Freshly cut grass was the smell I most remember from my childhood neighborhood, mowed and manicured by young dimpled boys before and after school, but mostly on weekends in between wide-eyed bike rides and stick ball-playing in the street.
We were considered a middle class community not because we had lawns—a few with painted fences and a few without—but because we all knew the care of those small parcels of green-grassed privilege was the revered responsibility of us all.
On any given day you might see Chris, Brent or Phillip wipe sweat from their brows with their youth-calloused hands, as they whistled and mowed the lawns of the Anderson family, the Portner’s or the Wood bunch, with their sprawling yellow house and seven lapping dogs.
“See you at the Pier after I get done,” Chris would yell to Phillip, whom we all called Philly.
Philly would not answer, but only raise up one of his hands, as he was a particularly good mower and wanted to earn his two dollars and fifty cents an hour to save up for a new Schwinn bicycle.
These boys were about thirteen and fourteen at most, still not yet men but no longer young-heeled children who ran after the ice cream truck for the cold comforts of childhood.
Whether or not kids were expected to do their fair share was not an idea that occurred to anyone on the streets where we lived.
We all pitched in, some of us more than others; and as kids, we all knew we were part of something larger than ourselves and that made us feel safe and strong, although we did not even know it at the time.
My father often recalled his first job as a paper boy and then as a gas station attendant. He told us there was no greater feeling than working and getting his first tips, his first paycheck and buying a soda or book on his own dime.
My mother worked on her family farm beginning at the age of four; picking coffee beans with her four siblings while they sang made-up songs about school, their friends and the dreams they shared.
Philly eventually bought that bike and couldn’t help but ride it in front of my house at least twice a day, while he jumped curbs and mussed up his hair on purpose just to make me look.
Brent was saving up to put himself through college as his father told him that “an education had to be earned if it was to be learned at all.”
As for Chris, he spent all of his earnings on a 1969 Blue Dodge Dart as soon as he was allowed to drive. When he got that car, all of the girls in the neighborhood lined up each morning to get rides to school. Chris was smart.
No one I knew was given a car because they got good grades, because they behaved, or because “they simply existed as children.” And we were much happier for it.
Everyone had chores, were expected to have respect without rewards and our parents ruled the roost.
This meant that my sisters, brother and I were physically active. When we weren’t cutting grass, walking to the corner store to buy a gallon of milk for mom, or taking turns cleaning the bathrooms or sweeping out the shed, we played outside.
We knew it was time for dinner when the sun had nearly set, and that meant setting the table as we scurried home sweaty and tired from a couple of hours playing dodge ball, hop sketch, tag and baseball games we played without cheering by our dads, because our dads worked.
All this work and play meant obesity was not a childhood epidemic.
Neither was addiction to violent video games, depression, suicides due to bullying over the Internet or permanently curved spines because of over-texting and over-sexting. We didn’t have time for all that.
On some evenings, we played board games like Scrabble, Monopoly, Chinese Checkers and Parcheezi.
On other nights we might have watched shows like Mary Tyler Moore, The Jeffersons, I Love Lucy, a PBS documentary or two—and on the weekends, Saturday Night Live. And we watched most of these shows “together as a family,” strange as that sounds.
There were no debates between children and parents about buying the latest cell phone parents could not even afford.
We didn’t talk back for “fear of our fathers” and we ate dinner each night at the same time, usually with our black and white, rabbit-eared television airing the Evening News with Walter Cronkite.
We didn’t have a lot in the way of material things, but we were happier for it.
As a kid, I still remember my annual trip to Sears to get my one pair of ‘back-to-school’ shoes I was told had to last through the holidays. My girlfriends also showed off our two new Marcia Brady-style dresses we were so proud of, along with ribbons that decorated our braided hair that we wore through the second year of middle school.
Boys used to smirk at us with their striped short-sleeved shirts, corduroy pants, sun-kissed hair and shy-flirted glances.
The kids at my school weren’t mean and we weren’t angry.
There was a feeling of optimism in the air; a kind of solid and steady cadence that followed us because we allowed it to, and because our parents treated us as their children, not as their friends.
My kids are at that magical age now; you know…that brief and oh-so fleeting time somewhere between childhood and full-blown adolescence.
Their minds are still clear, their curiosity intact and there is no inkling of apathy or ungrounded angst.
They say they want to work; that they want to do something meaningful when they get older and that they believe that “almost anything” is possible. I believe them and that’s the best thing I can do as their parent.
But what’s important is that they know they must believe in themselves if anything worthwhile is going to happen.
Where we live, there are not so many lawns to mow, safe streets to play in or open-ended hours to enjoy the sweat-filled days of youth until dusk.
Somehow, the days of youth are shorter because we have allowed it to. Our new techno-fevered and furious pitch that we have decided is a normal and healthy culture has robbed the living daylights right out of our children.
But however long their childhood lasts, it is theirs, not mine and I know they will find their own way, just like Chris, Brent and Phillip did; my three siblings and I—and my parents and their parents before them who were part of The Greatest Generation.
As I kissed my daughter on her wind-swept forehead after school one day, my heart swelled and my eyes teared as I knew my sleepless parented nights had not been in vain.
“I can’t wait until college because I’ll be able to choose the classes I want,” she said, still with her heavy backpack in her arms.
“That will be the best day of my life, and it’s only seven years away.”
As she continued to go on about college and all of her innocence-filled life plans, I could only focus on the words “only seven years away.”
Seven years away I thought; seven more glorious years to bask in the glow of the magic that is childhood.
Ed: Bryonie Wise
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