Summers That Made Me Stronger

Of my challenging childhood, summer memories are the ones I hold most dear

Summers That Made Me Stronger photo

About this time of year, everyone becomes thrilled about summer vacation and the youthful debauchery that (sometimes) comes with it. Memories are forged, holidays are grilled and marinated upon (except for Tisha B'Av), and then you find it's 3 a.m. and you have wasted most of your day. For me, it usually entails work and recollecting some of the mixed feelings I have of summers past.

My childhood was chaotic. Without taking this post down a darker path, I'll say my parents didn't provide the ideal situation for fostering a strong Jewish household. It left me wandering in the dark across my early life until I reached college and adulthood. There were the occasional bright spots, but faults in the foundation remained, made worse when my parents finally divorced in 1999.

Thankfully, there were avenues I could explore that kept me from going down a personal dark path. This came in large part from the few friends I had (I was made of industrial strength awkwardness) the Boy Scouts of America and the pleasant instances in my family life that I hold dear.

One of my first of such memories was a Boy Scouts campout to Kankakee State Park about five years after my parents' divorce. It was the first time I had been beyond the borders of Chicago, as well as was my first real campout. After several hours in the car, the troop stopped off at a local Jewel-Osco to pick up some supplies for the evening, and I remember feeling anxious for what was to come.

When we arrived at the campsite, we set up our tents and the kitchen and troop areas and organized our things, and just when we thought it was finally time to kick back and relax, our scoutmaster told us we were going on a hike.

I was annoyed. We had left at 8 a.m. that morning. I was tired and badly in need of a break. I just grumbled and acted like a jerk for the beginning of the hike, mouthing off to other troop members, but as we proceeded along and took in the scenery, I calmed down and my angst fled. I started to get invested in the trail and actually got excited about the whole thing. Being in nature and seeing things that don't exist in the city was exhilarating.

The following night was capped off with cooking over an open fire, singing campfire songs and engaging in typical shenanigans. The next morning I remember witnessing my first grease fire (I was not the cause) and I learned how to deal with one should it arise. Up to this point in my life, it had not.

Our Boy Scout Troop also used to participate in the annual Fourth of July parade. One particular year, when my rebelliousness and angst were in full gear, I was way more interested in plans I had made to hang out with friends after the parade. I even wore my regular clothes underneath my Scout uniform so I could bolt once it was over. Immediately after the parade, we went to our friend's place and just hung out. We had no plan and didn't do anything particularly exciting, just random things like strolling through the woods near his house, munching on snacks and watching TV. 

It sounds insignificant and uninspiring, but this was the beginning of falling in with a group of friends who helped me get through the difficult times. I think just hanging with them kept me from becoming a wretched human who might otherwise have gone down a path of self-destruction. It didn't quite save me from being a total little shit - memories of which continue to make me cringe when I recall those tough times --but it kept me from feeling isolated and alone with my feelings about my dad leaving and the turmoil that coincided with it.

I do have one particularly positive summer memory with my dad. In the summer of 2006, I spent a month at his house in Barrington to get in more time with him before his move to Washington state later that year.

One afternoon we took a trip up to Lake Geneva for to ride go-karts. We left in the early afternoon, driving through small towns such as Richmond (yes, there's a Richmond in Illinois) and other locations that created the sensation we were going on a road trip. At the go-kart place, we spent a couple hours racing around, experiencing juvenile adrenaline and thrills as we violently swerved about the course. By the time we had our fill, the sun was beginning to wane in the sky and we headed out. On the ride back, it occurred to me that this summer was probably the last opportunity I would have to do these kinds of things with my dad.

This day trip was the start of a coming-of-age adventure for me, as the year would unfold rather chaotically and unpleasantly as the pristine image I had held of him began eroding and in the coming years would dissolve completely.

When I reflect on all this, how I wanted my father to have done more than he did, I think about my future and what will happen if and when I have the opportunity to become a parent and do more by my children. That scares me. Will I be able to pull it off? Can I be the father they deserve and need despite my own father's example? My hope is that I have a stronger heart, and they will be able to look back when they are grown up and harbor cherished memories we have together without looking back on just a couple snapshots and wondering about what could have been.

I'm hopeful, because in spite of the turmoil that plagued my childhood, I think I managed to become a (somewhat) decent human being. I thankfully had many people who kept me afloat and prevented me from drowning before reaching the opposing shore of adulthood. With their help, I believe am stronger-willed and capable of giving my future children the consistently pleasant memories we all think back fondly on during the summer.

Barrett Ried Goldflies photo 375
Barrett is a native Chicagoan and graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). While attending, he pursued is natural love of history and anthropology, as well as discovered his passion for Jewish culture and the Jewish faith. Currently he works as... Read More

AdvertisementSpertus Institute MA in Jewish Professional Studies
AdvertisementJCYS Register