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?