There on the shelf, buried behind a couple of decorative German beer steins, a barnyard full of glazed animal figurines, and a set of daintily flowered miniature teacups and saucers…obscured by an oversized porcelain cupid, the brightly colored vases, and hand-painted snuff boxes…nearly hidden by the carved witch with the warty nose and the antique wind-up mantel clock, I spotted my long-lost youth. A set of four glass tumblers, each with a different “Love Is…” cartoon stamped on it. A nearly identical set had been a fixture in the kitchen cabinets of my childhood home. That cartoon strip, a favorite in the Sunday funnies, is as emblematic of those carefree days of the 1970s as watching Dark Shadows and Speed Racer weekday afternoons and learning Chinese jump rope and Cat’s Cradle with an elastic cord on my elementary school playground.
Without hesitation, I snatched those glasses off the shelf and toted them to the checkout counter at the antique shop. As I dug out my credit card and handed it to the cashier, I paused and turned to my mother. I suddenly wondered at my impulse purchase. I didn’t need any more glassware. That cartoon had never held any significance in my relationship with my husband. I doubted my small children, who had likely never seen “Love Is…”, would find the set to be as endearing as I did. So why this urgent need to buy them?
Mom, with that knowing smile on her face, stated with infinite Mom-wisdom, “You reach a certain age and you start buying back your childhood.”
Was that it? Had I reached that stage in my life when I would soon start sentences with, “I remember when…” or “When I was young…”? Had I become my mother?
I brought those glasses home, excited to share my pop culture find with the family. Even though my husband is from the same era as I am, he wasn’t impressed. He prides himself on not looking backward, the way he claims I do, but moving forward with the times. Was he right? Was I stuck in the past or simply sentimental? I had to admit that I tend to search the radio for the Beatles or Fleetwood Mac, singing along with dewy-eyed nostalgia to “Here Comes the Sun” and “Landslide”, while he’s bopping to the likes of Kesha and Justin Timberlake.
My children, on the other hand, thought those naked little characters were intriguing. Not because they felt the same pull toward times of yore as their mother. They were nine and six at the time and were developing a fascination with the birds and the bees. Nonetheless, I seized upon the opportunity to share the joys and wonders of my own childhood with my kids because, obviously, stuff was better back then.
My daughter Tara suddenly found she had inherited my old Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls. I read her the accompanying books, including the one where they meet the Camel with the Wrinkled Knees, but within days, dolls and books were all relegated to a shelf and forgotten. I had loved my Mrs. Beasley doll until she fell apart, so Tara found a brand-new version under the Christmas tree one year. But, not having lived through the Family Affair age, Mrs. Beasley’s spectacles were promptly lost, and she was soon pushed into a closet with the door shut. I got Tara the Barbie and Ken dolls my feminist mother never allowed me to have, but instead of dressing them in their stylish outfits or taking them on a trip in the camper I bought, Tara only wanted to strip off their clothes and put them in the “jacuzzi.”
My son Avery was soon the proud owner of every matchbox car I could lay my hands on, from sporty race cars to hippie-style VW buses to backhoes to frontend loaders. There were Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. We had vintage Legos and spent hours building entire cities for those matchbox cars to explore. He was more receptive to the toys and influences from the “olden days” and loved my metal jack-in-the-box with the jester painted on the side. We bounced down the driveway on a Hippity-Hop inflatable ball and made beautiful pictures with Lite Brite and a Spirograph. I taught the kids to use a pogo stick and how to throw their voices while entertaining with a Charlie McCarthy ventriloquist doll. We played Candy Land and Mouse Trap and Operation and Twister and Battleship. And, happy was the day when my son decided he was a fan of two of music’s greatest – The Who and Eric Clapton.
Was my insistence at introducing my young impressionable children to the treasures of my youth solely because I’m suspicious of all things post-1970s? Actually, I realized that I was doing precisely what my own parents had done for me. I grew up with their youthful interests swirling through our house, unconsciously influencing my biases. From music to the brimming bookshelves in every room and hallway to their television program choices to art projects to the toys and games we were given, my parents’ leanings were fingerprinted everywhere. After they passed away, I cleaned out their house with its lifetime of hobbies, passions, and memories and got a clear understanding of how family traditions are perpetuated. I sorted through LPs and 78s, overflowing with the musical social commentary of Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, and Peter, Paul and Mary; the political satire of Tom Lehrer; and, the complete collection of Shakespearian plays theatrically narrated and recorded long before audiobooks were even a thing. I found Dad’s collection of political pins, from Harry Truman to Walter Mondale, and Mom’s handmade wooden Christmas ornaments that she’d painstakingly decorated with oil paints and colorful sequins.
Pop culture, social attitudes, and holiday traditions are one thing, but my favorite ritual passed from my parents to me and now to my children is a love of live theater. As a child, I became a fixture in the local venues and some of my most cherished memories are cemented there. I grew up with the classics – staged versions of Mary Poppins, Camelot, and West Side Story. I saw countless Shakespeare productions – comedy, tragedy, and history – and when rock operas rose in popularity, I saw Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar. There were yearly Christmas showings of The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol. But my favorites were the comedic operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. I’m familiar with all fourteen, have watched most, and have seen a few multiple times. I can recall the side-eye I’d receive when standing on the sixth-grade playground belting with gusto, “I am the very model of a modern Major General.”
Imagine my excitement when perusing this year’s offerings at our regional theater and found The Mikado as a featured performance. It was a novel Victorian-era twist on a classic set in Japan and every bit as wonderous as I remembered. As the lights in the theater dropped and the audience fell silent, I could picture my mother sitting on my left and my father to my right. In my mind, I could hear my father’s gentle laugh at the silliness of the plot and imagine my mother softly humming the melody to herself. By intermission, I was high on the experience and turned in excitement to discuss the first act with my husband. His glazed-over eyes and telling yawn indicated that he wasn’t as enthralled as I was. How could he not love it? He hemmed and hawed, unable to articulate why he wasn’t connecting with the musical, and it hit me. Did I love it on its own merits, or was the show so intricately woven into the warm memories of my childhood that I was unable to separate them?
I don’t care. I may be “in a rut” as my husband claims, or start too many sentences with “I remember when…” There’s a richness in holding dear those meaningful influences of our youth – the ones that transport us to a special place or a time of innocence. So, if I buy a couple of dusty glasses with cartoon characters on them…if I encourage my son to browse through the classic rock section at the local record album exchange…if I point my daughter toward books by Louisa May Alcott and the Bronte sisters…if I turn on my lava lamp at night so I can find my way to the bathroom at 3 AM…if I drag my husband to a Paul McCartney concert…so what? If I dance around the house singing “A Wand’ring Minstrel I” after seeing The Mikado, does it make me old and stuffy? Isn’t this how future generations learn about and honor the past? So, in my mind, I’m not a fuddy-duddy; I’m a pop-culture anthropologist.