The word of the day — childhood.
The word instantly brings memories to mind of sandboxes and swings, cookies and Kool Aid, catching fire flies and riding bicycles. Childhood ought to be about being carefree, feeling safe and happy. I think many of us remember it that way, even if there were painful times.
When I remember my own childhood the best times come to mind first. Like ice cream sundaes at the drug store with my grandmother. We got dressed up to go, she with her hair put up in combs wearing a dark dress, maybe navy blue, and pumps, me in starched cotton with white cotton socks in Mary Jane shoes. We walked the two blocks past neighbors sitting on their front porch, stopping to say hello and the ladies telling my grandmother how sweet I looked. At the drugstore Gracie and Ethel worked behind the counter and always greeted my grandmother with “Why hello Opal. And here’s your sweet little grandchild! Butterscotch sundaes today?” We always had butterscotch sundaes and even when I was in high school Gracie and Ethel always called me “Opal’s little grandchild”. That’s my good memory of my grandmother.
Opal died young when I was about to be four years old. Her death was more confusing for my young self than sad. I remember her bed being placed at the window in the front room of the house so she could see the trees in the yard and people often walked up to the window to wish her well. I remember going to the funeral home to see her laid out in the casket and being curious about why only the top of her was visible. I remember a somber man lifting the lower part so I could see that she had on proper shoes. I am sure that my parents were heart broken, but none of that is real in my memory.
My family lived in several different places when I was small before settling into my grandfather’s house a few years after my grandmother’s death when he became ill and needed to be taken care of. So, we left the little white house on one side of the river and moved to the other side into the same house we were living in when Opal died and there we stayed until I finished high school. I had really liked the little white house and grandpa’s house felt like home.
The places we were in before that were not so great. There was an apartment near Chicago where the train ran along the edge of the back yard for a few months. It was cold and dreary. There was a trailer (excuse me, mobile home) in a park where no grass grew for a while and an apartment in a housing project for a period of time that my parents were separated. For part of that time I stayed with my paternal grandparents on their farm and that is one of those good memories from a not so good time that I cherish.
So, childhood, much like the rest of life, has it’s ups and downs. I find that talking about the downs upsets people. It’s as if they consider it whining to mention the negatives, especially if you mostly had it pretty good, which I did. I had rather dwell on the fun I had, the people I loved who loved me back, the things I learned and adventures I had. I can’t forget the injustice of bullies at school and that one really awful teacher but I survived those with little lasting effect. I prefer to remember classmates who became friends and teachers who were also examples.
I can’t write about childhood in any personal way without the best part of all — siblings and cousins. When I was three my brother was born and I was given my first big responsibility — watch the baby. This involved sitting by a play pen and reporting any activity to my mom. She would pause in her work and ask from the door “Are you watching the baby?”. “Yes. He still isn’t doing anything.” He amazed me. Still does. My cousin, Danny, stayed at our house a lot. His mom, my aunt Marie, had a house full of kids and not much else, so her children visited us often to be looked after until she could manage for them to come home. Danny, two years my senior, was my protector and favorite companion. I was allowed to roller skate all the way around the block if Danny came with me, and he always did. We played in the creek for hours and picked black berries and pretended to be The Lone Ranger and Annie Oakley. When I was eight my sister was born. She was a tag-a-long, following us older kids everywhere. We didn’t mind because she would do anything we told her to and she didn’t tell on us when she could have, maybe even should have.
My last sister lived only four days. All our hearts broke then. My brother, sister and I had all been so excited about the new baby and had such plans for her. She was utterly beautiful. I was eleven then and childhood began to end, as everything does.