Weird Things I Once Believed

When I was very young I thought that the tails side of a penny featured the trolley from the Neighborhood of Make Believe.

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When I was very young I thought that monkeys imprisoned in off-site towers operated the traffic lights. Someone had to control them, after all, and flipping switches at set intervals all day, every day would be too boring of a job for people, so: monkeys. Obviously.

When I was very young I thought that a bear lived in the cedar closet at the bottom of our staircase. My dad asked me once why I always ran up the stairs instead of walked. “I don’t know,” I answered, but I was thinking, “Well, because of the bear. Obviously.”

When I was very young I thought that old folks were wrinkled because everyone grows an additional layer of skin every year. Can eighty layers of skin lie smooth? Of course not. They naturally bunch up, creating wrinkles.

When I was young I thought that quicksand was an omnipresent danger. Every sand pile and patch of dirt was suspect. Keep to the sidewalk everybody, lest you sink helplessly into the ground!

When I was young I thought that nothing of inferior literary quality could be published. When I’d try to read a stilted or plotless book, I’d slow down or re-read parts, searching for hidden meaning or cleverly understated character development. Surely I must be missing something, because nobody would publish a poorly-written book. (Right?)

When I was young I thought that adults could be trusted to have kids’ best interests at heart. And that adults were never petty. And that adults always knew exactly what to do.

When I was young I thought that the sovereignty inherent in adulthood (the freedom to choose what to eat, for example, or to rent unlimited VHS tapes from Blockbuster, or to skip one’s chores if one felt like it) would eclipse any day-to-day adult hardships—assuming such hardships even existed.

I once thought that any baby could be easily trained to sleep through the night. (Certain books really ought to come with disclaimers; that’s all I have to say about that.)

I once thought that any child whose whining was not accommodated would quickly cease to whine. (I know, I know. Go ahead—point and laugh!)

I once thought that only someone who had been sappy since birth would tear up at her child singing “Away in a Manger” at the Christmas program, or bounding into school on his first day, or offering her a dandelion or tulip head picked “just for you, Mommy!”

And I once thought that I would be upset if my child beheaded the only surviving tulip in the yard.

As it turns out, I’ve often been wrong. And I still am. I still find myself on the trolley headed toward the Neighborhood of Make Believe once in a while. (The trolley that, in case you are wondering, I realize is not the subject of a penny’s tail.) To wit:

Expecting that late-onset elegance will wash over me any day now.

Believing that it’s okay to pass judgment on others.

Supposing that one of these days, my house will become perfectly (or even mostly) organized.

Thinking that extra patience will descend on me so that, with no effort on my own part, I will always speak calmly to Sonny and Ace.

Presuming that lecturing and nagging my kids will in any way be fruitful. (Doesn’t everyone just love to be lectured?)

Assuming that there will always be some other day for me to let people dear to me know how much I care about them.

I’ve come a long way since fearing a bear in the cedar closet, but I guess I still believe some pretty weird things.

What weird things have you believed?

A Tale of Two Strangers

The other day I went to the post office, an errand that always reminds me of a day about four years ago.

Sonny and Ace, then 3 and 1, and I were in line to mail a package. As waited, a woman on her way out of the building glanced down at my sons and then at me and announced in a voice leaking scorn, “I sure don’t miss those days.” And on her way she went.

What? Sonny and Ace were just standing there quietly. They weren’t throwing fits, begging for snacks, running, or kicking the nice man in front of us. They were not having any sort of bathroom issue. They were in no way channeling Caillou. They were not robbing the stamp machine. They were not doing anything that could be construed as annoying, even to that demographic who tend to conveniently forget that they, too, were once children, and imperfect ones at that. They were just standing there. Quietly.

I did not understand what had motivated this drive-by show of contempt. But I refrained from asking Ms. Grouchy Pants what had crawled into her Cheerios and died that morning and simply ignored her—outwardly, that is. Inwardly I was rather miffed.

It doesn’t take much to diminish someone.

