Our biggest blessing

I kind of hate summer. I’m not a fan of the heat or the humidity. I like a little chill to my mornings. I’m not a big beach person and I think backyard fires are better in the fall. I hate a season that has a weird kind of pressure to have fun, because it’s summer! A thousand articles about your beach reads and your kicky summer cocktails and your summer strut playlist and I just get exhausted by all of it. You can keep the warm hedonism of the summer; give me the cozy sweaters of fall.

But one thing about summer, I love.

Summer playdates are the best. When the kids are loud, we can send them out the door without worrying about jackets or shoes–or we can escape to the porch ourselves, with our summer cocktails firmly in hand. They have a bigger range of exploration and more options for what to do out there. The best part, though, is that the big kids don’t have school. Elisabeth, Lillian, and James are home, and we adore having them with us.

“Cutelopes” on a mission in a game no one but these two understands.

Watching them all grow from summer to summer is a delight. Although Lillian is a little older than Elisabeth, I didn’t know her family very well until she was about one and a half, so I think of Elisabeth as the first baby in my circle of friends. I saw Bethany nearly every day of her pregnancy, since we worked beside each other, and it was from her that I learned about that whole magical, improbable process. She was the first newborn I knew well in my adult life, and she helped me get as ready as I could be for my own little wild things.

Me with 11-month-old Elisabeth

Seeing her transform from a serious baby (much like my kids, she never liked being a baby) into a joyful toddler and then a caring child and now a gracious and thoughtful girl is extraordinary. We have interesting conversations sometimes, and I love it. She just read A Wrinkle in Time and we discussed it–what an amazing thing to share a book I loved with someone who I’ve known for her whole life. I think she’s more wonderful every year.

Looking back over pictures from several years ago, I see how they have grown and how they are each growing into themselves. Two-year-old Lillian has a deep focus in what she’s creating that I still see in her nine-year-old face. Arthur and Esau are the inseparable duo, and I see that in the earliest pictures. Petra and Arthur seemed fascinated and confused by each other as babies, and I’d say that’s still the case. James and Silas still wrestle like puppies. Silas and Elisabeth had a special relationship in their first meetings, and I see it still; he has lots of friends that he has fun with, but Elisabeth might be the only child I think he respects in a particularly reverent kind of way. I see it even in how he looked at her as a baby.

Five years of playdates with these amazing children: 

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Even Jude, who I’m pretty sure is the last baby of our little group, seems so grown-up now. I forget that he’s not quite two yet. He’s also the only one of the eight of them who says, “Cheese!” whenever he notices the camera. I’m glad he has a good “cheese!” grin.

One thing from my childhood that I treasure is how close I was–and in some cases still am–to my parents’ friends. I grew up far away from my aunts and uncles, but many people in our community filled in those roles in my life. If I could make one thing from my childhood happen for my kids, that would be it. Those relationships were incredibly valuable to me during times when my family was floundering. They carried us, and I will never be able to express how grateful I am for that. I see it happening with our kids, too, especially with these two families. Last fall, my sister-in-law was visiting us and we had this group of friends over for dinner. Afterward she commented on how seamlessly we all managed each other’s kids. “I kept forgetting which kids went with which parents, because I could hardly tell any difference in how you interacted with them,” she said. It does feel that way, a bit. Of course I know my own kids better than I know the others, but all the kids feel like family. When I stand outside and watch it happening between the other parents and children, I am so full of joy that I can hardly breathe.

Her kid, not his…but that baby is waiting for his silly face

Recently, I was talking with another friend about disasters (as one does). She was asking what I would do if something went seriously off the rails in my life. And I immediately said, “I have the most incredible community. We would be fine.” I meant our community in a broad sense, including our church and many friends. But this group of families in particular would hold us and our children. I know because I’ve experienced it. We’ve ranted to each other about crazy family stuff, we’ve shared incredible bits of wisdom and grace, we’ve shown up when it counted. We’ve supported each other through layoffs with encouragement and chocolate. We’ve dropped off meals and taken care of kids when someone was sick. We literally don’t see the mess in each other’s houses, but always notice new art. We’ve changed diapers and slathered sunscreen on every one of those kids. We’ve advised on what to wear to an interview and how to word an angry letter. We have a lot of love and grace, more than enough to go around.

When Gwen died, we tried our best to be present, even though we didn’t know how, for the worst thing any of us could imagine going through. Although she wasn’t with us long enough to carve out a place in this group, to have favorite toys at each house or a special playdate buddy, she is part of this tribe and her absence is part of it, just as it is part of her family. Even now, when I look at our eight fierce creatures splashing through the river together, sometimes my heart tugs a little, knowing that it should be nine. I have a picture from Petra’s Totoro party, of the three girls together, and when I look at it, I wish I could know what kind of kid Girl #4 would be. I think the way each of us has that moment, from time to time, is also a way we carry that family.

I’ve read that one reason people from secure homes are more successful is that they aren’t afraid of falling. They know they have a safety net of people who will catch them before they hit rock bottom. They can take risks that others can’t. I have that feeling, too. I can dream big because I know my friends will dream with me, and if I crash, they’ll be right there.

I didn’t always have this. When I was a kid, I didn’t have many friends; I had colleagues, even when I was in elementary school, but not very many close friends. I thought of having friends as being my brother’s thing. I was good at school, and everyone liked my brother. I thought of this as a way in which I was superior to him.

When I was in college, my junior year, I remember having a long conversation with my mentor, Rick Hyde, about some nonsense that was upsetting me. I don’t remember how we got there, but the last thing he said to me was, “You think that you’re valuable because you’re smart and reliable. Everyone knows you will always have the answers and show up on time and prepared. You’ve probably gotten a lot of gold stars in your life for that. But I think the most valuable thing about you is that you have a really good heart. You care deeply about other people, and that’s what makes you valuable.”

I honestly believe he was the first person to come out and say that to me, to put it so clearly. I remember thinking about that sentence, turning it over and over in my mind, asking myself, What do I think is valuable about myself? Why do I think that? A year later, when I moved to Virginia, I brought a completely different understanding of who I was and who I wanted to be, all because of that single conversation. And a miracle happened. In grad school, I invested in people. I’m still friends with many of them, and incredibly close with a few. I’ve given my heart more deeply and to more people in the 13 years I’ve lived in Virginia than I did in the entire rest of my life combined. And this is my greatest blessing.

My kids are smart, and their friends are smart. (Once when Silas was about three or four, he said to James, “I’m very smart,” and James replied, without skipping a beat, “A dolphin is as smart as you are.”). But what I tell them I value about them is that they are good friends, to people outside of our family and to each other. Because that is a tremendous gift.

Playdates now:

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