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Tag Archives: Childhood

White Coral Bells

The first day of kindergarten, I had to ride the bus. This was not that unusual at the time; fewer parents regarded the inaugural public school launch as an occasion to take the morning off, drive the maiden voyager to school, take 50 photographs and go into the classroom full of tiny chairs and naptime rugs for a tearful adieu. My parents worked, they went to work that day (as far as I know) and I got on the noisy yellow bus in front of our house on Hamilton Road, clutching my braided rug and wearing a corduroy jumper appliqued with a satin apple.

The bus was intimidating for a small person, but the driver knew a greenhorn when she saw one. “Good morning,” she said as I climbed up the high, black steps towards her seat. “Why don’t you sit right behind me, with Mary Sue. She’s new, too.” I regarded Mary Sue with no small amount of suspicion; she was also quite small, and had striped tights and red shoes. I wanted them immediately, and I was sure I had seen them at the Buster Brown store where I had been convinced that brown Mary Janes were my best option.

“Okay,” I said, sliding onto the dark green vinyl bench seat.

“Hi,” said Mary Sue.

“Hi” I said back. We lapsed into a philosophical silence, and the bus began to move again with an enormous cough.

“My name is Miss Eva,” said the driver. “Are you ladies starting kindergarten today?” We both nodded. “Would you like to sing a song while we pick up the other children?” This seemed reasonable to me; people were always singing songs in nursery school, and this bus trip seemed, logically, to be a part of School as a general principle.

“Okay” said Mary Sue.

“Good,” said Miss Eva, “we’ll start right after this next stop. We have a long time after that one.” As she braked to a stop in front of a small group of children standing in front of a farm house, Mary Sue slid towards me.

“My dad has a glass eye,” she said. Unsure of the proper response, I waited to see if there was more. There was. “Sometimes he takes it out and puts it in his mouth to clean it off.” She had my full attention. I pictured a dad, somebody big with glasses and a beard like my dad, reaching up to pull his eye out of the socket and popping it into his mouth like a gumball. “Do you want to come over to my house and play?” I did, but a terrible thought occurred to me.

“Will your dad be there?” I inquired as the group of older kids bumped and joggled each other past us and towards the back of the bus.

“Prolly not. He goes to work. Does your dad go to work?” As far as I knew, all dads went to work.

“Yes. He’s a professor.”

“A what?”

“A professor. It’s a kind of teacher. At his office he has a wood thing with tobacco for his pipe, and the ladies give me gum.” It was no glass eye, but I had to work with the material I’d been given.

“Alright, girls, let’s sing – do you know ‘White Coral Bells?’” I wasn’t going to be the first to say I didn’t.

“Uh uh” said Mary Sue.

“No” I allowed.

“Okay. I’ll sing it for you, then we’ll sing it together, then we can sing it as a round. Do you know what that is?” My heart sped up; I knew this one.

“It’s when you sing it at different times” I said proudly. Mary Sue looked skeptical.

“That’s right!” said Miss Eva. “You must be a musician, Miss Apple Dress. What’s your name?”

“Annie” I said, warm with pleasure at having been right. Mary Sue remained impassive. Miss Eva began to sing, then, in a thin, sweet soprano voice. It was an easy song, and after we heard it once we were able to sing most of it. By the time we picked up a lone boy in front of an apartment building, we were taking turns starting, and growing the simple melody into something richer and more complex.

We pulled up in front of the school, and my heart sped up again, but it was going to be okay. I knew Mary Sue now, although I wasn’t really sure I liked her yet, and I could go to her house but not have to see her one-eyed father. I knew what a round was, and I was only five. I was pretty sure Miss Eva liked me. “Have a good day!” she called as we slid off the seat and began our ascent down to the curb. I could see Mrs. McKinley, the kindergarten teacher, waiting for us with a group of kids. I had met her at something called Kindergarten Roundup, and that was how I knew who she was, and that I was going to learn, among other things, my left from my right and how to skip.

“That’s Mrs. McKinley,” Mary Sue told me as we walked towards her.

