A Wilderness of Childhood


Mercantour (River) by Michel Bousquet

I grew up in the suburbs in the 1970s. It was a particular type of childhood, with signposts familiar to anyone of a certain age, a similar background. It was a childhood marked out in Twinkies, roller skates, Jordache jeans, and 8-track tapes. We had an A-frame metal swing set in the backyard. When we pumped the swings too high, the posts rose up off the ground and then fell back with a satisfying thump. Our feet nearly touched the sky, our heads thrown back, hair to the wind.

In the kitchen, my dad pointed the ketchup bottle at the ceiling and smacked the bottom, creating a spray of tomato constellations. I laughed so hard I fell off my chair. We let the lobster loose on the lawn and poked at it with a stick before my father boiled it. We had a white rabbit in a hutch, and we fed it grass clippings while our collie, Taffy, ran crazy in the background.

We got our fingers caught in plastic shape sorters — the ones that snapped together, ferocious — and we hung upside-down by our knees from domed-shaped climbing structures. Someone always fell off. You had your breath knocked out. You got back up. There wasn’t any shock-absorbing mulch. I’m not sure concussions were invented yet. There weren’t any bike helmets.

There weren’t any car seats either. I remember a long, puce green car, roughly the size of a boat. In the back, our bare legs stuck to ribbed vinyl.  On sharp turns, we slid around like slushies on a carnival ride.

We watched Saturday morning cartoons and, when the knob fell off the television, I stuck a paper clip in the hole and sparked the house. We knew all the words to School House Rock. Conjunction Junction was my favorite.

My brother and I ran wild in the woods behind my father’s apartment building. There was a stream to fish or fall in. There were rocks to scramble over, trees to climb or hide behind. It was a wilderness without borders, a separate world, populated by our imaginations. It rang to the soundtrack of our shouts and laughter, and never dulled through years of reinvention.

Last month, my brother and sister-in-law came to visit with their children. My nephew is the same age as Boo Monkey (five) and I swear they are cosmic twins. When they bend their heads together and whisper, it’s best to hold your breath, ’cause trouble’s on its way. My niece is an adorable, spunky two, with the smile of a cherub and the will of a linebacker. I couldn’t love them more.

On the morning before they left, we took all four kids on a walk that ended up at the little stream by our house. It’s not much — smack in the middle of a boarding school campus, lovely but tame by the standards of my childhood. And yet, climbing the banks with my brother, fishing out wayward soccer balls, using old sticks and roots to keep our balance and somehow managing not to fall in . . . it was like slipping back, lovely lost, into those old woods behind our dad’s apartment.

Memories don’t always fade away, melt like cotton candy. Sometimes they twist round fingers, latch to bone, twine in fibrous muscle. We were young in the woods — seven and ten when our father moved there, a few years older when he bought the house on Empire. Those old memories slip back, return, like a skin within a skin, permeable and elastic. They are things we do not shed.

As an adult, on the banks of a simple stream, my childhood wilderness surfaces like an overlay, so that my brother and I are both here and there, now and then. It is startling, wondrous, ours.

Many things have changed since my childhood in the ’70s.Twinkies are no longer a breakfast food. Roller staking is nostalgic. Jordache jeans and eight-tracks are museum artifacts. Playgrounds have shock-absorbing mulch and solid swing sets that never leave the ground. There is no ketchup on my ceiling, no lobster on the lawn, and every finger-pinching shape sorter has been carefully recalled.

The greatest change, however, lies in the tenor of our days, in what we see as safe or hazardous, as risky or mundane. My kids wear bike helmets, of course, and the back seat of our car is plush and lined with car seats. And these are good changes, ones that make me grateful as their mother.

Still, inside that difference, there is a wider, darker shift, one that makes me cringe. I do not let my children run wild in woods, like we once did, unsupervised, unwatched.

In Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv argues that many childhood ailments can be linked to our current “nature-deficit”. Our children need more unstructured playtime among trees and streams, sticks and frogs. I agree with the premise — I lived it myself — but I stumble over practicalities.

Neighborhoods are different now. The world is not the same. Louv would argue that the risks are still quite low, that it is simply our perception that has shifted. Still, after Columbine, after 9/11, after almost any evening news report, it is far less obvious where we draw the line between civilized and wild. The places that used to feel safe and free and completely ours now sag heavy with potential shadows.

