Yellow plastic thong sandals. "Yellow plastic thong sandals" © Ron Chapple Stock/Getty Images

It was 3:07 on a glorious afternoon in late May. I was sitting in my car with the power turned off and the windows wide open. The baby was dozing in her car seat while we waited in the car line for the school bell to ring, signifying the end of another busy school year and the beginning of sweet, sweet summer.

I knew the children had worked hard that year. Even sitting in a desk and remembering to take turns is strenuous work for grade-schoolers, after all, but these students had been doing more than that: reading, wondering, calculating, obeying, writing. I put myself in their place and smiled as I imagined bursting out of the school doors on the last day of school and chattering all the way home. Home. Home for the whole summer. Lazy mornings, outdoor explorations, yard work, puzzles, lightning bugs, sidewalk chalk.

And then I overheard two moms chatting. Like me, they were waiting in their cars with the windows down, and their conversation sailed through our section of the car line.

"I can't believe it."
"I know!"
"It's summer already. What am I going to DO with them all summer? ALL summer. Ugh. It's so long."
"Exactly. They're not even in the car yet, and I'm already stressed out. How many weeks till we bring them back?"
"I've got them signed up for six weeks of camp, but that still leaves too much time."

This might have been just silly bantering, casual phrases thrown out without much thought to make small talk. But I'm remarkably bad at small talk. Small talk is kryptonite to my body; and this particular conversation--musing, as it did, on the agony of having children home for the summer--pierced me right in the heart.

I know summer can feel long. I know siblings fight, dirty dishes accumulate, children nag parents, and people somehow keep needing to EAT all day long. But oh, the time we have been given to care for these children is impossibly brief and irretrievable. I've never had the feeling that "it all goes so fast," as many older parents say to me wistfully, but I have experienced poignantly the gone-ness of certain eras. While I will never mourn the passing of the toilet-training stage, I am a bit shocked that my strong, artistic, taciturn teenager is a version of the toddler who called bicycles "bike-skables" and spiders "bicers." He would, of course, sound ridiculous pronouncing those words in his current deep voice; the grown-up young man I love has rather completely replaced the little boy I also loved. What a gift is each version of this unrepeatable human person. What a gift is each year, each summer.

Our family has a robust tradition of naming our summers, coming up with a theme that adds direction to our summer days and keeps us on the lookout for opportunities. Like many venerable traditions, this one had questionable origins (you know, like how All Saints Day gently took over for raucous pagan rituals aimed at appeasing the undead). Our Summer Theme tradition started one fine summer morning when this Mom was teetering on the edge of sanity. With five children under the age of 8, I had too many people asking me to think through their days for them. A typical conversation:

Child: Achoo! SNIFF! *sleeve wipe*
Me: Please blow your nose.
Child: I don't have to.
Me: That shiny stuff in your oatmeal is not icing. It came from your nose.
Child: Well, I can't blow my nose.
Me: Why not?
Child: There aren't any tissues.
Me: Can you go get a new box?
Child: I don't know where they are.

Believe it or not, this kind of conversation grew tiresome--especially since all 5 children had similar approaches to situations occurring approximately 74 times a day. (And 5 x 74 = 8,236,813,721.5 in Mom years.)

So, I came up with a game, the kind of game that sounds terrible until you need it: the Critical Thinking Game. Each time a seemingly insoluble problem arose, I challenged the children to generate three possible ways to solve the issue. They eventually had fun, especially when they discovered they could go crazy with Option #3, usually by incorporating unicorns and belly buttons.

Thus began the Summer of Critical Thinking. What had begun as a self-preservation exercise evolved into a way of approaching our time together. The whole family realized we enjoyed each other's company more when we had a common goal, a higher purpose.

The next summer became the Summer of Independence, when the children learned to do things on their own, which made them feel very important. Some age-appropriate accomplishments included tying shoes, frying eggs, completing a chart of morning tasks, riding bikes around the neighborhood, discovering new authors, packing picnic lunches, and lots of other wholesome goodness.

Here are the other themes we recalled over dinner last night:

  • Summer of Outdoors. Camping, picnicking, sweating in the summer heat, playing outside.
  • Summer of Dedication. Admittedly, a flop. I bought each child a journal and provided time twice each day to reflect on the day in words or pictures. This was not fun.
  • Summer of Cuisine. Farmers markets, cookbooks from the library, children who plan & cook the meals and help shop for the ingredients--what's not to love?
  • Summer of Stories. You cannot imagine the fascinating responses you get by opening up a conversation with this question: "What's a good story about you?" We heard vocation stories, engagement stories, tales about building houses and famous last words. We also read aloud one of the best book series for children I have ever read: The Mysterious Benedict Society. And I read Kon-Tiki, which blew my mind. And we watched a pile of superhero movies. Stories!
  • Summer of Music. Lots of guests over for impromptu concerts. Many recitals, lots of piano practicing. Fun and beautiful.
  • Summer of the Next Person. "How can you make this room/this conversation/this world better for the next person?" That question guided our summer two years ago. Most family members agree it was a successful, if subtle, theme.
  • Summer of the Family. Our ten-year-old daughter chose the theme, prescribing it as the antidote to idiosyncratic activities that tend to isolate us from each other. The children all have summer jobs now, so this theme helped us schedule family time--above and beyond meal times--as we can no longer rely on spontaneous frolicking.

This year is our Summer of Beauty. We are on a scavenger hunt for beauty. Books, plays, poems, art, conversations, nature, acts of kindness--these are all contributing to our palate. Just a few weeks into summer, I am delighted to hear how our conversations dwell on beauty, in its many manifestations.

If you think a summer theme sounds like your family's cup of tea, it's not too late to name your summer! Leave a comment and let us know what your theme looks like.

Our family usually calls a meeting to agree on the theme. To seal the deal, we walk to the ice cream store for the first official cones of summer. Our parish's perpetual adoration chapel is on the way to the ice cream store, so a quick visit there reminds us to offer our summer days back to the loving God who gives us every good gift.

My beloved spoke, and said to me:
“Rise up, my love, my fair one,
And come away.
For lo, the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of singing has come!" 

Song of Songs 2:10-12

Copyright 2015 Grace Mazza Urbanski.
Art: "Yellow plastic thong sandals" © Ron Chapple Stock/Getty Images