“I know,” I said. “But it’s okay that you told me.” She stuck out her hand, surprising me. I took it in my own, and we sailed, on small, Buster Brown shoes, into the unknown seas of elementary school.

 

 

 

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August

It is August. I am lying on my Marimekko bedspread in my room at home and the house is filled with the smell of ratatouille. My mother makes a huge batch every year at this time, and my parents eat it with everything and serve it at dinner parties until the well runs dry and the last scrap of eggplant has been devoured with a forkful of rice. She makes it on a Saturday, listening to the Texaco Metropolitan Opera broadcast while my father sits in his office finishing the syllabus for Humanities 105 amid a pile of books about Renaissance art. I passionately hate the opera, which is why my door is closed and I have headphones clamped over my ears. She will store the stuff in a huge pottery bowl, a bumpy, nubbly thing in ombre creams and browns. I find it a little déclassé, that bowl, just as I am occasionally troubled by the fact that we do not live in a house with both a living room and a family room. It is, I understand in some vague way, part and parcel of having parents who spend money on trips to Europe and Maine and drive used Ford station wagons, who listen to Pete Seeger and Joan Baez and take me to McGovern rallies.

I will not eat the ratatouille, having taken my requisite “no thank you bite” some time in kindergarten. I think it is gross, slimy, dark and clumpy. I do not eat eggplant except when my mother makes her famous Eggplant Soufflé which converts many eggplant haters over the years. She is good at that, cooking things people usually hate and making them into something disarming and sublime.  I will gladly eat the eggplant soufflé, and the garlicky grilled lamb in pita bread, but I can’t bring myself to eat her ratatouille.

The smell, though, the slowly cooking zucchini, tomato, eggplant, onion and garlic, is a fragrant index finger pointing me towards fall, school, cooler air, bags of apples, and new clothes in hunter green and deep burgundy.  Lying on my bed I am surrounded by the Back-to-School issues of “Seventeen,” “Glamour” and “Mademoiselle.” They came out in July, while we were still in Maine, living in a cottage on Boyden Lake. I bought them at the Rexall when we went into Eastport to do laundry, buy groceries and get books out of The Peavey Memorial Library where I checked out and read all of the Nancy Drew mysteries every single summer until I started college. I had sat at the dilapidated table in the cottage paging earnestly through the extra-thick, glossy grails of fashion over and over again, asking my mother to look at the bell bottoms I liked, or the sweater with the little belt at the waist.

We could not shop until we went home again, but I could plan, bend back corners, change my mind, and imagine myself strolling magnificently into orchestra or algebra in my Levi’s cords, Famolare shoes and cute sweater. I am not particularly cute, but I feel my annual surge of hope as I look at ads for Love’s Fresh Lemon, Twice As Nice shampoo, and Clearasil. I have been swimming in the lake all summer, and walking the mile to get fresh water from the Artesian well at the main house, my hair is lighter from the sun and my skin looks better with a light tan. Lying on my back, pushing aside the spine of a magazine, I check my stomach – it feels flat. It’s a good start, and with the right stuff I will make my curly hair into golden Farrah feathers, my spotted skin into the rosy, glowing face I see in the Bonne Bell ads and my hearty peasant body into something long, lithe and covetable in a leather jacket and a little dab of musk.

We will have shopping trips, my mother and I; we will go to the Jacobson’s Miss J Shop for sweaters, upstairs to buy shoes, and then to the Levi store for bell-bottomed cords in colors reminiscent of the hated ratatouille. I will get my hair cut at Staci’s Swinging Coiffures, where Sally will purse her glossy pink lips and remind me that “curly haired gals” need to be sure to blow dry all the moisture out if we want our hair to stop frizzing by lunchtime. Despite her earthy, lefty habits, my mother is the daughter of a Hungarian Princess, and she understands the transformative power of having shiny hair, beautiful clothes and a dresser covered with perfume bottles.