I like our little creek. It is small, yes, but my kids still build their memories there. I am grateful for many aspects of their childhood, not least that they are growing up in a nurturing community, filled with travelers from around the world. There are many advantages to this place, this time. But still, there are days when I wish for them those wild, untrammeled woods and streams, a wilderness of childhood that spread so far we couldn’t see its limits — or our own.

In this, their new millennium childhood, my kids have Polly Pockets and Zhu-Zhu Pets and cherished American Girl dolls. They bring intensity to small streams and wooded areas where I try to stay in the background. From leaves and twigs and scattered bark they build fairy houses decked in halfway hope, slim, darting wings at the corners of their eyes. They play Pooh sticks and marvel at small, bright fish and frogs that jump from nowhere into vanishing.

They do not have my childhood, and that, I think, is more than okay. If I cannot let them run wild, I can still let wild run in them. Years from now, on the leafy banks of some other stream, I hope their memories will flex like water-splashed skin, enduring, and more than a little untamed.

What are the strange and wondrous signposts of your childhood, the artifacts you carry? And, if you are a parent, what do you imagine your children will most remember from these days?  




17 thoughts on “A Wilderness of Childhood

  1. One of the reasons we moved to The Woods was because R had such fond memories of running wild down mountain trails and rowing his boat on the quiet lake. Now that we’re here, it terrifies me that the water is so close. No one is allowed on the water alone, and Buckaroo isn’t allowed to leave the yard.

    I am thankful that Sweet P sometimes takes Buckaroo on adventures in the woods. I’m thankful, too, that every year they get to see the nesting loons and herons, the tiny birds’ nests wound with dental floss, the discarded dragon fly armor, and even the wasp cycle.

    I guess the good side of being with our children while they play is that we’re there to help them understand the miraculous. That’s something.

    • I love the woods by your house — a wonderland. And I love watching my kids play by the stream or in the woods. I love to witness and to spin stories with them. Sometimes I wonder if they wish for that absolute freedom that my brother and I had, though. I don’t know. Maybe we just celebrate what we have and try to open as many trails as possible?

  2. I love your memories — and I always wanted your childhood! Instead, I never really put down roots because we traveled a lot. My childhood was spent off again on again in Belize and Kenya interspersed with two years in a California neighborhood where I desperately tried to fit in. My kids have memories of growing up in a small New England town where they definitely do not need to suffer from Nature Deficit Disorder (thank goodness, have read of this before, and YIKES!) and know every single kid and their parents practically by sight…. I think we envy one anothers’ experiences at least a little bit…

    • Yes, there’s always something tantalizing on the other side. I’d love to hear more about your adventures in Belize and Kenya!
      Right now, we live in a close community and I love that my girls know pretty much everyone. We’re at a boarding school, so they don’t know every student — but every student knows who they are 🙂 There are lots of kind and watchful eyes, and smiles.

  3. Lisa – I grew up in the late 50’s/early 60’s and lived in the same suburban home all my childhood. While we didn’t have nearby woods, we had wonderful neighborhood games of kick-ball, hide-n-seek, four-square, hopscotch and Chinese jump rope. Marathon games of Monopoly. We were in and out of each others houses constantly. We walked together to the elementary school and to the store for penny candy. I had a rust mark on the back of my knee from spinning around on the monkey bars. On the swings, we went as high as we could, legs pumping, and then jumped off. So many wonderful memories. And yes, it was a different time. And there is certainly a part of me that is sad not to have been able to give my children those kinds of memories. I can only hope they have treasured memoires of their own.

    • Brenda — What lovely childhood memories! I think one of the things we are (often? usually?) missing now is that sense of neighborhood coherence. I love the detail about the rust mark on the back of your knee, and I remember jumping from the high point of the swing as well. I wonder what memories our kids will cherish — different, but still good, I hope.