A few minutes later, our business completed, we headed back to the car. On the path we met another woman. Her wrinkles had settled in all the right places, mapping out decades of smiles. She looked down at my sons with fondness and then looked at me.

“Well,” she said. “Well. Aren’t you lucky!”

Yes! Yes, I was. My irritation vanished.

The woman smiled at each boy and at me, nodded in emphasis, and went on her way.

It doesn’t take much to encourage someone.

Thank you, Woman Number Two.

“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness.” –Seneca

Why I Didn’t Give My Kids a 1970s Summer

Today was the last day of summer vacation. Three months have passed since the beginning of June, when the Internet oozed with ideas of how to manage one’s children’s summer. Many set standards of dizzying heights.

“Fifty Activities You Must Do with Your Children This Summer!” (Oh I must, must I?) I glanced at the list, hoping for a few gimmes such as having lunch and bathing. No such luck—only suggestions entailing digging clams and learning a foreign language. (Nyet, spaseeba.)

“101 Fun Things to Do with Kids This Summer!” In case you are interested, I will reveal #28—Create salad spinner art: Place circles of paper inside a cheap salad spinner, dab tempera paints on top, cover and spin away. #46—Go fossil hunting near a lake. #96—Visit a national park and help the kids earn a junior ranger badge. (“What are we going to do today, Mom?” “This morning you have swimming lessons. This afternoon we’re going next door to the national park and earn a badge. After we find some fossils at the lake, of course.” Right.)

The pressure was on.

Counterpoints abounded, however; other articles encouraged the rejection anything that had the faintest hope of a Pinterest appearance. Many bloggers challenged parents to give kids the best kind of summer, the real kind of summer: the 1970s summer. Limit their screen time to Brady Bunch reruns, hydrate them solely with Kool-Aid and hose water, drop-kick them into the neighbor’s yard and lock the doors until the fireflies signal it’s time to let them back in. Let them toast their legs on a metal slide. They’ll survive, and they’ll be stronger for it! Like us! (Let’s all pause and thump our chests!)

Initially this all seemed very attractive—certainly more appealing than setting up a pool-noodle circus in the backyard. What could be simpler than returning to simpler times?

Ultimately, however, I ignored the challenge to provide a throwback season to Sonny and Ace, and not only because bike helmets have been proven to be beneficial to one’s wellbeing. Why would I reject a 1970s summer when I greatly enjoyed the ones I experienced in that actual era?

First, it seemed hypocritical to foist a 1970s-style summer on my kids when I don’t want one myself. I like 2014. My phone doesn’t tether me to the wall. When I take a picture, I don’t have to snap 23 more to use up the film and then be disappointed upon realizing, three weeks later when they arrive in the mail, that eight of them didn’t turn out. No worries if I’m not home when my favorite TV show airs; I can watch it later at my convenience. My motel rooms never reek of cigarette smoke; likewise, my family breathes fresh air in restaurants. Leftovers to heat up? Hello, microwave! Mail orders require me neither to fill out a paper order form nor to calculate my own math. This is a good thing, as is the ability to renew library books online.

So, since I had no intention of exchanging my laptop for a manual typewriter, why should I replace Sonny and Ace’s favorite streamed-in music with a turntable?

The other reason I didn’t go through any trouble to replicate my childhood summers for my kids: imagining that one’s own childhood summer should serve as the prototype for all kids’ summers seems a mite egocentric. Children have always enjoyed summer.

The ability to find amazing in the ordinary did not rise and fall 40 years ago.

My grandpa, a child in the 20s, occasionally spoke of his childhood summers. He once told Sonny and Ace that he and his friends spent a lot of time building kites and even more time fixing them. And he frequently relayed an outstanding childhood memory: that of a road trip with his uncle and other relatives, 700 miles in the heat of summer. Seven in all, in a Whippet, which Google tells me was intended for five passengers and which was probably not air conditioned. (Just a guess.) Crammed in a Whippet with six other people, some of which rode on his lap, with a ham and a jug of water as the main sustenance for the three-day trip. Does the mere vision of this make you cringe? Yeah, me too. But he was amazed by the experience, even decades later.

