SPECIAL FROM Grandparents.com
I’ve been trying to impress the grandkids, Maggie, 9, and Ryan, 11, with the horrors of a childhood spent without so much as an iPod.
As I speak they are at my kitchen table in San Francisco, bent over an iPad and a Chromebook, respectively. It’s summer, and they are surreptitiously ordering hair extensions on my Ebay account to make their long hair even longer. The kitchen is filled with the sounds of shiny beeping appliances and iPhones bleeping when an email comes in.
I grew up in a rural valley north of San Francisco in the early 60s. “Back then, no Ebay.com. No computers,” I tell them. “No Google or YouTube. If you wanted to know something, we had a set of 1960 World Book encyclopedias.”
No reaction. The girls are doing that thing where they keep their faces pointed at me so I’ll think they’re listening.
I pull their headphones off. “Also no TV.”
Ryan pales a little, gratifyingly. I’ve been meaning to talk to her about the appearance of cartoon movies in my Netflix queue. They go back to the computers (and thus miss my description of trying to see at the Motor Movies with six other kids in the back seat).
What else was different?
No being driven from place to place by your parents
If you wanted to go somewhere, you walked or rode a bike. We kids had one job, especially during those long summers: to get out of our mother’s hair. We were told not to get into a stranger’s car and kicked out of the house by parents confident that we could keep ourselves alive until dinnertime.
If we got in the car, it was because the adults wanted to go somewhere. Kids went where their parents went, not the other way around. The grocery store, the bank, the hardware store. These trips were not turned into “teachable moments,” where Mom holds up the line while teaching you the Spanish word for a loaf of bread. They were another opportunity to be bored out of your gourd.
These were an optional accessory, not a safety necessity, according to prevailing logic. The kids' job was to stay put in the car. My parents were too busy talking and driving and smoking glamorous cigarettes and tapping the ashes out the windows. The door would not be shut right, so occasionally a kid would fall out, and my dad would say, “Goddamnit,” and go back for him.
No plastic baggies. The waxed paper was never airtight, so by lunch you’d have a sandwich hard at the edges and soggy at the center.
The trash went into a single trash can, except for paper, which was burned in the yard in an open rusty incinerator. Everybody fought for the job of burning the trash and you’d see these smoke trails all over, coming up from the other families.
These were different from what were called play clothes. Girls were not allowed to wear pants to school, except on Pants Day. So you raced home and changed out of the hated dress and into jeans with cuffs. Boys did not dye their hair. Neither did girls (or order hair extensions probably originally meant for hookers). Only mommies dyed their hair.
No gymnastics classes, no camps
My mother never entertained a kid in her life. We had no summer school, no lessons, no camps, nothing to do, except what we thought up ourselves. The concept of entertaining kids hadn't even been thought up yet. “You could clean your room. That would be something to do,” she’d say as she shoved yet another wad of clothing through the wringer washer. “If you’re bored, how about peeling some potatoes?”
What we did have was time
Even an hour was long. If your mother said you couldn’t go in the water for an hour you’d give up and sell your bathing suit or something. My childhood lasted at least a hundred years. I ate blackberries I tore from the bushes myself, smashed in a bowl with milk. I had to walk up and down because they tasted too good to eat standing still. Sometimes I had to step behind a door and hug myself in a kind of tremble of delight.
Thousands and thousands of hours to fill. I stared at the sky, wondering where all that blue had come from. I licked the delicate chocolate shells on the Eskimo pies, smashed Big Hunks against a tree in their wrappers, and ate my apples slowly, scooping out a morsel at a time with my nail. I hiked in the hills above our house and picked orange poppies, though it was the state flower and you could get arrested. I gazed at the colors swirling in the shaft of sunlight coming from the doorway, wondering if I was the only one who could see them.
Would I trade these memories for Maggie and Ryan’s action-packed childhood?
In a heartbeat.