That’s the God’s honest truth. The small town that I grew up in might as well have been Mayberry RFD. As a matter of fact, many of the people that I grew up with (especially the ones that moved away) actually call it “Mayberry”. My hometown is a small town on the Northeastern end of a 17 mile lake in Western New York State. When I was a child there were a couple of factories there, a small school and a relatively busy business district. You could get anything that you needed there, there was not much need to leave the village limits, and we rarely did.
I was a child of the 60’s; my early childhood was spent in the golden days before the civil unrest of the end of the decade. Our mothers – for the most part – were there to greet us when we came home from school at 3:15 and our fathers were to be feared when they walked in the door at 5:30. Most everyone had jobs that they could walk to and most families were one income, two parents.
There was much about this time (politically and socially) that I do not agree with today, but let me say that it was definitely a time of innocence for me as a 7 year old child. I was blissfully unaware of things like divorce or poverty. The world outside our own little bubble did not really exist for me. I had very little exposure to the world as it actually was because our family only owned one black and white TV and my father had control of it in the evening, watching the news (which I found extremely boring) and variety shows like Ed Sullivan or Laugh-In.
My family knew everyone in the small town, from the grocer to the mechanic to the insurance agent down the street. We lived a block from the school, in the house that my mother grew up in. It was a duplex and the next door neighbor was the proprietor of a ladies dress shop downtown. She was an older woman who lived alone. I used to knock on her door and visit with her from time to time. It was nice knowing that there was someone there – I guess it was comforting.
After school and on weekends all of the neighborhood children moved from back yard to back yard to play and our mothers each had their own special way of calling us home to dinner. I believe my mother used a large cow bell at one point, but my memory is slightly fuzzy, so this may be an exaggeration. We spent most of our time outdoors; I still remember my mother kicking me out of the house and telling me to “Go get some fresh air!”
We were sent to the store with a handwritten note to buy a pack of cigarettes for our parents, along with a carton of milk or a loaf of bread. We had Coca Colas at the Sweet Shop with our grandparents on Sunday and for an extra special treat we went to the local “Dog and Suds” for a dinner out (actually delivered to our car on a tray that hooked to the window) of gourmet hot dogs, fries and root beers.
We walked to school, going cross lots through the morning dew, or following the sidewalk plows in the winter. We would wear sandwich bags inside our boots to keep our feet dry when it snowed, since most of us were wearing hand-me-down winter boots. The school was small, so everyone knew each other – the younger kids looked up to the older ones in awe and fear. We would pray for specific teachers and be sad when we got one of the “mean” ones – we relied on our older siblings (or in my case my friends older siblings) to give us the inside information on which one was good or bad.
Summers were spent at the lakeside. The bus would pick us up on the corner to take us to the park for swimming lessons and arts and crafts. We would eat soggy bologna sandwiches that our mothers had packed for us in the morning for lunch, or if we were lucky and had a quarter or two we could order French fries or a frozen Milkshake candy bar for a special treat. I still remember the smell of French fries mixed with the damp smell of the towels we sat on while we ate them.
The holidays were a special time when we all looked forward to the annual Christmas drawing. Each of the merchants would donate an item or two, which would be displayed in one of the larger shops windows for the period of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Every time anyone made a purchase in any of the shops they would enter their name and address on a small slip of paper and drop it into a container at the register.
The week before Christmas, the big event would be held outside on the main street downtown. The entire community would come out – everyone bundled up against the cold – and wait as each item was given away one at a time. There were usually dozens of gifts given away. One year I won a die cast piggy bank made by the local plastics factory. Santa Claus would appear at the end of the evening, handing out oranges and candy canes to all of the children who were there.
In the wake of the events of the past weeks I think about the world that our children grow up in today and I can’t help but be nostalgic for those simple times. Part of me wishes that my own children and grandchildren could grow up in that world. Don’t get me wrong – my childhood was far from picture perfect, but on days like today I choose to remember it that way.
I cannot imagine my adult life without the advances that were made in the past few decades in terms of women’s and minority rights and modern conveniences. I would never have become the person that I am today with the wealth of opportunity that I have now. My ability to travel and experience other cultures and the fact that my children have been exposed to a world much larger than that small town are blessing that I have been very fortunate to have.
Perhaps it was just my youth and inexperience that make those days seem golden. Maybe most seven year olds look at the world; however changed it is from the years of my childhood, with the same sense of comfort and security. I wonder what my own children’s recollections of their early years will be. I can only hope that for all of our advances and improvements they can still keep that feeling that I recall. As I sit here with my memories I am so very thankful to have had those times.