(His dad, whose primary childhood trip had involved an uncomfortable voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, embraced the times and let him take the trip.)

My grandma, a child in the 20s and 30s, spent her summer days doing farm chores and overseeing her youngest sister. She fed chickens and gathered eggs and with her sisters visited the boarders who paid $5 per month to live in one of the spare upstairs rooms. In the evenings her family sometimes went swimming in the lake—my great-grandpa would often take a bar of Lava soap along to scrub off the day’s sweat and grime. The highlight of the summer was the carload of uncles who sometimes drove up from Indiana to go fishing. Ordinary? Yes. Magical, to her? Yes. “I have always liked summer,” Grandma said.

As have my parents. My dad took swimming lessons (in a pool!), except for the year they were canceled by the polio epidemic. His family occasionally took trips to the Black Hills or to fishing cottages. He shoveled places that the pigs had been and milked cows, both by hand and machine. He camped with his buddy near the rocky hill by the east field and invariably headed home in the dark when the dew began to settle on them. (No, they didn’t have a tent; why do you ask?) Ordinary, yes, but magical enough to make him smile over half a century later.

My mom also took swimming lessons—in a lake. She picked beans and strawberries and pulled weeds. She participated in the county fair with sewing projects and with her horse. She looked forward to church camp—always a highlight of the summer, for it included a roller-skating evening. The summer of the polio scare she unwillingly took afternoon rests, ordered by her own mother in an effort to conserve immunity. Her family went on picnics and gathered at her grandparents’ farm on Sunday afternoons. She once joined her aunt’s family on an East Coast vacation in order to look after her cousins on the trip. The county fair and New York City in the same summer: magical.

Which brings us to my own childhood summers, some of which took place in the heralded 1970s. Road trips to Iowa (bumping elbows the whole way with my sisters in those bygone pre-minvan/SUV days). Consuming warm strawberries straight off the plant. Playing with kittens. Spending hours in my fuzzy pink beanbag chair with Ramona Quimby, Laura Ingalls, and Trixie Belden. Playing ghosts in the graveyard after dark. Wading in the creek in the field behind the house. Being parked on the picnic table to shell bushels of peas or snap bushels of beans or husk bushels of corn. (Bushels! Bushels, I tell you.) Swimming lessons at the high school. Playing cards with my best friend. Watching The Waltons in the morning and, apologies for the cliché, Brady Bunch reruns in the afternoon.

Sometimes I wish I could inject Sonny and Ace with the magic that was often palpable in these ordinary experiences: the fragrance of baking Queen Anne’s lace and goldenrod as we walked the half mile to my grandparents’ house, and the smell of cucumbers and dill in their kitchen. The rush of air conditioning and the taste of chilled homemade lemonade after the long, hot car ride to my other grandparents’ house. My dad pushing my sisters and me on the sack swing. Mixing Kool-Aid in my grandma’s amber glass pitcher. Making popsicles with my mom. Playing Little People with my sisters and cousins.

But I can’t. But that’s okay, because Sonny and Ace just had their own summer. They drank from the hose. (I realize this is practically against the law, but I’m just glad they’re no longer drinking from puddles. At least I don’t think they are.) They took swimming lessons, caught toads and turtles, and played outside a lot. They watched Netflix on rainy days and sometimes on sunny days. They enjoyed camping and a few other short getaways. They played with their cousins. They enjoyed their grandparents. They floated on the river. They did a few Pinterest craft projects directed by me; they did a few craft projects directed by their own creativity. They attended VBS. They rode their bikes (with helmets).

Ordinary? Yes. Magical? I hope so. I think so. Because . . .

“There is a garden in every childhood, an enchanted place where colors are brighter, the air softer, and the morning more fragrant than ever again” (Elizabeth Lawrence). No particular decade required. So whatever kind of summer your kids had, I’m sure it was magical.

I hope yours was, too.