I’ve lived all over the world, and I’d never be able to explain to my foreign friends how important summer is to my American identity. Lots of them don’t even have summer. In West Africa where I was in the Peace Corps, the only seasons were hot and hotter. Central America was like that, too; and in far northern Japan, where I studied the Utari indigenous people, summer was a starving time when the sea ice melted and the seals and whales they hunted headed farther north, leaving them with nothing to eat.
But when I was a child in Chicago, summer was a golden season. It meant release from school, from long underwear, from interminable evenings in front of the TV with the world outside dark and frozen and nothing else you dared to do. Summer was like someone had turned the lights back on and we were all allowed to leave our winter caves and go blinking into the great green world. Our bodies came alive on our bicycles and running through the yards, and time seemed to stretch endlessly before us.
Here in Sarasota, summer means open lanai doors and almost no clothes at all, certainly no shoes of any sort. Our pool is always refreshing, the drive to Siesta Key quick and empty. I swear you can float better in the Gulf in summer than at any other time. Sure, summer here can get too hot, a touch off-key from the usual American narrative, the same way we don’t have snow for Santa. But the freedom is just as sweet.
What I love best about summers now is when my kids—a happy pair of first and second graders missing six teeth between them—get off the bus for the last time that school year. I’ve been a stay-at-home dad since they were born, and when they both went off to school and the house was completely empty, my heart broke more than a little. When I see them off on schooldays, their backpacks and lunch boxes seem just like the briefcase my father used to leave with every morning on his way to work.
Certainly, we’re going to do it all this summer: Jungle Gardens, Mote, Selby, the Ringling Museum on free Mondays, and we’ll watch the fireworks from the top of Sarasota Memorial’s parking garage with all the other locals who know about that great viewing spot. But more than any certain activity, summer means freedom to be a family, to wake up together and have lazy mornings and long days together, to let our fingers turn to prunes in the pool, to build sandcastles at the beach. The summers in my memory are all about freedom and time. Summer now is even more intensely those same things.
When the fireworks go off on the Fourth, my children beside me will ooh and ah. The colors in the sky will be exactly how I feel.