July 4, 2022

We Had Nothing.

Growing up, we had nothing.

No smart TVs mounted to the wall in our room. No cell phone. No air conditioning. No pre-planned play dates. No expensive, all-inclusive vacations. No laser-tag birthday parties. We didn’t travel out of town for sports. We didn’t pay $400 to participate, and then another $250 for the uniform.

My parents worked hard, and we certainly had what we needed, but we weren’t rich. There was no extra “spending” money. No “disposable” income. The money we had was already spent. On electricity. And food.

My house was three bedrooms with one tiny bathroom. Not sure if it was even close to 1,000 square feet, until my dad built us a new two-car garage, and turned the old “one car” into the master bedroom. When that was complete, we felt like we lived in a palace, but truth be told, our 70s shoebox ranch home was probably smaller than Kim Kardashian’s shoe closet.

From my little kid perspective, we had a big yard, though. When I drive by it now, it looks like a postage stamp. So small, yet packed with tumbling, hula-hooping, cart-wheeling memories. The 50-year-old mound that was once my mother’s beautiful rock garden filled with creeping phlox and myrtle remains.

Back then, we didn’t seem to care about having a big house. We didn’t do much inside anyway, except sleep, bathe, and eat.

We had summer, though. A real one. We had outside. We had sunshine, and banana-seat chopper bikes, and paper routes, and cut-offs, and chores, and neighborhood “gang” meet-ups at the lower bus stop on Merryall Road to discuss what we would do for the day. Where we wanted to explore. We had a swimming hole, and woods, and hillside fields, and a little, winding stream, teeming with minnows, and slimy, bug-eyed amphibians.

When we were thirsty, we drank from the garden hose. When we were hot, we set up the sprinkler and watched semi-circle rainbows appear in the arc hundreds of times as we cooled off and let the grass get all tamped down, soggy, and slippery beneath our feet.

We had the ice cream man in his jingling truck coming up the hill right around 2 p.m. each day. We didn’t have an alarm clock telling us when to be ready, we just knew. A row of dirty-kneed kids, sucking on 25-cent, Bomb Pop treats that turned our tongues red, white, and blue.

We had Saturday morning cartoons, too. We “plugged in” to Hanna-Barbera while our parents slept. “The Jetsons” and “The Flintstones.” “Porky Pig,” and “Tom & Jerry.” A bowl of Fruit Loops, and Foghorn Leghorn’s daily spar with the bespectacled, child genius, Egghead Jr. was all I really “needed” for giggly, little-kid happiness.

We waited with anticipation for the comics section of the Sunday Edition of The Danbury News-Times—a big, thick newspaper with classifieds, real estate, and sports. Front page stories, business happenings, and local news. My mother thumbed through the Finast sales flier and the the Bradlees circular, while I perused Parade magazine.

Long, hot days with nothing to do.

We had fireflies, though. We captured them and put them in glass jars with breathing holes on top. And we had fireworks, too. My parents packed the VW Bus with cumbersome coolers and barefoot kids. We were a jumble of blankets, brownies, and post-supper energy, and we’d make our way up to the old high school where we’d sprawl out on the playing fields along with half the town.

Captivated, we’d watch them snap, crackle, and pop across the night sky in bright, burning flashes of dancing, exploding light. Thundering booms, with residual smoke. Audible groans and laughter when one fizzled and died, failing to meet our lofty expectations.

In the summer, we had nothing to do, but my sister and I always had The Farm. Smyrski’s Dairy was right around the bend, a quick bike ride away. We spent lots of time there, hanging out, feeding animals, pulling field stone from the pastures, and making friends with the cows. We grew tan and lean and hearty. Vitamin D does that. In the late afternoon (sometimes not until dusk), we’d finally pedal home, starving.

Growing up, we didn’t have Chipotle, or Starbucks, or Jersey’s Mikes, or Panera, or Dominoes. We had peanut butter and grape jelly on Wonder Bread, though, and it was f*cking delicious. Still is.

Dinner was foraged fiddleheads, Rice-A-Roni, and whole chickens, roasted to perfection. Dessert was some sort of Jell-o mold creation with whipped cream, or the “Busy Day Cake” from the red-and-white checkered, spiral-bound Betty Crocker Cookbook. Ours had splatters on most of the pages. There was always dessert, and who would turn down a slice of Busy Day Cake? We needed something sweet for “The Brady Bunch,” “Little House on the Prairie,” and “Star Trek.”

We didn’t have a pool. We had Lynn Deming Town Park. Swim lessons, and dock diving, and drip castles. Wet towels, and sunnies, and underwater handstands. And, exhaustion.

In the summer growing up, we had nothing. No photo dumps. No clicks. No scrolling. No Instagram. We had day after day of feeling still and grounded. We had night after night of peaceful, quiet reprieve, except, of course, for the heady pull of the moon, or the nocturnal chorus of crickets and katydids.

We had nothing. Nothing but what felt like endless time. Time on our side, time savored. Time to think, and time to be bored enough to invent, or recklessly satiate our wild curiosity. We even had time for each other.

We had nothing but time to grow up.

And isn’t that absolutely everything?


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