The Case for a 1980s Summer, Again


The Case for a 1980s Summer, AgainI didn’t have the most exciting childhood growing up. There were no trips to Disney, none to the beach and nary a trip to the pool unless it was a friend’s house. There were one or two summers where I spent a few nights at a Girl Scout camp and once, when I was a little older than my own son, we all took a road trip from Pennsylvania to Louisiana to visit my grandparents.

The rest of the summer?

I played. I read books. I ate popsicles and walked around barefoot everywhere. I played some more. I like to refer to it as a childhood — a summer 80s style, if you will. Maybe you experienced a similar summer last year? I know we’d rather all forget it, but it was a weird one, right? Pandemic woes, staying six feet apart, masks everywhere, limited pool hours (or no pool at all!).

Summers since the ’80s seem to have gotten busier for families. This year, with everything starting to open up and with the general population raring to go, several people have already asked me, ‘What is your son doing all summer?’

Um. He’s six. He’s going to be playing all summer.

I didn’t know that ‘entertaining my child’ was in the job description they should have handed to us when we birthed our babies. I of course remember my mom being present during my childhood, but I don’t have many memories of her actually playing with me. She was this ever-present figure working out in the garden, feeding animals, puttering around the house or reading a book. But constantly entertaining me? No.

While I am fantasizing about laying on a beach somewhere recovering from my first year homeschooling, I know the reality of our summer will be fairly quiet and mundane. Frankly, even after last summer staying home, I’m here for it — here’s why:

I need some downtime. For real people. This has been a YEAR. I love having less stuff to do, fewer obligations, and fewer things to participate in for the next few months. Even with limited physical social outings this past year, I connected with more people and had more Zoom calls, more phone calls, and more time catching up with friends than ever before. My batteries need to recharge and as an introvert that means I need to actually unplug in most areas of life for a bit.

My kid needs downtime. Sure, we homeschooled and it was fairly laid back. My kid learned to read and knows more about planets and the solar system than I ever did and we all survived so I call that a win. Still, his brain needs a break. His days as a little kid are fleeting and I want him to have a lazy summer while he still can.

The entire South seems to squeeze in their holidays to the backyard, beach and beyond between Memorial Day and July 4th. I’m staying home to enjoy the quiet while y’all hit the beach at the same time.

So how are we spending our summer?

Outside. Whether that’s hiking, biking or just lounging on the back porch with a snack, we will be enjoying the great outdoors for a good portion of the season.

Reading. When I was a child, books helped me escape to faraway places. I had a myriad of ordinary hot summers spent in an old house with no air conditioning. I spent most of my time in front of an open window and fan, or on the front porch with an open book. I never felt deprived as a child for not getting to go places because I had stacks of books to take me there instead. I read a ton as a child to escape. I still do.

Creating. Throughout this whole year, I have been amazed at my child’s creativity. He is entertained for hours with blank paper, markers and some scissors. He’s made his own books, games and maps. His imagination has blossomed as he recreates scenes with his stuffed animal ‘friends’ and makes up his own stories. He giggles to himself while we go for long hikes and babbles about the amazing nature all around him. He sits outside to listen to and watch the birds.

I am somewhat convinced that he notices so many details and creates more, because he’s been allowed to be bored. My most creative pursuits in life have also been born out of moments where I am not so insanely busy.

Am I waxing nostalgic by saying we should return to 1980? No. My child wears a bicycle helmet, he does not ride in the back of pickup trucks, and I wouldn’t dare let him go to the corner store on his own (even though I did ALL of those things at his age). What I do want to recapture is the simplicity of it all. Going anywhere was exciting — a day at a friend’s house and their pool was a complete thrill. We never expected to go somewhere. There were no annual passes to aquariums, zoos or museums. Those things were reserved for special occasions or school field trips. But there were a lot of popsicles, books, and garden hose antics. There were home grown tomatoes and weed pulling, and farmer’s markets and auctions and hikes and picnics in parks. My child is still in that somewhat magical phase of life where he is excited by the thought of a sugary treat or helping to plant flowers. He wants me to sit down and read with him, and to have parties with his stuffed animal friends. I don’t think I’m quite ready to introduce him to a crazy wild summer crammed full of camps and activities where he doesn’t have the time or headspace to even breath in all of that fresh outside air because he’s so busy.

I do realize with a bit of irony that my own child has traveled further in his short years than many adults have in their entire lifetime. We have had summers already where we have crammed in a ton. However, in between all of those magnificent and momentous trips, he has had a LOT of downtime. Indeed, even the act of traveling can be a glorious break from the busyness that our lives become. For instance, how in the world DID we manage that 2,600 mile 1980s road trip you may wonder, without any electronic device? I’ll tell you how — by staring out the window for a good portion of it. Maybe it’s genetic, because my son can do the same thing, whether it’s a 20 minute or 12 hour road trip.

Will we go to the beach this summer? Most definitely — and that will probably be the highlight for everyone. But I also want a summer full of small delights for this little guy to remember to slow down and enjoy life as it breezes past us in this short season. You can bet we will roll down the windows, 1980s style on the way.

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Brenda Steffen
I spent my twenties and a good chunk of my thirties living and working in various countries. I met and married a South African sailor and I was quite content to keep traveling without kids. We landed in Chattanooga in 2013 and our son arrived over the summer of 2014. We haven’t really slept since. Sometimes jet-lag gets the blame. Or Daylight Savings, or even a good book. Usually though, it’s the Peanut. You can often find me charged up on caffeine, chasing after my son at Coolidge Park, the zoo or the library. You can also find me online on my blog.


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