For the most part, our summertime this year been easy. But there's a final verse to Gershwin and Heyward's tune that has resonated mournfully across the season:
One of these mornings
You're going to rise up singing
Then you'll spread your wings
And you'll take to the sky.
But until that morning
There's a'nothing can harm you
With daddy and mammy standing by.
This summer has been marked by that excruciating reality that no matter how watchfully we stand by, there is still the chance that something will go horribly wrong before our kids take to the sky.
Every week there seems to be a new version of every parent's nightmare: losing a child because you allowed him walk a few blocks alone in one of the safest neighborhoods in the city, or sent her to summer leadership camp on an idyllic island in one of the safest countries in the world, or let your adult child exercise his right to live independently, even if that meant living on the street. The names that accompany these losses are specific: Leiby Kletzky, Utoya, and Kelly Thomas. But the loss in every case has in it something mythic: the theft of a child, the slaughter of the innocents, the parent who outlives their progeny.
Our girl wants so desperately to be able to go out on her own, down the block to the corner store or around the corner to the newsstand to buy her favorite spearmint gum. This summer we have taken the small step of letting her go on her own from a cab into the building where her summer technology class is, but we are far from letting her head out onto the streets alone.
Last week a colleague and I were talking about how I was spending my summer — camped out on the Upper West Side having meetings or working on my laptop while our girl takes her technology workshops. We live just far enough away that it doesn't make sense for me to drop her off, go home or to my office, and come back to get her later. When my colleague asked how old our girl is, I shared that she's thirteen.
Without a pause, he went on to tell me about how years ago he let his seven-year-old walk to the bus on her own in the East Village, and take the bus across town to her school. He said he would trail her down the street far enough away that she didn't notice him, but that he had to let her go on her own. That, he told me, was the same year that six-year-old Etan Patz disappeared in our neighborhood. His daughter, now forty, was a schoolmate of Etan's. As with Leiby Kletzky, Etan had begged to go out on his own, and the day he went missing was his first time out alone. Unlike Leiby, Etan has never been found.
I took my colleague's comment to suggest that the world is a scary place but that perhaps I should be giving a thirteen-year-old more freedom. Perhaps, as with the super-safe playgrounds that seem to promote anxiety disorders, that there is more danger in our levels of caution than there would be in having more faith in our kids and in our neighbors.
But somehow we're not there yet. We're still daddy and mammy standing by.
The copyright for the lyrics to "Summertime" is held by © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., EMI Music Publishing. Used here under the fair use provision of U.S. copyright law.