Each time I watch our granddaughters at play, I think to myself, “Look at all the ‘stuff’ they have,” much of which, I should add, has been purchased by her grandfather and me. “Why,” I think, “am I constantly searching the Internet and perusing the shelves of toy stores in search of something to stimulate their appetites for learning? Are we doting grandparents or are we reliving our youth vicariously through our granddaughters?” I’ve come to the conclusion that our reasons are a combination of both.
Growing up in the Bronx, [yes the Bronx, that infamous borough about which Ogden Nash once said, ‘The Bronx, no thonx’], my main source of entertainment was my imagination. The last of six children, my parents could afford very little besides the food that was put on the table and even that was not what would be considered “haute cuisine.” So, we made do with a “spaldeen” (little did I know that it was a bastardized version of the word “Spalding,” the company that manufactured the rubber balls), the street, and a group of friends.
Spring and summer were our seasons. They were the long-awaited respite from the limited freedom that accompanies the cold, bleak wintry days. Sure, there was winter sledding to be had, and those of us lucky enough to own a “Flexible Flyer” were the most popular kids on the street, but words couldn’t describe the feeling of freedom that accompanied the shedding of one’s coat and meeting friends outside on the street to play such games as: box ball, stick ball, Ace/King/Queen, devil or angel, hopscotch, jump rope, ringalevio, Johnny-on-the-pony, and hit the stick. We would chant out rhymes to a bouncing ball, turning our leg over the ball between bounces, each successful turn acting as a prediction as to whom we would marry, how many children we would have and other innumerable fantasies that served to whet our appetites for a Cinderella-like future.
When we didn’t have a ball to play with, we would toss pennies against our building, the closest penny to the edge of the building would win the toss and the recipient would walk away a few cents richer. Of course, the newly found wealth wouldn’t last too long for the fellow gamblers would accompany the winner on his/her way to the candy store that was conveniently located around the corner from our building.
Dolls were a favorite pastime of girls between the ages of four and nine. Still in our single digits of life, playing “mommy” was the norm. When we reached the mature age of ten, we would have to rethink our doll-playing ways, perhaps even continue to pretend in secret within the confines of our bedroom.
Yes, life was simple. I had a couple of dolls, some chalk, a doll carriage, a jump rope (tailored from my mother’s worn out wash line that hung outside our living room window), and my “spaldeen.” I never knew that I was deprived. Everyone in my neighborhood seemed to have similar items. There was little to no TV to remind us that there was a wealth of things that we didn’t have, computers and all their offerings were yet to be invented, and credit was something that you asked “Harry the Grocer” to give you until your dad got paid on the first of the month.
Sundays would find us gathered around the one radio we possessed, listening to newspaper comics being read aloud. Often we would follow along, reading our own newspaper aloud to the tempo of the disembodied voice that resonated throughout our living room. Picture books? We had “Golden Books” that were purchased at the local five and dime.
Church was a major part of my Protestant background. My parents went twice a year, Easter and Christmas, but my siblings and I were expected to go every Sunday. We never questioned their absence, children obeyed.
Sundays also involved a visit to grandma and grandpa’s house for dinner. “Dinner” was always served at two o’clock in the afternoon and usually consisted of a roast, potatoes and some sort of vegetable. Grandma was old. She wore “house dresses,” had grey hair, and wore no make-up, but she was funny and loving. She adored her grandchildren and listened intently as we related our anecdotes about school and became our captive audience as we performed our made-up songs and dances for her pleasure. Having no formal instruction, we would put forth our best efforts to invent skits that were deserving of her rapt and loving attention.
School was probably boring, but boredom wasn’t part of our vocabulary. School certainly lacked all of the “bells and whistles” that are part of today’s curricula, but we didn’t expect it to be a source of entertainment. School was for learning and the teacher had all of the answers. Heaven forbid a note was sent home from your teacher! You would catch the “back of dad’s hand” if you didn’t behave and do what was expected of you. Education was our way out of poverty. It was our parents’ hope for our future. Parents never questioned the teacher, she was always right. So, we sat, we listened, and we learned.
There was no formal dress code for school; we didn’t need one. We had “school clothes” and “play clothes.” We dressed for school in a fashion similar to the way we would dress for church and, upon returning home in the afternoon, we would immediately remove our school clothing, hang them on hangers, and put on our play-wear. Our clothing, although limited in number, was always clean and always ironed. Good grooming was both a reflection of yourself as well as your home life.
Today, as I watch my granddaughters at play, I take a deep breath and wonder what their future may bring. Mine brought an advance in technology that was incomprehensible to my generation, a generation that read 1984 by George Orwell as a work of fiction beyond the limits of one’s wildest imagination. Little did we know at the time that he would prove to be clairvoyant; some of his predictions off by just a few decades. Will there be comparable advances in their future? It almost seems incomprehensible to me. For it was the generation who relied upon their creative imagination and limited resources, who were disciplined and directed, and who took great pride in achievement, that gave birth to the many innovations that are a part of our lives today. On the other hand, who would have thought that the rise in technology would give birth to Facebook, Twitter, and the iPad? The wheel has been reinvented; the world that will emerge remains to be seen.
Now, as I write this entry, I ask myself, “Were the good old days as good as I would like to believe they were?” Reflecting back on my youth, and not wanting to sound like my parents before me, I can only say that the good old days were good for me. They brought me a road map leading to a career in teaching, a career that enabled me to constantly evolve in order to meet the needs, both emotional and intellectual, of an inquisitive and tech-smart generation. They brought me a sense of comfort through strong family ties and developed in me a respect for those who had seen war and hardship in their lives. They brought me rules to live by and values to pass on to my children. Hopefully, they brought me the building blocks that have formed and will continue to form a similar foundation for my children and my children’s children. What more could I ask for?