I will call my cello teacher and set up my lesson time for the school year, and I will start practicing again in earnest, after months of sitting on the deck at the cottage and playing Bach suites because I like the way the notes seem to float out across the woods and over the lake, reaching the loons, and unseen people rowing out to see if they can catch some fish for dinner. I will begin calling my friends, riding my bike to their houses to make sure that the delicate filaments of adolescent fellowship are still strong enough to bear the weight of a new school year of crushes, algebra tests and the lunchroom jungle. I will buy new notebooks and write my schedule on the back of one with dashes for each unexplained absence I am permitted. I need to be able to mark them off as I go, and to use my entire allotment of absences in math, science and social studies; I will never miss a day of orchestra or English.

I do not know then, cannot imagine this life where I am the mother, the cook, and the arbiter of school shopping. I have become a lover of opera, of eggplants, of Bohemian living far from the showy, unused “living rooms” of the suburbia I once envied. I am planning to make ratatouille this weekend, using my mother’s recipe. I feel that change in the air, the pulse of summer lassitude quickening to autumn’s insistent rhythm. My own child will not eat ratatouille, and he will flee to his room when I plug in my iPhone and blast “Tosca” through the kitchen speakers. He will not be looking at magazines, though – he is not a reader, not a musician, not tormented by dark doubts about his looks or his place in the world. He will be playing Xbox Live and texting, and scheming to buy new bearings for his longboard. It is different, and it is the same, the years of my life bound together by the smell of roasting vegetables, the silky ascent of a soprano voice, and the change in seasons.

I wonder if she still has that bowl.

Free-Range Children

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My 12-year-old son has just walked out the door to the bus stop with a Nos Energy Drink in one hand and a pocket full of Halloween candy for  breakfast. He also falls asleep with the TV on, a TV which is IN HIS BEDROOM, does not willingly read books, and sometimes gets to steer the car on a quiet, suburban drive. He rides his bike around with a band of friends after school and on weekends, and sometimes they end up at the H & H Mobile Gas Station, on a busy corner, where they buy drinks and plan the filming of thrillingly viral YouTube videos.  He is allowed to attend “all-nighters” at the F.R.A.G. Center, a local hangout for computer gaming geeks, and frequently trades on Craig’s list, where he has made some bad trades, but also gotten himself a bike and a better cellphone. He has seen “R” rated movies, and sometimes listens to music with lyrics that would send his grandmother into apoplexy.

He has grown up in a neighborhood of undergraduate student renters, and as a little boy, used to ride his motorized Jeep around, meeting and greeting, and often being invited in for some ice cream or a little Nintendo. We always knew where he was, and we received apologies for everything from the bong being out when he came into the house (“but we hid it right away!”) to treats given at dinner time. His student friends bought him Christmas gifts, giant bags of candy for Halloween, and, on one memorable occasion, a group of leggy, stunning party girls made him an amazing trick-or-treat bag which is used to this day. Some of them, all grown up and married, still come by to see him.

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Before you judge (and I can hear the indrawn breaths from here), I will tell you that there is a balance in this life. Just yesterday I took him for a dental cleaning. His shots are up to date, and he is required to do his homework before playing XBox Live. He has good grades, good friends, and is kind to animals, grandparents and small children. He often fixes himself a plate of celery, carrots and ranch dip as a snack, loves broccoli, and is generally fairly charming and polite. He is, to quote one of his teachers recently, “a hard kid not to like,” and I attribute a great deal of his ease in the world to his breadth of experience, positive and negative.

My friend Will, with whom I grew up, recently used the term “Free Range Children” to describe the way he and I were raised in the 70s; there were certainly rules, but we were also encouraged to be “out of the house” and to find things to do on our own. There were no play dates; I honestly cannot remember my parents arranging my social activity once I had hit second grade. We rode our bikes all over town, played games in the backyards until after dark in warm weather, and spent hours in the woods near my house, sledding in winter, building forts and finding troves of decaying pornography in summer. There were very clear boundaries and expectations at my house regarding manners, kindness, and the value of intellect, but no one ever supervised my homework, suggested social alliances, or enrolled me in programs to “improve”me academically. We were a mixed-faith household, and it was always clear to us that we had our options open as far as choosing or not choosing to practice religion. I have to say that my atheist father is one of the most moral and compassionate men I have ever encountered, and that he and my Jewish mother raised two children with strong moral compasses despite the absence of organized religion.