  4. Your childhood is so beautifully evoked here. And we must be the exact same age as so many memories are familiar. What I remember are long, empty summer days, running around the streets with neighborhood kids. I don’t even remember what we did but I remember my mother coming out to find us, in the back yard, with watermelon, as the sun went down and lightning bugs came out. I’m pretty sure she had no idea where we were all day long. And, like you, I worry about this a lot when it comes to my kids. They’re city kids, growing up without a creek or a stream nearby. I take them to the nearby “fairy stream” in the wildest place in our town, and we go walk around Walden now and then, and we play in the park. But still, I worry. I love your expression about letting the wild run in them. I’ll remember it. Thank you. xox

    • Yes, those long, unstructured days — it seems very different from what my kids have now. They always have some unstructured playtime in the afternoons, but it’s usually (safe?) inside. And fireflies! I had forgotten about catching them in old mayo jars. I’m glad you have a fairy stream and Walden nearby. We must live close to each other as well. We are about an hour west of Boston. Thanks for the lovely comment and memories Lindsey. xox

  5. “if I cannot let them run wild ( reality is you cannot ) I can still let wild run in them”. … Beautifully phrased! I love that line !
    Things change.but you’ll be glad to learn there is ketchup on my ceiling

  6. You describe childhood in the 70s perfectly. This blog post brings back all those memories, vividly! I remember eating my bologna, American cheese, and mustard sandwiches on white bread at the counter in my kitchen everyday. I, too, ran wild and unsupervised in our suburban neighborhood with “my gang”. We played tackle football down the street at the “island” or in my backyard where my parents said no tackling–yeah, right! My older brothers, our friends, and I played a game we made up called “LaHoc” which was inspired by the origianl movie “Rollerball” and was a mix between lacrosse, hockey,and rollerderby–a wickedly violent game that gave me a couple of hockey sticks to the mouth (of course, we were not wearing any sort of protective gear like mouthguards!). I can’t imagine allowing any of my students to try to conjure of a game like this today! I also spent lots of time down at “the creek” building dams, racing sticks, blowing up model ships with all sorts of fireworks. We used to do all sorts of stupid stuff like smash-up derbies with our dirt bikes, bottle rocket and roman candle wars (throwing lit bottle rockets at each other and taping roman candles onto our bikes to shoot at each other) on the 4th of July, and lounging in the sun at “the Pool” every day after swim team practice in the summer without suntan lotion (and sometimes opting to use the baby oil to fry our skin instead!). All of this unsupervised where I just knew that I had to be back in time for dinner or back inside before dark. I agree that our children need to have that unstructured time playing outside, but I also agree that we live in very different times. We are fortunate to live in such a caring community that can have so many watchful eyes on our children when we cannot see them–I think that allows for our children to have some of those same experiences that we had as kids. I think our children have a great appreciation for the technology of their time as well as the ageless wonders of nature that will hopefully still exist when they have their own children! Thank you, my darling, for this walk down memory lane!

  7. Oh wow! So many of your blog posts are perfect snippets of memoir . . . such beautiful short and complete pieces. I read the last paragraph twice because I liked the rhythm so much.

    I like your attitude of accepting that your kids’ childhood is different, but that doesn’t have to mean “bad.” I’m sure our parents looked at our childhoods and thought about their own good ol’ days and how much more wholesome things were. Our kids will probably do the same when they’re parents.

    • Nina, Thank you for such a lovely comment 🙂 I like how you express the shift in thinking between “different” and “bad”. I try to stay away from the pitfalls of nostalgia, the idea that “the good old days” were without their complications. I like to look back and forward at the same time, even though it gives me a bit of a squint. And I agree that the generations have their cyclical patterns, those repetitions of thought. As always, you give me lots to ponder.

  8. I love this! It brings up such vivid memories of unfettered rides in our ’70s station wagon–facing backwards with the back window down. This must have been a bit awkward at stop lights with the driver in the car behind staring right back. As always, you capture the past with such clarity and grace!

    • Oh, I remember those station wagon rides now! I rode all the way from upstate NY to Florida like that one year. Thanks Sharon.

  9. Lisa,
    I truly enjoyed reading this. It brought back so many childhood memories. Like the time a bunch of us “girls” (by girls I meant my sisters) went fishing down by the brook and my parents didn’t worry they knew we were together yep, together that is all.
    As a child I was allowed to stay out “until the streetlights came on” now some places don’t even have streetlights.
    We were free and worry free back then. Now kids have a hard life…
    We had the simple life.

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