My Clueless Caretakers
I was talking to one of my daughters about how my severe astigmatism had interfered with my father trying to teach me to tell time. She broke in with a question.
“How on earth did they not know you needed glasses? Even looking at your old baby pictures, it’s obvious: there is a kid who cannot see!”
I laughed. “Well,” I said, “I recently learned from my oldest sister that it’s even worse. Nobody noticed her bad eyesight until third grade, even though she had to repeat first grade because of it! How could they have gone through that with her and never noticed my problems a few years later?”
Yes, my parents were just a little unaware of their children. I’ve talked about that with both of my sisters; they get a little bit defensive and say that it was just the times, that everybody’s parents in the forties and fifties were a bit detached. I can accept that; those were simpler times. There were no seatbelts in cars, nobody thought about protective baby seats, and bike helmets were unheard of. Nobody saw the world as a dangerous place to send their kids out to play in. I wouldn’t blame my parents for those dangers.
My sisters also quickly reminded me that our parents provided many, many good things, and I absolutely agree. We had a beautiful home, with a wonderful selection of books and magazines everywhere within, we were well fed, taken to plays and concerts, taught to swim and sail, and to ride horses. But I still maintain that, different times though though they were, some things I remember now seem quite astonishing.
For starters, know that we lived near a large tract of woods. A stream ran through there from the lake, ending in swamps several miles below. We played in those woods, explored them, learned them, followed the old Indian trails, and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly.
We did that even when it was hunting season.
We were not idiots; when we heard gunfire we got the hell out there as quickly as we could. But wouldn’t you think our parents might have warned us about hunting season? Oh, well, no bullet holes in any of us.
When we were not in the woods, we might have been anywhere. We could have walked to the lake to go swimming, or be climbing trees in the back yard. We might have been climbing out our windows so we could jump off the roof; that was great fun. There was a ten P.M. town curfew that blew, and that was the signal for the older kids to skedaddle home.
Our town had a lovely lakefront, with piers and rafts, though we did sometimes have to remove a few leeches when we came out of the water. Can you imagine the hysteria today if a child emerged with leeches? As my daughter recently noted, the lake water is much too polluted to support leeches now. That’s progress!
My father kept a pistol in a cabinet drawer. We’d take it out when our parents weren’t looking to marvel at how dangerous it was — he had at least warned us of that!
When I was very young, an old barn was another place to explore. There were plenty of loose boards in the floor and rusty iron equipment hanging from the walls. Pigs had lived there once; I loved running in circles on the slippery floor. Loved it until I slipped and smashed my left eye against the bumper of a car.
That is still my worst eye. I must have had a terrific shiner as the impact briefly knocked me out, but nobody noticed or even asked about it.
I also liked to dig pig bones out of the black muck out back of that barn. When I say dig, I mean with a stick and my tiny little fingers. When I think now why that earth was so black and damp, I wonder how many times those fingers went in my mouth. I didn’t die, and here I am, still kicking, so maybe that bacterial exposure was good for my immune system?
The sandbox I played in was also our cats’ giant litter box. We all got ringworm from that, but our veterinarian treated us with the same medicine he gave us for the cats, so that was good, right?
I’m sure my parents taught me how to wash my hands and brush my teeth, but they didn’t follow up to make sure I actually did those things often. My teeth were not helped by the half cup of sugar my mother taught me to put on my cereal. No doubt many of my later cavities also came from the sugar-laden Zarex mom served us.
You’d think that someone might have noticed that I wore my bathing suit most of one summer without ever putting it in the laundry. Nobody noticed what must have been an awful stench. Only our doctor suggested an obvious cure when I went to him complaining of a vicious rash and pain.
Oh, yes, there was also that time the whole family forgot that I existed.
Driving with Mom was an adventure. The passenger door wouldn’t stay shut. My father did rope it shut after I almost slid out of it as Mom rounded a corner too quickly.
Dad was good to us. He’d let us sit in the back of our station wagon with the tailgate open. Ostensibly we’d enjoy fresh air, though mixed with plenty of lead infused exhaust fumes. No, of course, no seatbelts held us in. Cars didn’t have seatbelts then.
I mentioned that our house was full of books and magazines. It was also full of ashtrays. Mom smoked cigarettes, Dad had his pipes. We experimented with both, of course. We hardly needed to; the house was hazy with smoke, and so were our lungs.
We only ate white bread, we drank from the garden hose. Our gardeners know better than that today, but I guess no one did then. I had a BB gun and a four and a half inch hunting knife. Very appropriate for a young boy in the 1800’s, I imagine.
But we all survived. So did our friends, at least through childhood.
Not bad for feral children of the fifties.