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The Echoing Green

It’s midsummer 2018 and my daughter Anne and I are having a Talk, sotto voce, in the back of a taxi on a Tuesday night. It is a talk about how, when a London cabbie asks you whether you are following the World Cup, it is acceptable to say “no,” but you must never follow it up with, “But I hope France wins.”

We are a sporty family—we run, we lift weights, we play squash and tennis and our son is on a little football team—but we don’t watch any of it on TV and we are usually out of the loop when it comes to professional sports. This summer, there was no excuse for it. It wasn’t just that we lacked appropriate small talk; we were embarrassing ourselves. You could not live in England and remain agnostic about football during this World Cup. England had not made it to a Final since 1966, but this summer it seemed they were in with a chance, and no one could stop talking about it. We would have done well to keep our big traps shut, but we couldn’t resist.

Later on the night of the Talk, I was in another taxi headed home. Colombia and England were playing. The driver was riveted to the match on the radio, but I couldn’t understand what I was hearing (what was a penalty?). Suddenly the pubs and restaurants around us erupted in cheers and the dummy in the backseat said, “Wow, England’s really doing well tonight!” Turned out we were driving through a Colombian neighborhood.

Lying in bed reading a bit later, I heard the pub across the street go nuts. The cheering went on for a good 10 minutes. Car horns were honking in the street. People hugged. Presumably at least some of them were English people. It was like a mini VE Day out there. I turned to my husband and said, “Phew! That’s over then. England won, now we can move on to the next thing.” But it turned out that they had only made it to the Quarter Final. Hearing how much it meant to the crowd outside, I started to turn into someone who cared—if only a little, and only for their sakes—about the World Cup “Coming Home.”

But the fact that I was on a yoga retreat in the US—meditation, sharing circles, the whole nine—and entirely unaware when England lost their Semi-Final against Croatia, says everything about how much I cared. There weren’t any English football fans around, but I heard about the loss from a lone and very excited Croatian in the kitchen early the next morning. I jumped up and down with her briefly, feeling super disloyal, and then went back to being a football agnostic. You know the ending, of course: my kid got her wish. We were standing in our kitchen at home with not one, but two, French people (also football agnostics) when it happened. No cheers from the pub across the street. And now we can move on to the next thing.

For our family, that was Anne’s 8th birthday party. Anne’s birthday is in late August, when most of her friends are away, so instead of a big party during the school year, we decided to have a very small party for those few still in town in late July. Our friends in London come from many nations, and we have lots of different ideas about raising our children, but one thing we all seem to have in common is nostalgia for the backyard birthday parties of our 70’s (-ish) youth. We played analogue games, ate homemade cakes, and ran around like feral lunatics on a sugar high. There were no rented venues, no entertainers, no sound systems, no bubble machines, no fancy party bags and low expectations. It was (say it with us!) just so simple and honest. A more innocent time. And the unspoken subtext: it was all so much less work for our parents than it is for us.

No one in London has enough space to host an entire school class at home, so we resort to parties that would have given our parents the vapors (actually, still do). My kids have been to some absolute blowouts over the years. They have been invited to children’s parties with ice cream trucks, live mermaids, pony rides, private film screenings, manicure stations, candy factories, flowing champagne (grownups only), discos, hula lessons, cooking classes, trampolines, catwalks, pirate ships, artists-in-residence, chocolate fountains, petting zoos, and indoor playgrounds. Anyone from my daughter’s class reading this is going to be thinking, “Wait! Who had the chocolate fountain?” Guys, I can’t remember, but for sure someone did.

Given only 6 or so kids to entertain, this year I was finally going to put my foot down: enough was enough. Anne’s party would be a time machine back to my own childhood, with an English twist. Surprisingly (maybe unsurprisingly), Anne was all for it.

First of all, it would be outside in the sunshine in a garden. Instead of banners, we’d hang bunting. Instead of pin-the-tail it would be pass-the-parcel. We’d play musical statues instead of musical chairs. Instead of hot dogs and pizza there would be homemade tea sandwiches and scones with jam and cream and three-tier trays of cookies, only these kids call them biscuits. Anne wanted a rainbow cake and a firework candle. I had four days to plan and I started where any sensible parent would have: on Amazon Prime.

By the time I had ordered a trestle table, a table cloth, multiple three-tier trays (the reviews warned that at least one was likely to arrive broken), 16 boxes of American candy for pass-the-parcel, hula hoops for party favors, 2-liter thermoses for the coffee and tea (one of which was destined to arrive broken), a pink tent for the kids to lark about in, bunting and other assorted necessities, a fully stocked venue was starting to look like the easy way out. (Confession: I did go ahead and get a bubble machine. Kids just love those things.)

When the one non-homemade food item—the cake—turned out not to be at the shop where I’d ordered it, but at another branch of the bakery an hour’s drive away through rush-hour traffic, my dominant thought was, “I didn’t sign up for this.” Up at 6am making tea sandwiches for a party whose guest list now topped 30, I knew it was far too late to reconsider my options. But here is one option I did reconsider: I’ll never again imagine that my parents had it easy hosting those “simple” backyard birthday parties.

Anne’s party was a great success, and a joy to plan and host. Nevertheless, by the time we had made and procured the food; loaded and unloaded the car; set up and taken down the tent, the bunting, the table; supervised the games; chatted amiably and over-caffeinated everyone in sight, all the adults involved were 7pm-on-Christmas-Day-level tired. I’d do it all again, though, for the thrill of watching my kids and their friends run around like feral lunatics on a sugar high without once having to shush them.

By the time you read this, the nights will be drawing in, and summer will be on the wane. But what a summer it’s been—one for the record books. London’s hottest in 42 years, with temperatures topping 80 degrees most days, and practically no rain in June and July. Most Americans wouldn’t class these temperatures as a heat wave, but then again most Americans have air conditioning in their homes and offices. In a typical English summer, my American summer wardrobe of sleeveless tops, shorts and sandals does not make an appearance, and people around me have notional thought bubbles over their heads most of the time saying things like, “I wonder how warm it is in Cannes right now?” or “Is it pathetic to eat ice cream in a driving rain?”

This year, we finally got the weather we’d been pining for, out loud, every summer since 1976. Complaining about the weather felt wrong, like ingratitude, so before we complained about the weather we would always preface it—as if in abeyance to the weather gods—with “I’m not complaining, because this is an amazing summer, but…” We had complicated feelings about our good fortune. We couldn’t walk out of the house without layers of SPF50. Even under all that sunscreen, between the playground and the ice cream truck, we all got more sun than we intended. We’ll regret it on our next visit to the dermatologist, but I forgot how amazing the sun feels on bare skin and how much easier it is to leave the house without coats and jackets and real shoes. It was actually hotter in London than it was in Cannes. Ice cream ceased to be optional; it was a human right. I enjoyed almost every minute of our beautiful heat wave, because when we are wearing wool and turning the lights on by 5pm, we will look back at this summer and think, “such, such were the joys.” Even without the World Cup, we felt like winners.

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