Buying Back My Childhood

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.

Love Is

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?

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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.

 

 

 

Holiday Traditions

 

My mom was big on holiday traditions, especially the Fourth of July and Christmas. Her closet was filled with bedazzled American flag t-shirts and a collection of ugly Christmas sweaters that were the envy at every holiday party. Each year, on the day after Thanksgiving, Bing Crosby crooned “White Christmas” on the stereo console, repeating “treetops glisten, and…treetops glisten, and…treetops glisten…” until Mom moved the needle past the scratch in the album. Dad was no slouch in the holiday celebration arena, either. Just twenty hours after downing copious quantities of turkey with stuffing and all the trimmings, he was covered in cobwebs in the crawl space under the house, dragging out tattered cardboard boxes filled with ornaments and our artificial Christmas tree frosted with semi-realistic looking snow.

Dad’s job was outdoor Christmas decorations. What should have been a two-hour endeavor achieved with holiday cheer inevitably stretched into an entire Friday of swearing and grumbling. He pulled out string after string of outdoor lights, the extra-large, opaque kind in red, blue, green, and white, that somehow were a tangled mess despite the care with which they’d been stored the previous year. I loved watching him stretch the strands across the recreation room floor to check for outages, replace the faulty bulbs, mutter under his breath when those didn’t work either, then beam with accomplishment when everything lit up properly. Just as eagerly, I’d watch his frustration as he’d drape them around the 18’ White Spruce he’d planted by the front door the year my parents bought the house. Inevitably, as soon as he’d reach the top of the “A” shaped step-ladder, an entire section of lights would suddenly go dark. The stream of curse words that accompanied his up-and-down the ladder to locate replacement bulbs and twist them into the sockets put me right in the festive spirit.

Mom was one of those crafty types whose projects adorned our house year-round. The blown-eggs at Easter time were painted with artistry and care, then arranged in our table centerpiece. In the spring, tissue paper flowers bloomed in the living room. Or, flowers constructed from wire shaped into petals, dipped in some sort of goopy molten plastic, dried, then twisted together to make tulips and irises. Even Mom’s paper dolls were works of art. Christmas was when she pulled out the big guns, though. She’d start in September, buying pre-made kits of wooden ornaments that required the painting of her steady hand to bring them to life. Or, the satin balls that she’d embellish with ribbons, cords, beads, and sequins. Then, there was the year of the intricately nipped and cut snowflakes created from high-quality vellum paper that she’d sprung for at the art boutique. Our tree always carried the traditional glass ornaments that were popular in the 1950s and 1960s, but each year’s theme was based on Mom’s creative whim-of-the-moment.

My two older brothers and I were assigned the yearly job of finishing the tree with shimmering silver tinsel. I remember waiting for Mom’s signal, telling us it was up to us to put on that finishing touch. My stomach got a tingly excited feeling, knowing that with this final act, the Christmas season was officially ushered in. Every year it was the same. I gently lifted the tinsel, delicate strand by delicate strand, to hang them individually over each branch. My brothers grabbed handfuls of the stuff and threw it in the general direction of the tree, hoping some would stick. I’d scream at them. They’d laugh and tease me. I’d burst into tears. They’d call me a crybaby. Mom would yell at them to knock it off. I’d hear my father somewhere downstairs, cursing and swearing. I’d scream louder. Mom sent my brothers to their room, which was precisely where they wanted to be anyway.

As the actual day approached, pots of Mom’s favorite flower, the poinsettia, would appear. They took over the recreation room windows; they inhabited every open table surface; they even crept up the base of the railing on both sets of stairs. Reds, pinks, whites, mixes of all. Food for the holiday began appearing in the kitchen with notes reading “For Christmas – do NOT eat!” taped to it. Every year, the menu was the same — a glazed ham; baked, New England-style macaroni and cheese based on the recipe Mom had received from her late grandmother; green bean casserole with crispy, fried onions on top; canned cranberry sauce; fresh from the oven Pillsbury dinner rolls. My grandparents would show up about noon, my aunt and uncle soon after that. Following our feast, the grown-ups would loll on the couch, my brothers would disappear to play with their new Major Matt Mason toys, and I’d be left to entertain with a magic show. Through the years, my tricks became more complicated and my theatrics more absurd, but how I loved donning that top hat, whipping out my magic wand, and dazzling my snoozing family with the jug that endlessly poured water.

