A child who is told he is stupid will always believe he is stupid. A child who is told she’s a failure will always believe she’s a failure. When these insults and hostility come from the very heart of the family, they take root.
It’s the end of vacation, when all the things we meant to do over the summer cascade into guilt and regret. “Tree house” and “ocean” and “art museum” come off the list; “haircut” and “school shopping” go on. We should have done more! When I was little, I remember doing more.
On the radio, I heard the end of an essay by a man trying to connect with his elderly father, a father who had been harsh and distant for decades. I gathered that the one happy childhood memory the narrator had was of their annual, extravagant beach house vacation. The kids would run and play and whoop it up, while the dad would glower and retreat to the couch to watch TV. Still, he made it happen year after year.
Now, forty years later, the man finally asked his father if he had fun on those vacations — and if not, if he hated them as much as he seemed to, why did he make such a point of taking them every year?
It turns out that the old man, now almost eighty years old, was still smarting from the sting of his childhood, from the first day of school, when the teacher would assign that dreaded essay, “What I Did On My Summer Vacation.” The only true answer would have been: “We gathered peaches to pay the landlord” or “We shot rats in the turnip field so we wouldn’t starve come winter.”
So he and his brothers would make up something to write about, something that would prove that they had been having fun like the rest of the world. He resolved that his own kids wouldn’t have to resort to fantasy. They’d do something real on summer vacation, something wonderful. Something to report.
When my kids were all little, I used to accuse myself of not so much striving to make a happy childhood for them, as striving to create evidence that they had had a happy childhood. A baby book full of carefully edited anecdotes and cute dialogue; a photo album of high points and rare good days. Maybe, day to day, they had to cower away from me and my mood swings, and maybe they longed for me to just sit down, relax, and play with them, rather than frantically crafting towers of glorious expectations, and then collapsing in tears when it all caved in under the weight of real life. Maybe so. In the words of an old guide to confession: I am unable to judge the severity of my actions.
Either way, I had some hard evidence. I could point to the salt clay figurines, the stretchy loop potholders, the quirky animal sewing cards I had made just for them, using the back of a Crispix box and my own lifeblood, and I could say, “The proof is here. Only a loving mother would have done this. Remember how I let you make muffins with me, even though you drive me crazy? Let’s laminate this photo of you petting a goat at age 2, and let’s not laminate the memory of me crying over how much money we spent to get in. You liked that goat, you liked it very much. But you won’t remember, so I need to nail it down now, to present to the judge, I mean put in your baby book. And look, you were wearing a dress that I sewed myself.”
Behold, the gulf between love and intentions. Oh, the longing to love, the longing to be loved, the longing to have been loved. Oh, the clumsy swipes we take at that shining, shifting goal of happiness.
We are all, maybe, hoping to pacify the demands of the past, striving to bridge the gulf, to reach back over all those summers and tell our own selves as children, “Yes, you were happy. Here’s the proof.” We’re telling that long-dead teacher, now moldering in the grave, “You wanted an essay? You wanted to know what I did? Here’s my child, and he had fun on his summer vacation. Here’s the evidence you demanded; it’s all there.”
Here are the things I remember about my childhood, along with the vacations and the treats, the parades and the birthday parties — and also along with the mood swings and strife, the tensions and shouting, tipped-over tables slammed doors. Here are the things I remember, from summer and from winter, from the long, empty, formless days of vacation and the long, empty, formless days inside the lonely, needy heart of a child looking for some definitive proof of love:
I remember my mother putting down her book (more precious than rubies) and looking me straight in the eye when I called her name. My father pausing for a minute before he answered me, staying silent a little too long, muscling past his first impulse to criticize or refute. My big sisters praising me for so skillfully walking down the stairs with only one foot on each step, instead of two, like babies do. I remember being on rented skates and being swooped up from behind, a rescue just as the floor loomed up to pound in my face. I remember someone holding a pajama zipper away from my belly, protecting my skin as they zipped it up. I remember being protected.
There’s the evidence, and I’m writing it down now. It is the end of summer. We have something to report.
Let’s . . . let’s just talk about toys.
A trip last weekend to my childhood home has made me nostalgic. It’s far too early to share a list of Christmas present ideas, so how about this list of toys I remember from my childhood? Many are still popular, in one form or another. Here’s ten of my favorites, most for under ten dollars:
1. Sparking wheels!
The ones from my yoot were made of tin, and were very sturdy. I liked to sit at the bottom of the stairs, at the darkest spot in the house, and just crank that wheel, watching a mesmerizing little red and blue galaxy flash in and out of existence in the palm of my hand. The scratch and catch of the mechanism was very satisfying for the hand and ear, too.