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I was required to brush my teeth, take piano lessons until fifth grade and write thank-you notes, and I was discouraged from having Barbies (which my parents found moronic), but in general, I was “free-range.”

There is, of course, tremendous pressure on contemporary parents to “helicopter;” to protect children from all possible harm, to shape their experiences, friendships and education in a way that increases the probability of future happiness and success. At its lowest levels (and I can agree to disagree with you about this) it involves sheltering children from “inappropriate” content in movies, games and music. My own experience was that, as a voracious reader, I had read all kinds of things (including the incredibly explicit sexual exploits of Frank Harris in a book someone had left at my grandparents’ house) by the time I was in the fifth grade, and that I did not, as a result, become a nymphomaniac who uttered strings of expletives that would make a sailor blush.  I also spent a fair amount of time trying to tune in a porn channel that occasionally presented its grainy self on our downstairs TV set, squinting to figure out whether I was looking at a breast or, perhaps, an elbow.

Sam has become neither a potty mouth nor an axe murderer as the result of his exposure to violence in games and movies, or to “bad” language in rap and hip-hop songs , although I often take the opportunity to explain to him my own personal objection to the way women are objectified in certain music, or to the casualness of killing in games and movies. I have to trust that we have raised him well enough that his brain is not, at this point, merely a malleable puddle of mush to be shaped by whatever blows down the cultural pike. (He is actually more likely to be damaged by that particularly tortured metaphor than by listening to Fifty Cent). My husband and I are watching, we are available, and I know we  both value those “teachable moments.” I vividly recall the “Preachers’ Kids” of my youth who went absolutely wild in high school, and the people who were not allowed to have sugar growing up, and subsequently ate nothing but Captain Crunch in the college dining hall; it is our choice to allow our child to have some exposure to the worst of pop culture now, while we can talk about it and maybe provide a parental inoculation against the worst effects.

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A level up from media control is academic and social micromanagement. I am less flexible on this topic. I do not believe that children have to have certain teachers, be with certain friends in classes, or have specific curriculum, without which they will fall behind and find themselves doomed to work as grocery store baggers. I also believe that part of learning to function in the world is being allowed to fail while the parental net is still there; better to find out what happens when you don’t do your homework when you’re in fifth grade than when you are in college.  My parents intervened precisely twice in my 13 year public school career, provoked once by the second grade teacher who believed I was dyslexic and told me that I should stop writing imaginary stories and “write about something real, like dolphins.” We would always intervene to protect Sam from a situation that was damaging to him academically or personally, but having to make new friends in the classroom or deal with a cranky teacher is a part of life, like meeting new co-workers or roommates,  or working for a difficult boss.

The highest level of parental control involves physical freedom, and it’s complicated. There are places where children are not safe outside, and, sadly, their parents do right to keep them close to home and under watchful eyes. We don’t live in one of those places, and although there are busy streets to cross, and probably the average amount of stranger-danger, Sam is now completely free-range. There were streets he wasn’t allowed to cross until he was a certain age, we have to be able to get in touch with by cell at all times, and he has to wear a helmet, but he can go. I have seen in my own childhood, and among Sam’s friends, the effects of the restrictions imposed by fearful parents, and while I fully (!) understand the impulse to protect what you love most in the world, there is no way to accident-proof life. Bad teachers, bad influences, bad words, and bad accidents happen, and one chooses either to insulate one’s offspring for the longest possible time to keep them safe and happy, or to let life unfold, running behind the two-wheeler with a hand ready for a fall, but clinging to neither bike nor child.

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The summer after Sam was in first grade, he and his friend John rode down the big hill we live on, into the intersection below; Sam on his bike and John on a scooter. At the foot of the hill, John rode into a moving car, and was killed. When John’s father, who I admire beyond words, came over the next day to tell Sam what a good job he had done to run for help, he said to me that John had probably known he was doing something dumb, but that he had “died being a boy, and having a great ride.” I haven’t heard anything wiser since.