I've recently been waxing a bit nostalgic for the summers of my childhood. This has been brought about, in part, by a blog called Free Range Kids, which I stumbled across, though I've forgotten how. Basically, it advocates giving your kids some free rein, rather than riding herd on them 24-7 the way so many people do these days. This is something I've thought about quite often in the last 2 decades, as I saw those around me placing their children in more structured, restricted environments than I had to deal with as a child. Then again, few children even when I was young had the opportunities to run at will that my siblings and I had.
My sisters and I grew up on the western edge of Milwaukee, near its border with Wauwatosa. Our parents also rented a summer cottage near a town called Eagle, about 45 minutes away. The cottage was a grand, musty behemoth drowsing between a run-down golf course and a beautiful, if somewhat weedy, spring-fed lake. Three other families rented it with ours, and each had at least 2 children in our age range. Total, there were 11 kids in our cottage, and another half-dozen in the neighboring cottages.
The Old Cottage
When in town, we roamed the neighborhood much like most children of that time were allowed to do. No one obsessed over abductions and other such slim dangers: we didn't have a sensationalist media shoving that stuff in our faces every evening. We regularly rode our bikes to the local dime store or the community pool. We checked in every few hours, but as long as our parents knew our general whereabouts, were relatively unsupervised.
When we were at the cottage, however, we were really free. We woke up in the morning, ate breakfast, and then disappeared. Sometimes up onto the derelict links to run, sometimes into the woods to build forts and slay dragons. The only restriction on us was that we couldn't go in the lake without an adult present. We came back when we were hungry, when we got a scraped knee, or to get a parent to take us swimming.
By the time I was 13, the cottage had gotten too small for us: 19 in a 5 bedroom house only works when lots of the people are small. So we relinquished our rental. The other 3 families continued to rent at other cottages at the resort, but my family decided to take an annual summer vacation instead. That was 27 years ago.
Recently, my younger sisters started renting there again, and this year I am, too. I went out to meet the landlady and check out the place Monday. It was bittersweet. A lot was as I remember it: The musty smell of the cottages, the old clubhouse with the trunk of a tree growing right up out of the middle of the great-room floor and into the ceiling, the spring house where we used to get our drinking water (the tap water was awful). But so much had changed: the road into the resort has been paved, taking away a bit of the going-back-in-time feel you used to have upon getting there. The clubhouse tree, which was still alive when I was young, has now been cut off at ceiling level and the roof hole closed: only the trunk remains, for tradition's sake. The golf course has been rehabilitated, and gets far more traffic. And the spring house water is now non-potable, likely contaminated by gunk from area farms and developments.
What has not changed is the isolated, self-contained, communal atmosphere. Everybody knows everybody. People wander around and visit, like folks did in decades past: and the people you visit probably have an ice-cold pitcher of daiquiris made up and waiting for you. Everything slows down to a cheerful amble.
And the children get to run. Without helmets.