Shopping around for a sturdy version that didn’t cost a million dollars, I came across this sparking toy:
which also toddles around aimlessly when you wind it up. Looks like today’s version of the hand-cranked wheel I remember is plastic and more flimsy, but probably still four bucks’ worth of fun.
If you haven’t seen one of these in action, it’s hard to explain what it does. The axles of the wheel have little magnets in them, and if you hold it by the handle end and flip it around the right way, the wheel goes whizzing around and around the frame, and, I dunno, it’s fun.
3. Siren whistles!
My migraine-plagued father had an inexplicable drive to buy us wonderful toys that drove him crazy. One perennial favorite was siren rings, which (like everything in my childhood, it seems) used to be made of metal. You could wear them like ordinary rings, and whenever the time seemed right, you would blow into the round window in the top and it would go “wwwweeeeeEEEEEEEEeeeooooooooooo,” and it never ever ever ever got old.
The closest I can find is siren whistles built into lips or mustache, or just in little tubes.
These get okay reviews, and you get, um, four dozen for $7.50, thereby ensuring that you will never ever ever ever run out of hearing “wwwweeeeeEEEEEEEeeeooooooooooo.”
Some inefficient part of me wants to buy myself this lovely, shiny little siren whistle, not a toy ($33) but designed for making sound effects.
It’s from the Acme company. THE ACME COMPANY. Wile E. Coyote c’est moi. The description also points out that it’s “a useful and unusual warning signal for small boats.”
4. Chinese drums!
Oh, my gosh, these are fun.
You roll the handle back and forth between the palms of your hands, which makes the balls swing on their strings, whacking the drum on both sides. Very satisfying! These are about $7, and they will send you a randomly-chosen design.
5. Clacker balls!
Did I ever get the hang of these? No, I did not. But they were enough fun that I tried for years and years; and I liked walking around the house looking at the world through the transparent balls with their tiny captive bubbles, too.
The trick is to loop the middle of the string around your finger and sort of jerk them in a rhythm so they smack together at the end of their strings until they start arcing up and down, clacking against each other high and low. (One of the reviews here shared a video, so you can get an idea of how it goes.)
Okay, so these are plastic (about $5 a pair). We had dark blue glass ones when I was little. Nostalgia aside, I can’t shake the idea that maybe it’s okay that today’s kids are pampered and coddled and aren’t generally encouraged to make glass balls crash against each other. Old ways are not always the best ways. Either way: not recommended for kids with short tempers.
6. Magnetic scotties
I’m not gonna lie to you: these are magnetic scotties. That is, they are two plastic dogs with magnets in them. See?
$6.55, and you get two dogs that have magnets in them! This mean you can make them kiss, or you can make them chase each other! It was a simpler time! It was fun, I tell you!
7. Mooing cans
They put farm animals on this item (about $8) to make you think it’s a toy for children, but it’s actually for anyone who just needs to hear a little moo from time to time. I believe it works with a weighted rubber membrane inside, and when you tip it over, it creates a suction that pulls air through the . . . you know, I don’t know how it works. But it’s hilarious. If you shake it really fast, it sounds like the cow is hysterical!
8. Color paddles
The one I had just had the three primary color, but kids these days are lazy, so get their purple, green, and orange handed to them on a platter.
This one gives you three sets of six colors for about $7. You can mix the colors together to make other colors, or you can just peer through them and think, “What if everything were purple all the time?”
9. Balancing bird
Balance it on your fingertip! Balance it on your chin! Balance it on your tongue! It’s such an obliging bird.
10. Jacob’s ladder
The perfect toy to feed into an introspective child’s Heraclitean confusion.
About six bucks. I understand how it works. Really, I do. The ribbons hold it in place, and the thing flips over, and I understand how it works. But damn! How does it do that?
I should note that all of the links are to Amazon products because I have an Amazon Associate’s account. If you buy any of these products, or if you buy anything at all on Amazon after getting to the site after clicking to one of my links, then I earn a small percentage of the sale. This is so helpful to my family, you wouldn’t believe it.
If you shop on Amazon, won’t you consider using my link? I’ll have a button on the sidebar here soon. In the meantime, here is Simcha’s Amazon Link. Be a peach and bookmark it for me! Thanks!
And now tell me about the toys of your childhood, especially the lovely, low-tech ones that keep on going through generations.
Help me, I beg the Father, to take up the task of Advent. The memories that awaken are silent Anna, raging Pat, chirping Mikey, his poor hand on the rail, begging his father, “No, Daddy, no!”
When I was growing up, everybody else’s father would happily (or so I thought) camp overnight outside K-mart to make sure their kids got one of the few remaining Cabbage Patch Kids in town. They would give them the best presents: Game Boys, Simon Says games, and of course the Barbie Dream House, with elevator and real bubbling hot tub. We never got any of these things.
