance of war, poverty, assassination, the harmony of undersea and outer space. Their Summer Music is restless. The melody is motion: jet engines screaming, the crescendo of sports-car gears shifting, the roar of surfing, the petulant whining of dune buggies, the vulgar thunder of motorcycles.

I tried to hear summer through their ears; the manic hip-talk of their disk jockeys; their hard rock—a mélange of sledgehammer blows, brash and irreverent and amplified beyond the adult threshold of pain, but also brave and new and honest, minus the candy coating of “moon” and “June” and “spoon.”

Yet they also have a thirst for serenity. And so they steal away in summertime and sit alone on some hilltop, enjoying the aloneness, drinking in the stillness, waiting to hear the stretching of a sunflower. Softly they jangle as they walk along wearing love beads and East Indian copper cowbells. They hear more than we did, because they listen harder. In my ancient summertimes, I simply heard a birdsong. The new ears can hear what kind of bird it is; the new eyes can see how few are left; the new hearts can feel how important it is that this bird and his summer song be cherished.

And so, my dear children, your Summer Music belongs to you alone. It is your own record of those warm and tender seasons of your ripening, when you were growing and stretching and reaching for the sun; it is the rhapsody of being alive, the mad waltz of energy and joy, the bittersweet ballad of first love, the song of all living things singing in unison: I am! I am! And I’m glad I am!

And in that glad cry—for you as for me—is the magical Music of Summer.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest