The weeping willows are the first in our neighborhood to let on that summer is waning. By mid-August they are dropping leaves left and right–early enough that at first glance one wonders if they’re simply dying, or if there’s some terrible drought–leaving their wispy, gray branches draped among a chorus of cicadas singing of colder nights ahead.

This fall we’ll mark five years living on this street, enough time for me to know that the willows do this every season. But this summer has had a lot of echoes.

Thomas learned to ride a bicycle in June. We got him a new bike to mark the occasion, a bold and smart looking blue and orange, and with a few lessons post-training wheels, he was soon enough on his way.

riding on the greenway

Our common trip is up and down the city’s greenway, a long, flat stretch of pavement that runs beside the soccer park and all the way into town. It’s six miles down and back, a solid ride for a six year-old. We go after supper, after the sun bakes the day into surrender. I let the kids ride ahead, brother and sister rushing neck and neck in endless drag races, choosing to hang back and watch.

All it took was the pungent smell of sycamore, and I was back to my own childhood, pedaling a borrowed bike with blue tires in my grandparents’ neighborhood. They lived in New Jersey on a street that was a horseshoe with a pair of cul-de-sacs. The ends of the street were connected by Swimming River Road, which meandered down to a reservoir and a tidal creek that ran the short distance to the ocean.

At some point in history the city planted sycamores along the curbs. I’d ride in the evenings, running into the handful of other kids my age, kids I’d only know for a few summer visits. I remember the girl who lived around the bend whose father had a first generation Corvette. There was a group of us one summer, and we’d play one game or another, cutting through yards and racing around till dusk.

If it wasn’t the smell of the trees taking me back, it was the clack-clack across the yard when I set out the sprinklers, the ozone smell where the spray dampened the hot pavement. Somehow that sound and smell marked the end of the day from those childhood summers. Pedaling around my grandparents’ block I dodged arcs of water along the way, catching one or two when I needed to cool off.

When darkness finally fell, I would dutifully pull up the garage door and put the bike away. My grandparents would inevitably be downstairs in the cool den, a baseball game on the television. I might have a Dr. Pepper or a late bowl of cereal, spoiled as I was by them. I can close my eyes and see everything about that den–the wood paneling, the carpet, the bookcase, the wet bar.


A few weeks ago we adopted a little dog we named Otis. He’s a cross between a chihuahua and a dachshund (or a “chiweenie” in the designer dog parlance), and he’d been abandoned near a shopping center. He’s a good pup–housebroken, good with the kids, easy temperament–and we’ve enjoyed having a tiny dog around the house.

I walk him twice a day around the neighborhood. We’ve had a late summer break from the intense heat and humidity, so the mornings here are cool. And then, too, do I hear the echoes from those summers visits with my grandparents.

So often they’d spend the mornings outside on their patio, working crossword puzzles or cryptograms, lazily taking in a cup of coffee poured into cups monogrammed with JW–the logo for John Wiley & Sons, where my grandfather worked his entire career.

I cannot remember what we kids did while they went about their morning business, but I can recall how the neighborhood brimmed with activity–traffic coming and going, the whine of leaf blowers, things I hear every day in my own neighborhood. The houses around my grandparents, like ours, were surrounded by old trees, and the morning sun filtered down bit by bit as it rose.

Perhaps the busy clatter of those days signaled excitement, or at least a proximity to adventure, a day ahead and things to do. As we took our time getting started with our days over the Labor Day holiday weekend, our kids felt the same vibrations.

Thomas’s world grew larger with every trip up and down the greenway. And for a four year-old (four and a half, he would remind me), our six mile trek delivered an abundance of confidence. There were challenges to overcome: learning how to stop without ditching; the chance to learn how to manage speed coming down a hill; handling the bike on rough gravel. And with every trip out, Thomas asked to do more.

Each time the life before me rung a memory like a distant tuning fork from my own childhood, nostalgia’s sweetness faded fast.

My childhood summers feel now like the end of an era of childhood freedom, the kind in which we were left to vague boundaries and little supervision–never far away, but never watched too closely.  Our worlds were defined by where ever we could pedal to, and the wonder for me as a kid was real.

The house in the neighborhood off Swimming River Road is sold now, owned by people who cannot fathom the months I spent there decades ago and how formative they were. But one day my son will pedal his bike into the arc of a sprinkler, or between the houses on the cul-de-sac, and that will be enough.