Christmases of my childhood were magical. As I got older, some traditions fell by the wayside; some were altered to adjust to changing times. Mom lost the stamina to create complete sets of ornaments each year, so she began reusing old ones. Dad compromised with the outdoor decorations by purchasing fully-assembled manger scenes, reindeer cut-outs, and life-sized Santas secured with stakes. My brothers were “too busy” to help with the tinsel, so the tree trimming fell to me. I loved the newfangled sparkly garland that I could put up in minutes, allowing me to hurry back to spending hours on the telephone with my girlfriends. Late night church services interfered with my social life, so I’d cajole Mom into going to the 7:00 service, instead. We cut back on the poinsettia overgrowth when Mom learned that they’re poisonous to cats. One thing that remained through shifting family dynamics – marriages, divorces, deaths – and changing times was the macaroni and cheese. That was always Mom’s secret weapon to ensuring she could get us all to the Christmas dinner table together.

When I started my own family, and the building of new Christmas traditions fell to me, I reached back into my childhood for inspiration. The weekend after Thanksgiving, we brought the bins of decorations up from the basement. I assigned my husband the responsibility of adorning the outside. I’d even searched out those retro extra-large bulbs in red, blue, green, and white. The kids helped put up the tree. Since I didn’t inherit my mother’s gift of craftiness, we started our version of collecting ornaments. We’d brave the mad rush of shoppers to find our yearly Hallmark ornament for the family, and each of the kids would pick out one for themselves. I began collecting nutcrackers, displaying them on the tall staircase in our foyer, lined up against the banister going all the way up, just like Mom used to do with the poinsettias. I created a tree skirt and, every year, would trace my children’s hands on felt, cut them out, then glue them to the skirt, marking whose hand it was and the year. I’d long since given up meat, but I continued making Mom’s New England-style macaroni and cheese for our Christmas dinner.

Christmas skirt

My children loved and anticipated Christmas the way I always did. So much so, that their excitement would wake them up by 2 AM, cause them to sneak downstairs to see if Santa had come, then grab their stockings and race back to their rooms to open the only gifts they were allowed until their parents got up. Unfortunately, that meant they’d be waking us up by about six because they could no longer contain themselves. You’d think they’d have learned over the years that a sleep-deprived mother makes for a lot of the same cursing and grumbling I learned from my dad. But, no. Cranky Christmas Day Mom became part of our family tradition. And, that sibling teasing from my youth was passed down, too. It began the year my daughter, about five at the time, slipped on the top step. What we heard from the family room below was a series of boom-boom-booms, accompanied by clackety-clackety-clacks that seemed to go on for hours. When the noise finally stopped, and we were no longer frozen in shock, we leaped to our feet and ran into the foyer to find Tara laying on the floor surrounded by an army of nutcrackers. She had fallen down the full flight of stairs and wiped out the entire line of nutcrackers on her way. My son, being the concerned older brother, made sure she was uninjured before whooping in delight about the “glorious sound” that Tara had created. To this day, Avery gleefully recalls the “glorious sound” of those nutcrackers crashing down the stairs with his sister.

My mom passed away several years ago, just before Christmas, and knowing her love of poinsettias, I bought out the local nursery to bedeck the funeral home for her service. Since then, I have given up decorating with poinsettias for the holidays as those flowers now hold painful undertones for me. Many of the other traditions have evolved, as well. My children’s hands are no longer growing, but I continue to use the tree skirt with their handprints all over it. They each have bins of their own ornaments that we collected as a family since they were babies. We don’t put them on the tree at our house, but my son and daughter have them for their own homes, now. The kids still return home for the holidays, still expect their stockings to be filled, but now stay up until 2 AM to sneak down the stairs to grab them before racing back up to their old rooms.

This year, traditions continue to evolve. I still make Mom’s old New England-style baked macaroni cheese but now include a non-dairy version, too, for the vegans in the group. Also, my son’s girlfriend will be joining us and, since her religious background is Muslim, it will be fun to have her experience Christmas for her very first time with us. I hope she enjoys the traditions we’ve built; I hope she likes the macaroni and cheese that’s part of our heritage; and, I hope I get to sleep past 6 AM.

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