Instead, my father gave us experiences. It took me a while to realize this was a conscious decision; and it took me even longer to realize what a great one it was. He would spend days and weeks planning out trips, making reservations, calling ahead to make sure everything was what he thought it would be, and of course parking in a safe place and then heading out first by himself to “reconnoiter.”
We would set out on long, long excursions with nothing but a few metal canteens of water and several packets of sugar wafer cookies. But when we got there, it was always something amazing. And, unlike all those cruddy toys I wanted so much, they are something I still have, in my memory. In no particular order, here are a few of the gifts my father gave us:
PIC Alpine Slides
PIC St. Gaudens
PIC Polar Caves
PIC Fenway Park
PIC Queechee Gorge
PIC Peaks Island Ferry
PIC Isabella Stewart Gardner
PIC Rollins Chapel concert
PIC The Cloisters
PIC Hood Museum
PIC Museum of Modern Art
PIC Mt. Ascutney
PIC Metropolitan Opera
PIC Fairbanks Museum
PIC Midsummer Night’s Dream
PIC Coney Island Nathan’s
PIC Covered bridge
PIC Big Apple Circus
PIC Hopkin’s Center Symphony
PIC Lake Sunappee seaplane
Happy father’s day, Abba! Thanks for all the days.
I spend a lot of time thinking what it must be like to be one of my kids. Before you say, “Oh, you’re such a good mommy!” it’s not really like that. If anything, I’m all the more culpable for being so mean sometimes. I actually can really, vividly imagine what it’s like to be, for instance, so so upset about someone saying that “Catsy Cootsy Tatsy Wootsy” is a stinky name for a robot — and yet I still say, “Oh, don’t be so silly, who cares? You stop crying and clean up this room.” Even though I remember what that’s like.
Anyway, I was thinking about those strange, stranded childhood memories that stay with us. We say, “When I was little, we always used to sit under the lilac tree and play farm using fruit snacks for animals” when really that only happened one time. Or our entire sixth year of life is represented by a memory of a maple seed helicopter that someone drew on with green marker and put in our hair. Probably something else happened that year! But that’s all we can remember, is the helicopter.
I just wonder how these memories stick. Why? I drive down the same country road four times a day, five days a week, with the four little ones strapped into their dank car seats. Sometimes we chat, sometimes we listen to music, sometimes they yell and kick at each other, and fight over the last of the graham crackers. But most of that time, they’re just looking out the window.
I glance back and see those dark, placid eyes drinking in the golden leaves, the endlessly unfurling stone walls, the occasional thrilling squirrel or cocker spaniel as we rattle down the road — that familiar landscape that ought to be so soothing and reassuring, and the perfect, idyllic setting for a whole year of comfortable childhood memories. There’s even a funny plaster bull in somebody’s yard. That would make a nice memory!
But I know perfectly well the strangeness inside a child’s head. I remember that simmering stew of comfort and confusion, tedium and alarm, affection and sudden spikes of dread. And I remember all the adults trotting along so callously, so bafflingly unaware of all the terrible dangers in the world, the savage mysteries that grown-ups pretend are nothing at all, just a shadow, just a plastic bag caught in the wind, just the sound of the house settling.
Some of my children are worriers and brooders, and I understand them. I can tell them, “It’s all right — it’s all right. You’ll grow up, and you’ll see that the world is not so terrible. There is a way out of this dark hole, and there is so much to look forward to. Just hang in there, and you will not always be a child! You can do it.” But that doesn’t help them now. They don’t know what I mean, and they don’t realize that I understand.
I wish I could choose their memories for them. When I’m feeling up to it, I try and bulldoze them over with poignant, satisfying experiences, so that they’ll have something good for when they grow up. And really, I know it’s not for their sake — it’s for mine. It’s so they can tell me, “Remember when you used to sing that song you made up while we were waiting for the eggs to scramble?” and I can say, “Oh, yes, you were such a difficult child . . . but I made you happy, didn’t I?” and they will say, “Yes, Mama, and we appreciate that. You were a good mother.”
Ridiculous. That is not what will happen. When they have their own kids, they’ll wonder why I couldn’t have been nicer, why I had to be so critical, so capricious, so impatient and embarrassing. They will love me, but it will be love with exasperation, accomplished with fortitude. I know that whoever my children will turn out to be, it will be because of their own experiences, their own personality, their own genetics, their own little portions of grace that God chooses for them. So very, very little of who they are will come from me, even though I crack my brain trying to think of everything they will need.
And of that, they will remember – – what? The time I yelled at them on their birthday; and maybe also the time I made kitten-shaped pancakes for lunch. Maybe they’ll just remember me brushing their hair.
I hope the time they remember is the time I remembered to be gentle.